Moscow won't side with Washington against Beijing just because we think it should

Moscow won't side with Washington against Beijing just because we think it should
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There are those in Washington who hope that the U.S. can persuade Russia to cooperate with it against a rising China that threatens both. But this hope appears to be forlorn.

There are indeed important differences between Russia and China, even if they are not being actively contested at the moment. Although China and Russia reached a border agreement years ago, Moscow fears that Beijing at some point may seek to reassert claims to what once was Chinese territory that was lost to the tsars. China’s increasing role in the Arctic Sea is also of concern to Moscow. So is the growth of Chinese economic influence in former Soviet republics adjacent to China in Central Asia and in Ukraine. 

Underlying these concerns is Russian worry about how China is steadily becoming more powerful economically and militarily vis-à-vis Russia.

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Despite this, Putin is likely to see America as more of a threat to Russia than China, as long as he believes that American leaders are trying to undermine his rule through the promotion of a “democratic color revolution” in Russia. This fear likely trumps everything else in Putin’s mind. For whatever challenges, or even threats, China poses to Russia, Xi Jinping is certainly not seeking to democratize it as Putin believes the U.S. has been seeking to do.

Furthermore, even if Putin does see China as posing a growing threat to Russia, his preferred policy is not to ally with the U.S. against China, but to stand back from growing Sino-American antagonism in the hope that they will both focus on each other and not on Russia. Putin himself raised this possibility in June 2019 when, responding to a question about Russia’s policy regarding Sino-American competition, he stated, “There is a good Chinese proverb that says ‘When tigers fight in the valley, the smart monkey sits aside and waits to see who wins.’”

Indeed, given that Putin may see China’s dispute with the U.S. as a means of deflecting Beijing’s attention away from its differences with Moscow, he may view American attempts to persuade him that Washington and Moscow should work together against Beijing as an American effort to deflect Chinese attention toward Russia and away from the United States.

There are even some Russians who think that instead of forcing Moscow to side with America against China (or vice versa), growing Sino-American antagonism will offer Russia the opportunity to lead a third block that can balance between Washington and Beijing. This, however, could occur only if America’s allies in Europe, Japan, South Korea and elsewhere decided that 1) America is as much a threat to them as China; 2) Russia is not a threat to them or is not as much of one as both China and America; and 3) they somehow need Russian leadership in keeping both America and China at bay. This Russian expectation, though, appears to be as unrealistic as American expectations that Washington can persuade Moscow to ally with it against Beijing. Americans are not alone in being subject to geopolitical delusions.

If Putin — or his successor — ever decides that it is in Moscow’s interests to ally with the U.S. against China, it will not be because Washington convinces him to do so. It will occur, instead, because Putin becomes so fearful of China that he himself seeks cooperation with Washington against it. And this may happen only if Beijing ceases its relatively careful treatment of Moscow and begins to openly bully it like Beijing does so many other nations.

This, too, seems unlikely to occur. Even if it does, it should be recalled that there was a 15-year gap between the onset of the Sino-Soviet dispute in 1956 and Henry Kissinger’s secret visit to Beijing in 1971 and the beginning of Sino-American rapprochement. Thus, it may take a considerable period of time between the onset of any overt Sino-Russian tensions before Putin in particular would turn to Washington for support against China.

Until this occurs, it would be more prudent for American foreign policymakers to accept the reality that Moscow and Beijing are going to continue working together against their common foe, the U.S. Russia is not going to side with the U.S. against China just because there are those in Washington who have convinced themselves that this would be in Moscow’s interests.

Mark N. Katz is a professor of government and politics at the George Mason University Schar School of Policy and Government, and a nonresident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council.