William J. Parker III, PhD, is a military fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, and Alanna C. Rutherford, JD, is a partner at a New York law firm and a CFR Term Member.
Let’s face it; the United States and Russia are not exactly best of friends right now as President Putin continues to challenge the super power moniker the United States currently enjoys.[i] But isn’t it ironic that following a fifty-year cold war with the former Soviet Union, the United States and Russia find themselves in a situation where their collective best option to counter the rising power of China may be each other? That’s right, the United States and Russia have the opportunity to keep China in check without forcing an unnatural alliance. While the Chinese are far from being capable of defeating the United States in any real conflict and have neither the leadership nor combat experience of the United States or Russia, engaging the Chinese diplomatically, economically, and militarily with Russia at our side is worth serious consideration. This would not be the first time that the United States and Russia have aligned themselves to protect against a threat. Indeed, the U.S.-Soviet alliance played a critical role in defending against Germany during World War II. Similarly, a strong and cooperative Russia could be helpful as a partner to counter China’s rise and quest for expansion, prevent the proliferation of nuclear weapons, control the exportation of biological warfare capabilities, and prevent the explosive expansion of extreme Islamist groups. Although common wisdom would have the United States align its interest with the rising economic star of China, it is Russia with whom the United States still shares a great deal in common when it comes to our national interests today. Certainly, many could argue that a U.S.-Russian coalition (whether in NATO or not) is a long shot. But the payoff for both countries, and the world, is worth the try.
Just as the United States partnered closely with our NATO allies during the Cold War to counter the former Soviet Union, today we should consider forming a close coalition with Russia (in addition to our NATO allies) to counter the meteoric rise and potentially hostile intentions of China.
The United States, Russia, and China, along with the rest of the world, can all benefit from a more stable environment that removes pirates from our sea lanes, eliminates the scourge of terrorism from the earth, and gains momentum towards eliminating weapons of mass destruction. So while a strategy to counter China’s apparent interest in expanding (at least their influence and likely their real estate) is prudent for the United States and Russia, continued efforts to find common ground between the Chinese and the United States must continue as well. Working with the Russians to slow, and eventually halt, China’s aggressive approach toward the Asia-Pacific region is not a zero-sum game. There are real and tangible possibilities for a three-way win between some of the most powerful nations on the globe.
Russia was a major power in the world for almost 500 years. The Russian people and President Putin want Russia to be a world power again. But the reality is the former Soviet Union and mother Russia is no longer the superpower it once was. The sense of impotence felt by the Russians appears to drive a significant amount of their foreign policy, which at times is a great irritant, and potential hindrance, to the execution of the United States’ foreign policy objectives. Aligning with the United States on certain issues not only helps the Russians deal with these issues, but also helps America deal with many of the same issues.
Common ground for the United States and Russia to work closer together
1. Countering the Rise of China. As Russia’s star has faded with the collapse of the Soviet Union, it has seen the emergence of its former communist ally, China, as a rising power as a direct result of the loss of its own influence. This is a source of concern for a country that has been dominant in international politics for hundreds of years and still would like to view itself as a world power. Playing off the Russian view of itself as a unique and continuing presence on the world stage, as well as concerns about the Chinese eclipsing Russia even as the two countries work together, can help the United States work with Russia to better achieve American and Russian foreign policy goals. Moreover, as discussed further below, the range and depth of these U.S.-Russian foreign policy alignments are significant. As such, finding common ground on China and relying on Russia as a counterweight to China’s growing influence both regionally and globally will be crucial to American foreign policy in the next ten years.
Despite doctrinal similarities, past relations between Beijing and Moscow were marked by significant divisions and historical animosities. Russia and China have been involved in numerous disputes over the years, ranging from border skirmishes to political doctrine disagreements, but have emerged in the last decade as tentative allies and cautious trading partners. Defining Sino-Russian relations for a long time was the roughly 4,300km in shared borders and, more recently, competing interests in Mongolia, the country that separates the two along 3,485km of additional border space and which both countries have previously claimed sovereign rights over.[ii] Characteristic of the disputes between China and Russia was the border dispute concerning the islands at the Amur and Ussuri confluence, which nearly led to war between the two nations and resulted in the deaths of over one thousand Russian and Chinese soldiers in March 1969.[iii] Recent years have seen the resolution of a number of Sino-Russian conflicts, like the Amur and Ussuri confluence, through a series of treaties including the 2004 agreements. The 2008 Sino-Russian Border Line Agreement marked the acceptance of the demarcation the eastern portion of the Chinese-Russian border in Beijing, China. Not only did the agreement include an additional protocol with a map outlining the eastern part of the borders both countries share, but it also included the return of Yinlong/Tarabarov Island and half of Heixiazi/Ussuri Island. But in China’s continued attempted expansion there are many more points of contention between the two nations than resolutions. In addition to territorial claims on parts of Russia’s Far East border, China has territorial claims against eleven of its twenty-four neighbors.[iv] [v] The Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) conducted a large-scale joint exercise incorporating their Shenyang and Beijing military districts along Russia’s Siberian Military District. As President Putin continues to focus on Ukraine, the Baltic countries, Belarus, and numerous other former USSR states in the hope that Russia can reassert its influence over the former USSR, the mistrust between the two Sino-Russian neighbors continues to be an issue.[vi] After Russia’s experience with Germany in World War II, the sage Russian strategist would realize the real threat to Russia’s national security remains on its borders. As such, China remains a pressing and close threat to Russia maintaining its status as the largest country on earth in terms of land mass.
Yet using Russia as a counterweight to China will not be an easy sell. Russia is well aware that in some respect, its future is tied to China. In addition to being neighbors, China has now eclipsed Europe as Russia’s largest trading partner. Although the trading relationship is still marred by a certain level of distrust between the two countries and concerns about dependency, in recent years, the scope of the differences between Beijing and Moscow has narrowed. The Chinese remain a growing market for Russian commodities, while Europe has been decreasing its reliance on Russian oil and gas supplies, and many of the European countries are still feeling the effects of the 2008 financial crisis, making Europe a lesser opportunity for Russian commodities. Meanwhile, this past summer, China and Russia signed a $270 billion deal that will double Russian oil supply to China. Moscow was Chinese president Xi Jinping’s first international stop only nine days into his term. The two countries have also recently begun conducting joint military maneuvers. However, even as trade with China increases in the critical area of oil and gas, there are significant declines in other areas. For example, prior to 2007 roughly 25 to 50 percent of all Russian military supplies sold went to China. That line of commerce has significantly weakened in recent years as Chinese technology has advanced and as Russia holds back its most current weaponry from a partner still viewed with some suspicion, instead selling them older Soviet technology.
There are burgeoning examples of a Sino-Russian united front, however. Both countries have pushed back against the United States and have aligned themselves, citing a noninterference pact, against UN action in Syria, Iran, and North Korea. The two countries have begun to develop areas of commonality as of late that suggest a warming of relationships between the two, and the potential emergence of an anti-American block. Indeed, the more the United States relationship with the former empire breaks down, the more likely a Sino-Russian axis becomes. In sum, this makes it a critical time for the United States to reengage Moscow to its own ends and highlight where its interests overlap with those of America.
Americans have much to lose if engaging in this gambit does not take a significant position on the foreign policy agenda. It will also require a considerable and sustained effort that has not been a hallmark of recent American relations with Moscow. Thus far, Russia’s attempts to stay relevant in foreign affairs have been negative, rather than positive, acting as spoiler to Washington’s initiated multilateral agenda, such as loud but ultimately ineffective protests against installation of NATO military bases in Poland and Czech Republic. This has been both in, and contrary to, American interests with Russia, many times serving as a convenient excuse as to why certain purported policy objectives cannot take place. Most importantly though, Russia’s actions, even if contrarian, have highlighted a desire to remain relevant on the world stage. It can do that either through formation of a closer alliance with China or by serving as a counterweight. The Russians know that in either scenario the biggest threat is simply being marginalized. As long as Russia remains fearful and continues to want to reassert itself in the world order, China’s growing influence can be used against Moscow, as it views the burgeoning power of China as a zero-sum threat to its own influence. It is the lever the United States needs to create a mutually beneficial relationship with Moscow.
Despite outward appearances and the relative level of personal disengagement between key actors in the United States and Russia, there is a mutual base of shared culture and political interest that can be developed to the benefit of American foreign policy goals globally and with respect to China. China remains an unknown to both countries in terms of long-term objectives and seems to have little interest in the existing world order and power structure. Meanwhile, Americans and Russians have benefited from the historic and existing world order for the better part of the last hundred years. Coupled with shared policy objections on nuclear nonproliferation, counterterrorism, and regional stability issues in the Middle East and Asia, the United States and Russia have a growing and overlapping interest in ensuring that the world order is not disrupted by an increasingly dominant China.
2. Nonproliferation Efforts.
- Countering Potential Loose Nukes. According to the Federation of American Scientists and Armscontrol.org, Russia has approximately 4,500 nuclear weapons, of which 1,480 are deployed strategic warheads, 1,022 are non-deployed strategic warheads, and 2,000 are tactical warheads.[vii] While the United States has approximately 600 more nuclear weapons than Russia does, according to these same references, America’s nuclear arsenal is well protected and monitored. The threat of Russian nuclear weapons ending up in the hands of state or non-state actors with nefarious intentions has remained a concern of both the United States and Russia since the demise of the USSR. Russia’s nuclear arsenal has been a constant concern for the United States since the dissolution of the Soviet Union; and if the Russian state fails or becomes severely economically handicapped, large amounts of the world’s nuclear arsenal could be in play for sale or takeover. Thus, both the United States and Russia have a significant interest in a stable and content Russian populous to prevent such a scenario.
- Countering the Proliferation of Chemical and Biological Weapons Programs. “The vast Soviet Union biological weapons infrastructure dwarfed any known Western bioweapons program,” according to former Soviet biological warfare expert, Ken Alibek, in his book Biohazard.[viii] But the threat for biological or chemical weapons is not nearly as frightening as the scientists who have the expertise to develop a new program anywhere in the world. The threat of rogue biological or chemical scientists from former Soviet programs poses a real threat to the national security of many countries. It is in the interest of both nations to prevent further proliferation of these horrific weapons.
3. Enhancing Regional Stability. Both the United States and Russia have an interest in regional stability in the Middle East, Europe, and Asia. Russia’s interest is in part derived from a land mass that spans the continents and is an immediate neighbor to fourteen countries—sharing borders with Azerbaijan, Belarus, China, Estonia, Finland, Georgia, Kazakhstan, Latvia, Lithuania, Mongolia, North Korea, Norway, Poland, and Ukraine.
- Middle East. In the Middle East, Russia’s concerns, like those of the United States, cover terrorism, nuclear threats, and disruptions caused by wars and failed states that could affect either country or destabilize the status quo. As an example, Iran has been pursuing a uranium-enrichment and missile program that could potentially provide it with the capability to produce weapons-grade fissile material and the associated weapons delivery systems in the very near future. If Iran is able to obtain nuclear weapons, the rest of the Middle East will likely rapidly proliferate in an attempt to defend itself. Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Oman, the United Arab Emirates, and many other nations will likely feel compelled to possess these weapons to potentially counter the unpredictable behavior of Iran. This threat was in part what led Russia to assist the United States in bringing Iran to the table in the recently executed January 20, 2014, deal that has Russia, the United States, Britain, China, Germany, and France easing sanctions restriction in exchange for Iran permitting the United Nations’ atomic agency access to its nuclear facilities and its centrifuge production lines to confirm it is complying with terms of the deal.
- Asia. In addition to the possible containment of China, Russia has strong economic ties in the region that it will want to protect and expand, especially in light of the global financial crisis, and its internal projections of slower growth in the upcoming years. Given the Obama administration’s announced pivot towards Asia and expanded American military presence in the region, ensuring a stable and prosperous Asia, as a means of counteracting both the economic influence and potential military might of China, has become a key foreign policy point on the American agenda.
- Europe. Since the end of World War II, the U.S. interest in building a strong and prosperous Europe has been paramount to its foreign policy objectives. It is this prosperous Europe that now serves as Russia’s largest trading partner outside of China. Russia’s gas and oil pipelines, carrying its most significant exports, are geared towards European delivery. Moreover, Russians think of themselves as European, which means that Europe is a paramount concern for the Russians. Although there are significant disagreements between the United States and Russia in this area, as is evidenced by Russia’s incursions on the sovereign space of its former empire in Georgia or disputes about the expanding NATO membership, there remains significant common ground with the United States based on economic and political interests.
4. Countering Terrorism. The same groups of Islamists that threaten Russia also threaten the United States and the world. In recent years, Russia has experienced a number of attacks by groups either loosely or directly affiliated with al-Qaeda.[ix] Russia and the United States are also in agreement that it is not in either country’s interest for the Taliban to gain control of Iraq or Afghanistan (a fight that occurs on Russia’s doorsteps). While the United States has suffered at the hands of terrorists, most notably on September 11, 2001, Russia has experienced hundreds of attacks against its people in the past two decades as well. The reality is Muslim extremism is a major problem for Russia and has been for decades. The thirty-one deaths from the January rail and trolley attacks in Volgograd, adds to a continuous trend of suicide attacks against Russia, leaving hundreds dead since 1995.[x]
5. Counter Narcotics. As the American war on drugs and attempts to eradicate the sources and trading routes for those narcotics continues, Russia is equally focused on the devastating effect of the narcotics industry on its own population, as well as a source of support for terrorists and other insurgent operations around the globe. In particular, Russia continues to concentrate on the smuggling of poppy from Afghanistan through various Central Asian countries.
What does Russia bring to a potential coalition?
- Russia is a resource-rich, exceptionally large, mostly Christian, well-educated, militarily and diplomatically experienced nation that still has the leadership and attitude of a former superpower.
- Russia is almost twice the size of the United States with the largest land mass of any country in the world.
- Russia boasts the tenth-largest population of any nation in the world.
- In addition to being the second-largest arms dealer in the world, Russia is the third-largest developer of software.
- Russia has a trade surplus with China.
- Russia has a permanent seat on the United Nations Security Council and enjoys veto power.
- Russia helped to remove chemical weapons from Syria.
- Russia is not part of OPEC and therefore sets its own oil prices.
- Russia has a significant impact on the world economy.
- Russia has been helpful in moving U.S. forces in and out of Afghanistan.
- The Russian population is well educated.
- Russia has allies and relationships that the United States does not, and it and can and has served as a useful broker in accomplishing foreign policy agendas, e.g., Syria chemical disarmament and Iran negotiations.
Why does an alliance with the United States makes sense for Russia?
- The United States is currently the world’s only superpower. Recognition of Russia by the world (especially the United States) as a major player is important to Russians.
- President Putin’s approval rating is tied to the economy; and Russia’s economy is slowing to an expected 2 percent annual growth in the near future.
- Russia has had difficulty attracting foreign direct investment in the past several years.
- Russia’s long-term challenges include a shrinking workforce, extensive corruption, and underinvestment in infrastructure.
- A high unemployment rate for young men in Russia could result in more internal terrorist acts.
What do America and Russia collectively bring to the table?
- Global Firepower ranks the top five most powerful militaries (in descending order) as: the United States, Russia, China, India, and the United Kingdom.[xi] But China is closing rapidly, with double digit increases in military spending in almost every year in the past quarter century.
- The United States and Russia collectively control much of what China needs to continue aggressive expansion: natural resources, technology, and intellectual capital.
- Potential regional stability in both Europe (preventing a contentious/spoiler European neighbor) and Asia (mitigating Chinese influence).
- Two predominantly Christian nations. Similar religious backgrounds often drive nations towards similar fundamental beliefs. Approximately 75 percent of the United States is Christian. Similarly, Russia is predominantly Christian with predictions as high as 75 percent of the Russian population being Russian Orthodox Christian. With both countries seeing their heritage as largely Christian and European (although with some differences), there is a commonality in a collective cultural background that can be drawn upon in a way that China does not share.
Unknowns and Potential Challenges to Building a Coalition
- How Russia will respond to an offer to form a coalition against China is unknown.
- How human rights issues in Russia will impact a U.S.-Russian coalition.
- The relationship between the United States and Russia seems to have deteriorated in recent years
- With loose nukes and chemical weapons, a weaker Russia is a more dangerous Russia.
- The Russian Duma has yet to ratify the 1990 Bering Sea Maritime Boundary Agreement with the United States.
While the United States has twice in recent history discussed a so-called “reset” in its relationship with Russia, that reset has never been coupled with a concrete policy agenda that focuses on key items that the two old foes have in common. Given the complicated relationship between the parties and the personalities currently involved on both sides, this task will not be easy. But the last year has shown that there are several areas where American-Russian interests are aligned; and these areas can be built on to mutual success.
The authors would like to publicly acknowledge Mr. William Piekos, a research associate at the Council on Foreign Relations, for his thorough and professional review of this article.
[i] U.S. relations with Russia face critical tests in 2014 as Putin, Obama fail to fulfill expectations: http://www.washingtonpost.com/world/europe/us-relations-with-russia-fac…
[ii] China’s Threat to Russia: http://www.project-syndicate.org/commentary/china-s-threat-to-russia Quote in box derived from this source.
[iv] CIA Fact Book: Russia. https://www.cia.gov/library/publications/the-world-factbook/geos/rs.html
[v] China’s threat to Russia Vladimir Putin is worrying too much about relations with the west: http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2007/aug/27/chinasthreattoruss…
[vi] “China’s New Foreign Policy Strategy and Russia’s Concerns,” International Problems 63, no. 4 (2011).
[vii] Nuclear Weapons. Who has what? http://www.armscontrol.org/factsheets/Nuclearweaponswhohaswhat
[viii] Alibek, K. and S. Handelman. Biohazard: The Chilling True Story of the Largest Covert Biological Weapons Program in the World - Told from Inside by the Man Who Ran it. 1999. Delta (2000) ISBN 0-385-33496-6
[x] Timeline: Terror attacks in Russia. http://www.sbs.com.au/news/article/2011/01/25/timeline-terror-attacks-r…