by Gordon M. Hahn
Some analysts are suggesting that the Donald Trump administration may be looking at a strategy of splitting the Sino-Russian strategic partnership. The partnership is a de facto or at least nascent alliance intended to defend the two countries’ interests in Eurasia writ large, specifically from the US-led democracy-promotion, regime change, revolutionism, and humanitarian interventionist. There is some reason to believe that the Trump administration might pursue such a strategy. Certainly, Trump seems ready to pursue a softer line on Russia and President Vladimir Putin. In addition, there is talk that Thomas Graham, a career diplomat with Russia experience in six administrations, may be tapped as U.S. ambassador to Moscow. Graham is presently a senior associate at Kissinger Associates. Both Graham and Henry Kissinger have been proponents of a softer line towards Moscow, and Kissinger was architect of President Richard Nixon’s China rapprochement designed to drive a wedge between Moscow and Beijing during the Cold War. So there may be something to the talk of Trump Sino-Russian wedge strategy.
But there are several factors that are more likely than not to confound such a strategy. First, because of Europe’s weakness and declining American power, the West does not pose an existential threat; only China poses such a potential threat. Second, as China is Russia’s real existential concern, Moscow will be loathe to risk its good relations with Beijing. Third, the West has poisoned Russia’s perception of the West, and the Trump administration will not have the time or viable policy options to affect the kind of a U.S.-Russian rapprochement that might draw Moscow out from under Beijing’s wing.
US hegemony is on the wane, and more multipolar, ‘anarchic’ international system consisting of several competing power centers is at hand. This will force Europe to play a growing role in NATO and relations with Russia. However, the Europe Union is a badly divided and potentially a failed project. Brexit means that London, which typically is more antagonistic towards Russia than the rest of ‘old Europe,’ will no longer play a role in EU foreign, defense and security policy outside of NATO, weakening Europe’s independent capacity as American power declines in relative terms. The US will not fight for Eastern Europe countries, and only self-induced crises with Moscow will pose the issue since, despite the present delusions, Putin has no designs on it, Ukraine or any other territories. Note that Abkhaziya and South Ossetiya have been de facto independent states since 1992 and Russian protectorates since 2008, but Moscow has not sought to reunify them into Russia, as it did for Crimea. This is because they hold little strategic value and weaker historical ties to Russia than did Crimea, and Mikheil Saakashvili’s August 2008 military invasion of South Ossetiya was the first such provocation endorsed by the West. Crimea was the stick that broke the came’s back for Moscow and already a bridge too far for the West in terms of military follow-through. Thus, only continued NATO expansion and the crises it foments, as in Ukraine, can change Putin’s non-expansionist approach. Even with continued NATO expansion policies and their related crises, an increasingly divided NATO and a weakened Europe poses no existential threat to Russia.
Russia Will Hold Its Most Dangerous Existential Threat Close
Since Europe without the US cannot contain or threaten Russia, Moscow’s only real potential existential threat comes from China. China has a long border with Russia, outnumbers Russia in population eight-fold, outpaces Russia economically and thus militarily some ten-fold. Therefore, Moscow will do all it can to preserve its good relations and strategic alliance with Beijing, including going very far in tolerating Beijing’s eventual leading role in Central Asia, the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), and the BRICS association. Russia’s recent joint naval exercises with China in the South China Sea where Beijing has growing tensions with Japan, other states in the region, and the U.S. is a strong signal of Moscow’s commitment to Beijing.
The Sino-Russian Alliance: The Price of Making the ‘New Cold War’
Even a less close Sino-Russian partnership would be difficult to undermine, given the current state of Western-Russian, in particular U.S.-Russian relations. The US cannot do enough quickly enough at this point to draw a suspicious Moscow far enough into the Western camp to win at as an ally in containing China. Because of its relative weakness as well as historical and geopolitical reasons, Moscow would be unlikely to adopt a neutral position in the triangular relationship. Separating Russia from China’s orbit was possible in the 1990s before NATO expansion and support for color revolutions among Moscow’s nearby neighbors in its traditional sphere of influence (Georgia, Ukraine) and traditional allies (Serbia). It will now take more than two Trump US presidential terms, even under the most assuaging US Russia policy.
Moreover, the geopolitical ties that bind Moscow to Beijing are too tight at present. Geopolitically, China is potentially invaluable as an ally in countering Western influence in Russia’s traditional sphere of influence in central Eurasia. Politically, for the near- to mid-term Moscow and Beijing have too common a worldview in terms of Western, especially U.S. policy and future power resources. Both reject the West’s destabilizing, revolutionist democracy-promotion, regime change, and humanitarian intervention policies. Both fear these could be used to undermine their regimes’ respective political stability and territorial integrity. Both reject the West’s military presence in their respective regional spheres of interest and are tied up with the West, especially the U.S. in a security dilemma – Russia in central Eurasia and China in Southeast Asia. Both reject the West’s domination of international economic and financial institutions. Both seek to compete with the West economically in the Middle East, Africa, South Asia, and Latin America.
Finally, because of domestic political reasons, including the difficulty in walking back the Putinophobic strategic culture created by the Barack Obama administration’s childish demonization of Russia’s president, Washington and the West realistically can not offer Russia a sufficiently robust set of enticements and compromises that might equal Moscow’s perceived interests in its close relationship with Beijing as a counter to U.S. power.
A better strategy for Washington would be to seek a rapprochement with both Moscow and Beijing, while at the same time both polishing up the American ‘shining city on the hill’ as a model democracy and international benefactor and limiting the promotion of our values and our critique of theirs to behind-the-scenes’ discussions and only their most egregious and proven violations of civil rights and international law.
About the Author – Gordon M. Hahn, Ph.D., is an Analyst and Advisory Board Member at Geostrategic Forecasting Corporation (Chicago), http://www.geostrategicforecasting.com; member of the Executive Advisory Board at the American Institute of Geostrategy (AIGEO) (Los Angeles), http://www.aigeo.org; Contributing Expert for Russia Direct, russia-direct.org; Senior Researcher at the Center for Terrorism and Intelligence Studies (CETIS), Akribis Group, San Jose, California; and an Analyst and Consultant for Russia – Other Points of View (San Mateo, California), www.russiaotherpointsofview.com.
Dr. Hahn is the author of the forthcoming book from McFarland Publishers Ukraine Over the Edge: Russia, the West, and the ‘New Cold War. Previously, he has authored three well-received books: The Caucasus Emirate Mujahedin: Global Jihadism in Russia’s North Caucasus and Beyond (McFarland Publishers, 2014), Russia’s Islamic Threat (Yale University Press, 2007), and Russia’s Revolution From Above: Reform, Transition and Revolution in the Fall of the Soviet Communist Regime, 1985-2000 (Transaction Publishers, 2002). He also has published numerous think tank reports, academic articles, analyses, and commentaries in both English and Russian language media.
Dr. Hahn also has taught at Boston, American, Stanford, San Jose State, and San Francisco State Universities and as a Fulbright Scholar at Saint Petersburg State University, Russia and has been a senior associate and visiting fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, the Kennan Institute in Washington DC, and the Hoover Institution.