Russia’s Missing Peacemakers
Why the Country’s Elites Are Struggling to Break With Putin
The greatest strategic problem the United States faces is the convergence of its two main rivals, China and Russia—countries that don’t always like or trust each other but nonetheless derive great benefits from their simultaneous assaults on the existing international order. And as Moscow and Beijing contest the balance of power at both ends of Eurasia, they are drawing together in ominous ways.
China has refused to condemn Russia's brazen invasion of Ukraine. Instead, on the day of Russia's attack, it accused the United States and its allies of “fanning the flames.” China’s non-denunciation is part of a broader pattern of Sino-Russian convergence, as both Beijing and Moscow are using old and new methods to upend the global status quo. In January 2022, China publicly supported Russia’s intervention in Kazakhstan to thwart a “color revolution” in the two countries’ shared backyard. In early February, Russian President Vladimir Putin and Chinese President Xi Jinping issued a long joint statement endorsing efforts to keep U.S. influence out of their near abroads, attacking the United States’ alliances as Cold War relics, defending their own autocratic models of government, and declaring that Sino-Russian friendship has “no limits.” All of this follows significant, sustained upticks in military, economic, diplomatic, and technological cooperation. Expect more in the future: as Russia’s invasion of Ukraine crystallizes tensions between Putin and the West, it also underscores his need for support from Beijing.
The Sino-Russian convergence gives both powers more room for maneuver by magnifying Washington’s two-front problem: the United States now faces increasingly aggressive near-peer rivals in two separate theaters—eastern Europe and the western Pacific—that are thousands of miles apart. Sino-Russian cooperation, while fraught and ambivalent, raises the prospect that America’s two great-power rivalries could merge into a single contest against an autocratic axis. Even short of that, the current situation has revived the great geopolitical nightmare of the modern era: an authoritarian power or entente that strives for dominance in Eurasia, the central strategic theater of the world.
That nightmare traces back to the writings of the political geographer Halford Mackinder, who warned in 1904 that the coming era would feature high-stakes struggles to rule Eurasia and its surrounding oceans. That prophesy played out in the two cataclysmic hot wars and one global cold war that followed. Mackinder’s vision has become newly relevant in the twenty-first century: the United States’ rivals are working to create a radically revised global order with an autocratic Eurasia at its core.
Mackinder is considered by many to be the father of geopolitics, and argued in his famous “heartland” theory of political geography (as well as subsequent publications) that three revolutions were putting Eurasia at center stage in global affairs. First, the colonization of Africa and much of Asia meant that possibilities for easy imperial expansion were fading, presaging fiercer fights between great powers in Eurasia, the world’s geopolitical core. Second, the proliferation of railroads was making it possible to project power across vast territories and creating new opportunities for conquest on the Eurasian landmass. Third, illiberal states were harnessing rapidly industrializing economies to underwrite horrific repression at home and dramatic expansion abroad. If such states were able to dominate Eurasia, global supremacy would be within their reach.
Eurasia, Mackinder pointed out, controlled most of the world’s population and industrial potential. A power or coalition that gained control of Eurasia’s resources could then build unrivaled navies and expand its empire across the seas. The coming geopolitical dramas would thus play out on and around this vital landmass. Autocratic bids for expansion would trigger fights with coalitions linking offshore powers—the United Kingdom and later the United States—to onshore allies whose existence would be threatened by a Eurasian hegemon.
Mackinder got plenty wrong: the big challenges to Eurasian equilibrium initially came not from Russia, as he had expected, but from Germany and Japan. This led the strategist Nicholas Spykman to argue that the supercontinent’s crucial theaters were its European and East Asian “rimlands” rather than its Russian “heartland.” But Mackinder nailed the basic pattern. The three great showdowns of the twentieth century—World War I, World War II, and the Cold War—were brawls between autocratic states, which sought to dominate huge swaths of Eurasia and its adjoining oceans, and the amphibious alliances, anchored by London and then Washington, which sought to contain them.
The contours of these contests changed over time. Germany and Japan pursued outright conquest, often by exploiting new technologies—tanks and tactical airpower, submarines and aircraft carriers—to project power on an unprecedented scale. During the Cold War, nuclear stalemate led the Soviet Union to rely mostly on military intimidation, political subversion, and proxy forces. Yet the stakes remained the same: U.S. policymakers, from Woodrow Wilson to George Kennan, understood that a hostile, autocratic Eurasia would fundamentally reshape the globe. And after a brief, post–Cold War respite, the United States confronts a new version of the old nightmare today.
The present Sino-Russian partnership naturally invites comparison to the Sino-Soviet alliance during the Cold War. But a better analogy might be Germany and Japan before World War II. Though formally allied, Tokyo and Berlin were ambivalent, distrustful partners with fundamentally different long-term visions. Nonetheless, each was committed to overthrowing the existing order, and each profited from the chaos created by the other’s advances.
Presently, neither China nor Russia has engaged in anything approaching World War II–scale aggression. But both countries fundamentally resent the U.S.-led international order because American influence obstructs their paths to domination in world affairs, and because the liberal principles enshrined in the international system are at odds with the illiberal orders that their leaders have constructed at home. China and Russia may be pursuing distinct agendas, but together they present a comprehensive challenge to the geopolitical balance in Eurasia and beyond.
Moscow and Beijing are drawing together in ominous ways.
China’s capabilities are greater than Russia’s, which makes its efforts more audacious. Beijing aims to excise U.S. power from maritime Asia in order to consolidate a Chinese sphere of influence encompassing much of the Western Pacific. China is simultaneously reaching into Eurasia through investment and infrastructure programs, such as the Belt and Road Initiative and the Digital Silk Road, that cast its economic, political, and military influence into Southeast Asia, Central Asia, and regions further afield. In short, Beijing is looking for hybrid hegemony on land and at sea.
China’s gambit intersects with Russia’s efforts to revise the status quo. For years, Putin has been vying to reestablish Russian primacy from Central Asia to eastern Europe. Putin seems to envision a Europe in which NATO is effectively rolled back to its Cold War frontiers and its relationship with Washington is badly weakened. As Russia has recovered its strength after the early post–Cold War era, Moscow has also projected power into the Artic, North Atlantic, Middle East, and other flanking theaters. Moscow has no hope of building a Russo-centric global order, but it can weaken the existing system from one direction as China attacks it from others.
As they have throughout the past century, attempts at Eurasian expansion reflect the shifting nature of global power. Beijing’s record-shattering naval buildup, Moscow’s serial aggression against disobedient neighbors, and both countries’ efforts to fundamentally upend the military balance in key regions such as eastern Europe and East Asia show that hard power hasn’t gone out of style. And both countries are also using more novel methods to weaken their rivals and spread their influence: Russian cyberattacks and digital disinformation campaigns are the counterpart to China’s infrastructure projects, efforts to control the world’s 5G networks, and other non-military measures that extend its global sway.
Because both China and Russia seek to break the existing order, it is unsurprising that convergence has birthed cooperation. The two countries have reportedly swapped tips on how to manage the Internet and control dissent at home; they have also worked, through the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, to fortify friendly dictators in Central Asia. The bilateral trade, finance, and energy relationship between China and Russia has broadened, and Beijing and Moscow have lent each other important, if sometimes tacit, diplomatic support in the UN Security Council. Not least, an expanding military relationship features joint exercises in Central Asia and the Baltic and South China Seas, transfers of weaponry, and burgeoning defense technological cooperation, some of which is likely happening in secret.
Yet formal cooperation between Beijing and Moscow is an insufficient measure of their partnership, because the two help each other simply by pursuing their individual goals. When China and Russia use disinformation and strategic corruption to meddle in liberal societies, or work to make international organizations friendlier to illiberal rule, they contribute to a global autocratic resurgence that benefits both states. And it is at the strategic level where the payoffs of convergence are most pronounced.
Both Beijing and Moscow seem to have learned a vital lesson from the Soviet defeat in the Cold War: that it makes poor strategy to compete with Washington on one front while antagonizing a second enemy on another. China and Russia have thus resolved to stand “back to back” along their shared Eurasian border, freeing them to focus on eroding the U.S.-led order.
Washington’s rivals are working to create a revised global order with an autocratic Eurasia at its core.
The Russian Far East, for instance, presently houses fewer military assets than at any time since Nazi forces were at Moscow’s gates in 1941, a testament to the way that reduced tensions with China enable Russia to concentrate on intimidating the West. By the same token, the existence of simultaneous threats from China and Russia prevents Washington from concentrating its power against either rival, and leaves it vulnerable to being whipsawed by two separate competitors. The Sino-Russian relationship isn’t an alliance, but it doesn’t need to be one in order to cause strategic migraines for the United States.
To be sure, the partnership suffers from real constraints. China and Russia are unlikely to come to each other’s defense in a conflict with Washington, although they might seek subtle ways—such as sharing intelligence or posturing troops menacingly—to prevent the United States from decisively defeating one opponent and then homing in on the other. Russia, having invaded Ukraine and facing comprehensive sanctions from the West, won’t find equivalent economic relief from Beijing, in part because China isn’t eager to bring down the financial wrath of the hegemon by engaging in sanctions-busting on a massive scale. Tensions lurk in Central Asia, where both countries can’t be preeminent simultaneously; in the Arctic, where Russia is a resident power and China is an interloper; and in Africa, where Moscow generates instability that hardly improves prospects for repayment of Chinese loans. Eventually, the overall clash of interests could be severe, because Russia wouldn’t particularly enjoy living in the Sinocentric world that Xi envisions.
For the time being, however, Washington’s Eurasian predicament will only get worse: threats to the existing order are intensifying, and its opponents’ bellicosity is increasing, on both sides of that landmass at once. Although Xi's and Putin's ultimate objectives diverge, their intermediate goals can keep them closely aligned for years to come.
History suggests a solution to this predicament, but the obvious answer—using concessions and diplomacy to turn Moscow against Beijing—is the wrong one. Although the idea may tempt observers in Washington and Europe who hope to improve the strategic geometry of the great-power triangle, Sino-Russian tensions aren’t yet sharp enough to produce the sort of split that happened in the late 1960s, and any efforts to purchase Moscow’s cooperation would surely backfire.
Putin has made clear that the price of sustained de-escalation with the West is overturning the post–Cold War settlement in Europe—and if Putin were offered such a deal, he might well conclude that his strategy of pressure is working and push even harder. There is no diplomatic fix to the Sino-Russian alignment that doesn’t involve gravely weakening the United States’ position at one end of the Eurasian landmass. And it is hard to imagine that an effective U.S. global strategy can withstand such a blow.
A more useful lesson from history is that there may be no good alternative to facing challenges on both sides of Eurasia at once. In 1940 and 1941, President Franklin Roosevelt declined the advice of those who argued that he must appease Japan in order to concentrate on Nazi Germany, because he recognized that both countries posed mortal threats to the United States’ vision for the international order. And later, throughout the first two decades of the Cold War, the United States sought to contain both China and the Soviet Union after concluding that there was no acceptable way of separating them for the time being.
The United States confronts a new version of the old nightmare today.
The United States and its allies have the raw power to pursue a similar dual containment strategy today. As National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan has noted, even a more united Sino-Russian axis would be dwarfed in economic, diplomatic, and military capabilities by Washington and its allies in Europe and the Asia-Pacific.
Granted, the United States and its friends can’t do this on the cheap. Checking dual challenges would likely require major rearmament programs and deeper cooperation against political and economic coercion, all underpinned by a sharper awareness of the threat posed by China and Russia’s autocratic convergence. Put differently, it won’t work to pursue a Cold War–style strategy with post–Cold War levels of urgency and investment. But the best way of resisting a familiar challenge—a bloc of autocracies at the heart of Eurasia—is through a familiar remedy: strengthening the collective resilience of the countries holding the balance along its periphery.
This strategy may initially encourage Sino-Russian cooperation. Yet history also suggests that driving ambivalent partners apart may first require pushing them together. During the 1950s, the Eisenhower administration wagered that a policy of pressure was more likely to break the Sino-Soviet pact than one of inducement, because it would force the weaker party—Beijing—into a position of reliance on the stronger—Moscow—that would ultimately make both countries quite uncomfortable. Eisenhower reasoned, correctly, that Washington might someday find an opportunity to exploit tensions between its two enemies, but only after it had shown that their partnership would produce more misery than profit.
If the United States is to promote an eventual strategic reorientation in Moscow, it first must demonstrate that Putin’s policy of revisionism and alignment with Beijing is not working—and that the alternative to decent relations with the West is an ever-greater dependence on a China whose abrasiveness seems to grow with its power. If that message can be driven home over a period of years, it could have a constructive effect on Russian thinking, if not under Putin then under his successor. Such an outcome may seem like a distant aspiration, which implies waging not one but two cold wars along the way. If nothing else, then, the Sino-Russian convergence has clarified how serious the new Eurasian challenge is—and what will be required to meet it.
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