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Russia: Looking Forward

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by Arthur Waldron, Ph.D
Published on August 24th, 2005

One thing we do know about Russia: its governments plan strategic and foreign policy far ahead, and nearly always have. Failing to grasp this point, and imagining that they are reactive, or entirely driven by internal pressures, is a constant source of error.

So what are we to make of Moscow’s current approach to the world? On the one hand, Mr. Putin has said some things that suggest he fully understand the basic fact that Russia can either join Europe and the West, and move forward, or try to follow her own path, as the Soviets did, and go nowhere. Yet these days the media are filled with pictures of a large-scale Chinese Russian military exercise and firepower demonstration, the object of which is not only obscure, but said to be different, depending upon whether one listens to Beijing or Moscow.

Moscow points out that these exercises are designed to counter terrorism and aimed at no third party. Yet terrorists do not usually array themselves on battle fields, ready for punishing attack by air power and missiles, nor do they contest amphibious landings on beaches. Beijing would like the world to think that Russia has now joined her in her attempt to gain Taiwan, with the landings on Shandong shores hints of what is to come on Taiwan’s beaches, with Russian and Chinese forces working together closely to keep the US, Japan, or other concerned parties from intervening. Yet neither of these explanations makes any sense at all.

Russia may have an interest in cooperating with China to fight Islamists in Central Asia—but that does not explain the amphibious exercises. Russia may simply be looking to sell more weapons. It has transpired, for example, that China has paid the complete cost of these drills.

As for China, surely she understands that a real military operation against Taiwan would be a disaster for her and the world, destined most likely to fail, terrify the region, and yield a suspicious and militarily mighty Japan at the end of the day. Even the current operations are raising eyebrows and giving ever more credibility to those who warn of danger from China. Furthermore, Beijing must know that Russia has absolutely no interest whatsoever in her agenda of taking Taiwan, occupying islands in the South China sea, and so forth,.

So what is going on? According to Izvestiya, the real object is to prepare for a joint Russian-Chinese operation to secure the northern part of the Korean peninsula if Kim Jong-il’s regime goes down. But this too makes little sense. Russia would find any Chinese presence on Korea’s East coast deeply threatening, as forces there could easily interfere with or blockade their key base at Vladivostok. As for the Chinese, bringing Russians even further south, on to the Yalu frontier and to the West coast of Korea, would enable them to threaten the critical sea lines of communication between Tianjin, Beijing, the naval bases at Dalian and elsewhere—and the Sea of Japan. Not to mention that the South Koreans would be enraged at such an intervention, and are themselves positioned to interfere with Russia and China, owing to their commanding strategic presence on the Tsushima strait and the waters it connects.

Nezavisimaya Gazeta reportedly sees these operations as an anti-American demonstration. But can that really be what either power wants? China in particular is tightly linked to the US economically; any disruption of that relationship would be disastrous—indeed potentially fatal for the regime. Russia too has no conceivable interest in alienating the United States and needs US cooperation in everything from terrorism to trade.

Defense Minister Ivanov has reportedly spoken of a possible UN mandated Russian-Chinese joint peacekeeping in the Asian region. But how does Mr. Ivanov imagine such a mandate would pass the Security Council? Most Asian states are not likely to see a joint Chinese-Russian force as a harbinger of peacemaking in any case.

Finally, there is every Washington cynic’s favorite explanation: "follow the money." Russia can keep her defense industries alive by sales to China, and numerous Russians undoubtedly are already topping up their Swiss bank accounts with proceeds from the sales already made.

None of these explanations, however, comes close to convincing this author. I do not have a full explanation, but allow me two points:

First, Russia has, to be sure, vital interests both economic and military, on her Pacific coast. These, however, are less likely to be assured through ties with China, which resents the way Russian territory renders Manchuria landlocked, than by means of improved ties with Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, and so forth.

But Russia’s decisive interests in the decades ahead will be to the West, above all with the "near abroad," her former East European empire, the European Union, and indirectly with the United States. Good political and economic relations with these democratic free market countries will lift Russia in every way, making her once again a European economic and political player of great importance, as she was from the end of the eighteenth century until the Bolshevik coup of 1917.

Even given her vast size and resources, however, Russia has never been able on her own to bring enough weight either to her Eastern or Western frontier to exercise influence unilaterally. Rather, she has had to balance the two against one another, and seek makeweights. Thus the rather improbable linking of China and Russia in the East may well be aimed more at the West—just as the once-dreaded (but short lived) Sino-Soviet bloc of the 1950s cast at least as long a shadow over Europe as over Asia.

China has traditionally played a similar game. She too is unable to be strong both on her coast and on her inland borders, almost all of which now touch potentially hostile states. And she too has sought makeweights: the United States against the USSR in the 1970s, perhaps Russia against the United States today.

The problem with such attempts to pool influence, however, is that if and when actual hostilities erupt—as in the Formosa Straits crises of the 1950s—the makeweight partner will defect, as the USSR did over China’s attack on Quemoy. Or the erstwhile partners will compete for influence, worsening the situation for all, as China and Russia have done in Korea and Vietnam.

Since most people are clearly aware of the problems laid out above, it seems unlikely that either Russia or China would behave in so stupid and transparent a way.

One possible explanation remains, however: the old adage, "keep your friends close to you, keep your enemies even closer." This can apply to both Beijing and Moscow. Each is well aware of the fundamental frictions and dangers of their relationship in Northeast Asia. These have now moved to Central Asia as well, with China seeking influence in Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan, which Russia continues part of her bailiwick. Making Russian military industry dependent upon China and gaining the opportunity to observe Russian forces close up (and perhaps make "friends" with some of the Russians involved) is a way of dealing with Russia through "strategic engagement"—the phrase, of course, regularly used by Americans to explain our otherwise puzzling relationship with China. But why would the Russians play?

Perhaps they are playing the same game. The more dependent China is upon them militarily, the less threat China will pose to their position in Asia. Furthermore, the Russians, who knew China very well indeed in the 1950s, are in need of a refresher course, and what better way of fixing that than to have their people all over China, looking at military, economic, and strategic developments?

So we may have what political scientists call "clinging vines"—two states, each too weak to accomplish her goals unaided, pooling their weakness. This makes sense. The problems with it are three. First, weakness plus weakness does not equal strength. Second, mutual entanglement may lead to involvements in which one party has no interest. And third, and most importantly, the more attention lavished on the pooling of weakness, the less devoted to the real issue for each, which in the case of Russia is her relationship with her Western neighbors in Europe, and for China her ties with the advanced states of Asia.

Indeed, by creating suspicions among those neighbors, the clever-seeming strategy of pooling weakness will almost certainly worsen the very problems it may be intended to solve.

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