How the West Can Divide China and Russia

“War is the realm of chance,” said Carl von Clausewitz, who knew more about the matter than most of us. “No other human activity is so continuously or universally bound up with it.” Even with Russia’s offensive in Ukraine bogging down to the point that a Pentagon official can call it “anemic” and Vladimir Putin’s Victory Day speech on May 9 passing off with no new threats of escalation, trying to look ahead beyond the war’s end seems like a fool’s errand—except that it is what strategists have to do. It is better to look out at distant horizons and consider what options may still be available, than wait for the alternatives to close in order to then try to find solutions. In reality, no matter what happens in Ukraine, the United States is going to be there. can do something about the biggest strategic question of the war—which is whether the fighting will push Russia and China together into a great-power bloc dominating Eurasia, or whether it will pull them apart, reducing either’s ability to undermine the American global order.

China and Russia have become revisionists because of geography. Although the map is very different in Moscow from Beijing, strategists from both countries see one thing: it must be redrawn.

Russia’s geography—landlocked on the plains of central Eurasia, with few natural defenses—has not really changed since 1547, when the 16-year-old Ivan the Terrible made himself tsar. But this geography is not the only thing that has changed. It meansThis has all changed drastically. In Ivan’s day, the main threats came from the east, where the Mongols remained a potent force even three centuries after Genghis Khan. Ivan and his successors therefore pushed Russia’s borders east- and southeastward, creating strategic depth. Russian settlers reached the Urals by 1598 and looked on the Pacific by 1639.

With Mongol power gone, threats came mainly from the West. In 1610, the Polish army took Moscow; in 1705, the Swedes attacked St Petersburg and advanced deep into Ukraine. Napoleon then burned Moscow. In 1812, Germany forced Russia to revolution. This sparked civil wars, foreign interventions, that nearly broke down Russia, and in 1941, threatened Moscow once again. It’s no wonder that Russians are afraid of Europe.

Russia was able to withstand all threats by gaining strategic depth along its European flank. Russia occupied Crimea and Paris in 1783. It advanced on the Elbe in 1945. This “pivot to the west,” as Peter the Great called it in the 1690s, remade Russia’s geography, turning the country decisively toward Europe, supplying stronger borders, and relegating Asia to a supporting role. It also ended Russia’s isolation by gaining access to the Atlantic via the Baltic, Black, and Mediterranean Seas. Through the 19th-century, spies, diplomats, and explorers even played what Rudyard Kipling called a deadly “Great Game” against Britain, stretching Russian tentacles through Central Asia and Afghanistan toward the warm waters of the Indian Ocean.

When Vladimir Putin said in 2005 that the Soviet Union’s collapse was “the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the 20th century,” what he meant was that losing its East European and Central Asian vassals undid all these efforts to solve Russia’s geopolitical problems. Russia became a revisionist state, and there were only two choices after 1991.

One option was to acknowledge America’s supremacy and be part of the Western-dominated international system. It wasn’t impossible: Germany, Japan, Britain, and others did this after 1945 with mostly good results. Putin had even mentioned the possibility of joining NATO in 2000. Russia was a third-rate nation, far behind China, Japan and India, which would mean it wouldn’t have been included in the new global order. This path was chosen, regardless of whether NATO took too much action, Russian leaders looked backwards, or deeper, more sinister reasons. Russia was instead made an adversary. In an effort to gain strategic depth it attacked and undermined post-Soviet Republics in Eastern Europe and Central Asia.

Ivan the Terrible, Peter and Catherine the Great, and Stalin would instantly have understood Putin’s policy. He is responsible for killing 50,000 people and wounding at least 100,000 more since taking over the Chechen War began in 1999—but the painful truth is that until February 2022, his strategy seemed to be working.

China’s route to revisionism was similar and yet different. For more than 2,000 years rulers based on the Yellow River accumulated strategic depth. This was achieved by fighting Mongols Turks and other nomads living on steppes. Then they pushed inland to reach the mountains of Xinjiang Yunnan and Tibet. They dominated the trade of the western Pacific and created one of the world’s great civilizations. In the 1840s, however, European industrial and military might swept away all of these successes. In the ensuing “Century of Humiliation,” civil war and western rapacity came close to dismembering China.

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China has been revisionist in its thinking since 1949. On Stalin’s prompting, it fought the Americans in Korea between 1950 and 1953; then, breaking with the Soviets, it went to war with them in 1969 and reached out to the US in 1972. In the 1980s, it swapped its antagonism toward Western markets for what its strategists called “Peaceful Development.” Accepting a subordinate place in American-dominated global markets, it expanded its economy eight-fold between 1981 and 2008—only to turn increasingly antagonistic after that year’s financial crisis. The same strategists had who welcomed the West in the 1990s now argued that China must either break the “Island Chains,” a string of American allies running from Japan to Singapore, or outflank them with the Belt and Road Initiative, linking China to ports in the Mediterranean and Indian Ocean by building new infrastructure across Central Asia.

The two great revisionists, says Putin, are “good friends who hold largely the same views on addressing the world’s problems.” Both want to see the U.S. pushed back into the western hemisphere, leaving China dominant in Asia and Russia able to bully the European Union and Britain.

The capabilities of China and Russia complement one another. China has the world’s biggest economy; Russia, its biggest nuclear arsenal. China needs oil but China needs it; Russia needs the money. Together, the two might be able to build a “de-dollarized” financial system immune to western sanctions; and each validates the other’s authoritarianism, much as fascist dictators did in the 1930s.

Most importantly, however, they are linked by geography. In his famous essay “The geographical pivot of history,” the British geographer Halford Mackinder predicted back in 1904 that, after four centuries in which naval powers like Spain, France, and Britain had dominated the globe, a new era was dawning. In it, he said, the balance of power would pivot around Asia’s heartland—basically, the “stans,” from Kazakhstan in the north through Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, Turkmenistan, Tajikistan, and Afghanistan, to Pakistan in the south.

Mackinder’s prophecy has still not come true, but nowhere is he read as avidly as in Moscow and Beijing. Russia and China are perfectly placed to dominate Mackinder’s geographical pivot—but on how to do this, the two great revisionists’ views and interests diverge. Russia views the stans as potential vassals to restore its Soviet Empire. China sees them as potential collaborators that will host its Belt and Road Initiative.

At a 2018 conference in Kazakhstan, the conflict between perspectives was clearly evident. With Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev looking on, pro-Russian and pro-Chinese delegates exchanged barbs about the region’s future—until an American journalist dared to question Chinese motives, whereupon everyone combined against him.

I learned three lessons in Kazakhstan’s capital. First, China and Russia have a lot in common over nearly every issue in the region. Second, American diplomacy has been poor in the geographic pivot. It lags behind both Chinese and Russian efforts as well as European ones. The third lesson, however, was that the U.S. therefore has everything to gain and little to lose by reviving the 19th-century “Great Game,” but this time pitting Russia against China rather than Britain.

India was the other big player in the Great Game. It also plays a part in this new version. Beijing and Delhi have been at war over the Himalayan border since 1954. It was fought in 1962. In 2020, violence flared again and left more than 40 people dead along the line. Delhi and Moscow, by contrast, have been close since 1955, and India’s armed forces have consistently bought Russian-made weapons. Russia began selling the excellent S-400 S-400 air defense system in 2010 to India and China, but that was soon abandoned when India and China fought in the Himalayas again in 2020. Moscow immediately suspended delivery to Beijing. India can be seen as the Great Spoiler of Sino-Russian negotiations for a truce in the Great Game.

In February, Putin and Xi Jinping probably both expected Ukraine to fall quickly, accelerating their challenge to the US by securing Russia’s western flank, discrediting the pusillanimous western democracies, and legitimizing the use of force to subdue “breakaway provinces” (Taiwan as much as Ukraine). Instead, two months of killing have exposed Russia’s military shortcomings, strengthened the western alliance, and stiffened American resolve so much that Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin says that he intends to see “Russia weakened to the point where it can’t do things like invade Ukraine.”

This setback can not only have Russia moving towards China, but it must also be making Xi wonder if Putin is really the friend he desires on the eve Xi’s bid to become the Communist Party Secretary for a third time. Putin is a liability even at the North Pole. China announced a “Polar Silk Road” in 2018, forging new maritime connections with Europe as the ice melts, but its efforts are now stymied because the Arctic Council, the region’s main governance body, is refusing to deal with Russia. China continues to avoid condemning Russia at the U.N. or calling Putin’s invasion a war, but it does seem to be getting cold feet about its authoritarian friend. Beijing-backed Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AiIB) has stopped lending to Russia or Belarus, and energy giant Sinopec withdrew its investment of $500 million from a Russian chemical plant as well as efforts to sell Russian gas in China.

Historians like making analogies between China’s challenge to the U.S. in the early 21st-century and Germany’s to Britain in the early 20th, but we might also want to consider the similarities between contemporary Russia and the pre-World War I Austro-Hungarian Empire. Like Russia and China in 2022, Germany and Austria in 1914 shared strategic interests and formed a geographical bloc—but again like Russia and China, they did not want quite the same things. Historians often suggest that the reason Germany got sucked into a world war was that it foolishly issued Austria a “blank check” for a war against Serbia, even though Germany had little to gain in the Balkans. Germany soon found itself “shackled to a corpse,” whose dead weight helped drag it down to ultimate defeat. China’s leaders today could be forgiven for seeing Russia the same way.

No one knows what will happen on Ukraine’s battlefields over the next few weeks, but we do know what the U.S. should be doing over the next few months and years. In the short run, the West must do enough to prevent Ukraine’s collapse while not doing so much that the war escalates. However, we need to keep an eye on both the long-term and larger picture. The best way to punish Putin for the violence he has unleashed is by inflaming conflicts of interest that will drive his government and Xi’s apart. Mackinder might have rightly stated that Central Asia was the historical pivot.

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