Fickle Friends: Whom Will Russia Side With in the Upcoming Global Confrontation?

Russia has no loyal allies, not even Ukraine and Belarus, which it “picked up” because they were there for the taking. For the past 500 years Russia has never been a member of a union where it didn’t play the dominant role. But it would not play a leading role in the growing confrontation between the United States and China, no matter which side it takes.

The year 2014 will mark 100 years since the beginning of the First World War and 25 years since the end of the Cold War. The former went down in history as the beginning of the end of Europe’s global political domination, and the latter brought an end to the bipolar world order. The losers in those wars did not accept their defeat. As a result, 20 years after WWI the world was pushed into the cruelest conflict in human history, and now we are talking about the imminent end of the unipolar world.

Russia, the global influence of which has greatly decreased in the 1990s, has serious grounds to actively oppose US hegemony. However, grounds do not always mean reasons. I find it very difficult to pinpoint US actions that have done direct damage to Russia. It was the US economy that pulled the world out of the economic crisis of 1997-1998, and the US invasion of Iraq in the early 2000s triggered the growth of oil prices, which has revitalized the Russian economy.

Furthermore, even if it has reasons to be dissatisfied with the United States, Russia should not pioneer anti-American sentiments without sufficient material grounds for this. The US share in the global economy has fallen from 37.7% to 25.4% in the past 50 years, but Russia’s share has plummeted from 6.9% to 2.2%. You can deliberate about the decline of the United States as long as you like, but it seems that columnist Charles Krauthammer was right when he wrote in 1991, “If the Roman Empire had declined at [the US] rate, you’d be reading this column in Latin.” (“Bless Our Pax Americana,” The Washington Post, March 22, 1991).

Russia has no loyal allies, not even Ukraine and Belarus, which it “picked up” because they were there for the taking. Besides, a completely new situation has arisen. For the past 500 years Russia has never been a member of a union where it didn’t play the dominant role. But it would not play a leading role in the growing confrontation between the United States and China, no matter which side it takes. We have always asked, “Who is with us?” but we have never tried to determine whom we are with. I believe it’s time for us to ask ourselves: What should we do if antagonism between the United States and China escalates? Should we convince ourselves of the benefits of playing second fiddle in the Shanghai Cooperation Organization and accept the possibility of a conflict with Washington, or should we review our stance?

China is the world’s second largest military power after the United States (excluding strategic nuclear forces). Its defense spending reached $166.1 billion in 2012, increasing 7.5 times since 2000, while the US military budget increased by 2.3 times to reach $680.4 billion. At this pace, they would draw even with each other in 12 years. With Russia as an ally, China would surge ahead of the United States in terms of military strength even sooner, and by the look of things, China does not intend to limit its aspirations of a leading military power in Asia. It already has military agreements with Pakistan, Myanmar, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Madagascar, the Seychelles, the Maldives and Mauritius, and has troops stationed in a vast region from Myanmar to Sudan. The United States will definitely do its best to prevent China from becoming its rival in the Pacific, while strengthening its military-political partnership with Japan, South Korea, the Philippines, India and other allies.

Russia should make its choice unemotionally and should take into account two considerations when soberly assessing all the pros and cons.

First, we should reconsider the myth about the decline of the United States. This is the fifth time since the Soviet Union launched its sputnik in 1957 that the world is talking excitedly about America’s decline, notably its debts and economic mess, and also about China’s growth. However, we should remember that since the last prediction of the fall of the US, the Soviet Union has disintegrated and Japan can no longer aspire to global economic leadership. The “nose-diving” US economy registered a 4.1% growth in the fourth quarter of 2013, while the “effective” Russian economy only increased by less than 1%. America has shown many miracles of adaptation to new conditions in the past 200-odd years, and its resources are far from exhausted.

Second, Russia should carefully assess the benefits of cooperation with each rival. The US, the EU and Japan are high-tech postindustrial economies that will consider relocating production when problems with China grow to an unacceptable level. Considering its resources and requirements, and its need to reindustrialize and to develop its Siberian and Far Eastern regions, Russia could be an ideal candidate.

China is the world’s biggest industrial power, and it doesn’t want Russia to become its rival. China is only interested in buying Russian raw materials, and is not investing in industrial projects in Russia. If Russia teams up with China, its role in Asia will be limited to that of a commodities supplier. I don’t see any economic advantages in a political alliance with China, the more so as China doesn't only trade with countries that kowtow to its political regime.

At the same time, the growth of US-Chinese antagonism would give Russia a unique opportunity to improve its stance in the East by developing relations with the United States and its allies. Asia accounts for 48.6% of the total GDP of Pacific countries, North and South America and Australia for 46.1%, and Russia for 5.3%.

The superiority of Asia, let alone the domination of China, is not at all obvious. Russia can tilt the balance to either side, which determines the price they will pay to win over such an important ally. In this geopolitical confrontation, Russia will have to choose which party it will side with: Asia against the US and Europe, or the US (and Europe) against Asia. I believe that this will be Russia’s most important choice in the 21st century.

Choosing China will actually mean choosing the South rather than the East, because the countries lying east of Russia are Japan, Canada, the United States and Mexico. The southern choice will signify the victory of the Eurasian idea in the Russian political elite, and will lead to the squandering of tens of billions of dollars to support the failed southern post-Soviet regimes. This choice will deprive Russia of its natural advantage: its access to the Atlantic and Pacific oceans. In a world where 52% of the economy is located no more than 100 miles from the coast, it would be strange, to put it mildly, to believe that anyone can take an interest in such countries as Kyrgyzstan or Tajikistan. If Russia sides with China, it will bury itself instead of maximally increasing its access to the West and the East.

On the other hand, a union of Russia, the US and Japan would lead to the development of a North Pacific alliance that would be comparable to NATO in terms of its power and capabilities. Russia would attract investors for the development of its eastern regions, control the Northern Transit Corridor, and build up cooperation with the North American Free Trade Area. Moreover, it would be able to create a Northern Alliance that will have the overwhelming advantage over the South on all counts, from strategic nuclear forces to technology, finance and commodities.

In this case, Russia would be invited to become an equal member of the club of the world’s industrialized countries with common cultural traditions, which is much better than forcing oneself on it.

Of course, predictions are not always successful, but I’d like to draw an analogy to a similar situation in the past.

The situation in Europe in the early 1920s resembles current developments. Germany and Russia were affected the worst by the First World War. Isolated from the other countries, they became “natural allies” after signing the Treaty of Rapallo, praising each other and denouncing the British and American imperialists. But they did this only because the British Empire was the world’s main political force and the United States - its only economic superpower. Everyone knows the outcome of that policy: when Hitler became dissatisfied with Germany’s peaceful rise to prominence, he started a war in which the Soviet Union sided with the capitalist countries which it had regarded as class enemies before.

The conclusion is simple: We can accept or reject European values, but we definitely cannot disregard geopolitical realities, which must be considered openly and directly, without illusions or ideological nonsense. This will help Russia determine which side it should join.

This article was originally published in Russian in Moskovsky Komsomolets newspaper.

The full text of Vladislav Inozemtsev’s article about Russia’s future will be published in the February issue of the quarterly journal Obshchaya Tetrad of the Moscow School of Political Studies .

Views expressed are of individual Members and Contributors, rather than the Club's, unless explicitly stated otherwise.