On January 10, the U.S. and Russia held an “extraordinary” session of the bilateral Strategic Stability Dialogue in Geneva. Unlike the previous two meetings, held in July and September last year, the recent meeting occurred against the backdrop of increasing tensions between the West and Russia. With the growing threat of a Russian invasion of Ukraine on the table, the recent talks included both the issue of strategic stability and a Russian demand for security guarantees from the United States. While much focus has been given to NATO’s eastward expansion as a prime driver of Russian insecurity, it may instead be the Kremlin’s fear of an emergent China-U.S. “G-2” being manifested in Russian strategic behavior.
In the 21st century, the rise of China as a peer competitor to the U.S. in the Indo-Pacific has relegated Russia to a middle power in the American strategic calculus. Under the Trump administration, a bipartisan consensus emerged in Washington that saw Beijing as a systemic rival threatening the United States in the Indo-Pacific. Thus, while the issue of Russian meddling in the 2016 U.S. presidential elections was the prime focus of the U.S. strategic community during the initial days of the Trump administration, China had become the primary strategic adversary by the time Joe Biden came to power in January 2021. In this regard, Biden has maintained continuity with his predecessor’s “free and open” Indo-Pacific strategy that introduced a shift from engagement with China toward an increased emphasis on competition. The continuous non-recognition of Russia’s great power status by its Cold War adversary directly fuels Russian President Vladimir Putin’s desire to restore Russian prestige.
With the Biden-Putin summit in June 2021 and the resumption of the Strategic Stability Dialogue, talks of restoration of Russia’s great power status started. However, soon after the summit, what followed was a re-prioritization of U.S. diplomacy and a pivot toward tackling the greatest geopolitical challenge to the U.S. in history: China. After months of preparation, the leaders of the U.S. and China had a virtual summit in November 2021. While there was no joint statement after the three-hour meeting, the U.S. sought to keep lines of communication open, and as Biden stressed, “the need for common-sense guardrails to ensure that competition does not veer into conflict.”
This corresponds with the argument made by Kurt Campbell and Jake Sullivan, the architects of Biden’s Indo-Pacific policy, in a Foreign Affairs essay in 2019. Campbell and Sullivan contended that “coexistence means accepting competition as a condition to be managed rather than a problem to be solved” and added that both nations “will need to be prepared to live with the other as a major power.”
In the mindscape of the U.S. strategic community, China now enjoys the position that the Soviet Union had during the Cold War. The willingness of the Biden administration to manage its competition with China, as opposed to the relegation of Russia to the margins of American priorities, has severe implications for Putin’s foreign policy.
Russia’s latest A-SAT test, which generated thousands of pieces of dangerous debris threatening both U.S. and Chinese space assets, occurred on the same date as the meeting between Chinese leader Xi Jinping and Joe Biden. A plausible argument could be made that Russia’s A-SAT test was inspired by a need to demonstrate its status as a great power in the hierarchy of nations, as Moscow will not quietly accept its demotion to a lesser adversary to the United States. Interestingly, Russia upped the ante on the Ukrainian front following the Biden-Xi meeting. As the headlines became saturated with fears about a Russian invasion of Ukraine, Russia succeeded in dominating the global geostrategic discourse. Arguably, the unprecedented measures were in the sphere of public diplomacy, including the publication of Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov’s correspondence with his French and German counterparts about Ukraine.
Going even further overboard, Russia published the full text of two draft treaties addressed to NATO and the U.S. demanding “legally binding security guarantees.” These drafts, made public weeks before any actual discussions took place, were just a list of demands, reflecting long-standing Russian concerns about NATO’s eastward expansion and prospects of former Soviet states joining the alliance. Curiously, even though the question of Ukraine’s membership in NATO has not moved forward since 2008, Russia has escalated to enforce its red lines in Europe. This suggests that the Kremlin believes that it is only by highlighting its red lines that it can restore its prestige as a great power in world politics. In the Russian calculation, it is a great power whose red lines cannot be violated, as opposed to a middle power whose concerns matter but not that much. In the context of the emerging multipolar world order, these calculations are becoming accurate.
Thus, as the 2007 Global Financial Crisis accelerated the demise of the U.S.-led international order, Russia began enforcing its red lines as a great power. The Kremlin fought a war with Georgia in 2008 to protect its allies in South Ossetia and later supported the beleaguered Assad regime in Syria, much to the chagrin of the United States. The Russian takeover of Crimea in 2014 was yet another success for Putin in enforcing its red lines in Europe. In contrast, as the events in Iraq and Afghanistan show, the U.S. is struggling to maintain its primacy especially as the unipolar moment has given way to an increasingly multipolar world order. The American inability to accept the multipolarity of the 21st century leads it to conceptualize a bipolar framework of great power rivalry between the U.S. and China, as evident in the concept of the “G-2.” On the other hand, the success of Russian and Chinese foreign policy has been possible due to the groundwork they prepared to maneuver in a multipolar world of the future.
The unipolar moment that had facilitated NATO’s eastward expansion and threatened Russia also produced the Taiwan Strait crisis in 1995-96. After China fired missiles into the strait, the U.S. sent two aircraft carrier battle groups from the Seventh Fleet, one led by the USS Nimitz, through the Taiwan Strait, forcing China to back down. By 1996, Russia and China formed a strategic partnership, which led to the “Joint Declaration on Multipolarity and the Formation of a New Global Order” during the 1997 Moscow Summit. Soon after the strategic partnership agreement of 1996, the leaders of the two countries flew to Shanghai to meet with the leaders of Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Kazakhstan, where they formed a loose coalition, the “Shanghai 5,” that eventually evolved into the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO). Russia and China formalized their strategic partnership against the U.S. unilateralism with the Treaty of Good-Neighborliness and Friendly Cooperation in 2001.
However, with the rise of China, the Sino-Russian relationship has become increasingly asymmetrical. According to the World Bank, in 1992, China’s nominal GDP was $427 billion, slightly less than Russia’s $460 billion; nonetheless, by 2021, China’s GDP of $16.8 trillion was more than 10 times that of Russia’s $1.6 trillion. Even in Central Asia, the traditional Russian sphere of influence, China has become the region’s principal trade partner and source of investment. In this regard, when China launched the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) in 2013, it was seen in Russia as a threat to its traditional sphere of influence. However, China was able to allay Russian fears when Putin and Xi signed a joint statement in May 2015 on integrating the Belt and Road Initiative and Eurasian Economic Union in Moscow. This was followed by China’s first joint exercise with Russia in the Mediterranean. Soon after that, the two countries conducted their first-ever joint amphibious exercise landing in the Sea of Japan in August 2015.
Therefore, while geopolitical contradictions create a problem between Russia and China, the structural balance of power constraint posed by the U.S. keeps them together in their advance toward a multipolar world. Though the prospect of NATO’s venture into the Indo-Pacific poses a problem for Beijing, it also creates an additional point of convergence in China-Russia relations. As long as Russia can keep NATO’s capabilities invested in Europe, it will create a favorable strategic environment for China in the Indo-Pacific. Similarly, Russia feels confident that as the U.S. increasingly feels the need to “step up its game” in the Indo-Pacific due to a persistent threat of a “strategic surprise” from China, it is the Kremlin’s time to press for security guarantees vis-à-vis NATO.
The onset of a multipolar world order means that the U.S. would need to prioritize a favorable balance of power in the Indo-Pacific over its rivalry with Russia in Eastern Europe. Even in the bipolar rivalry of the Cold War, the U.S. efforts at the Soviet containment were successful due to the absence of a peer competitor in the Indo-Pacific. This only became possible after its 1972 rapprochement with China. Therefore, a “1972 moment” with Russia remains the only hope for both the success of America’s “free and open Indo-Pacific” strategy and the stability in Europe.