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The resumption of global rivalry between the great powers from the mid-2010s is having a significant impact on international and regional security, including in Europe.
First, in 2014–2016, in the wake of Crimea and Donbas, tensions between Russia and the United States rose to a level of confrontation that was in some ways reminiscent of the Cold War, but in many ways different from it.1 Then the situation became more complex. Since 2017, the United States has conclusively renounced its former policy toward China, which combined engagement and hedging, and has instead adopted a policy of putting strong pressure on Beijing.2 At the same time, Washington further increased its political, financial, and economic pressure on Moscow, accusing it of meddling in the U.S. elections, and relations between the United States and Russia sank to even lower depths. Against this backdrop, Moscow and Beijing stepped up their cooperation in many areas, including the military sphere. In 2019, Russian President Vladimir Putin described relations with China as almost an alliance-type relationship.3
According to some assessments, the world is entering a period of new bipolarity in which the main players will be the United States and China. At a time when the United States is reasserting its preeminence in the global system, China, having grown stronger in economic, financial, and military terms, has revealed geopolitical ambitions that challenge the U.S. leading role.4
Any confrontation between these two poles is unlikely, however, to be as implacable and all-encompassing as that between the Soviet Union and the United States in the second half of the twentieth century. It’s also unlikely that the world will see clear dividing lines like those of the Cold War era. Still, the situation will probably force various states to determine where they stand in relation to the new central axis of global rivalry between Washington and Beijing. This applies first and foremost to Russia, which has built up a close relationship with China, and to Europe, where most countries are members of NATO or are aligned with the United States in another way.
European security is evolving once again. It stopped being the exclusive concern of European states as far back as the first half of the twentieth century, and in the second half, European security turned into a function of relations between the Soviet Union and the United States. Now European security is becoming an element of an emerging system of Euro-Asian security, in which an increasingly important role is played by China, alongside the United States and Russia. The problem facing European security today and in the long term, therefore, is how to ensure the continent’s security at a time when the two crucial components of the existing security landscape (NATO states and their partners on one side, and Russia on the other) have close ties to opposing sides in the main conflict of the twenty-first century.
The situation is not, of course, completely symmetrical. European countries are mostly members of a formal military and political alliance with the United States that stipulates unified action, while China and Russia are officially no more than strategic partners, leaving Moscow and Beijing room for maneuver. In addition, while NATO again sees Russia as its potential enemy, it does not view China in the same way. For Russia, the North Atlantic alliance has again become synonymous with the adversarial U.S. military presence in Europe. After a period of semi-withdrawal into itself, Russia has staged a comeback to the international arena as a major independent actor, while European countries do not comprise a consolidated entity within NATO, whose undisputed leader is the United States. The European Union, as a close union of states rather than a union state, does not possess its own strategic identity, and only proclaims aspirations to strategic autonomy.
Rivalry and cooperation between states are both the main components and, simultaneously, the driving force of contemporary international relations. The period of universal domination by one power, the United States of America, which lasted for a quarter of a century following the end of the Cold War, is over. Pax Americana facilitated the globalization of international relations; the worldwide proliferation of advanced standards in various fields; and, ultimately, global integration, albeit under the leadership and supervision of a single power. The U.S.-led system helped the Chinese economy and its level of technology to grow; and it allowed for the start of India’s rise, while enabling Europe to essentially forget about foreign policy and defense, and teaching Russia and other countries a lot of important lessons.
Pax Americana certainly had its obvious flaws. The biggest was not so much the exclusive position of its hegemon, as the egotism of that hegemon’s elite and the narrowness of the agenda set by that elite. U.S. hegemony was effective when the main enemy of the previous cycle of competition in international relations—Russia—was mired in a state of internal chaos, breakdown, and then uneven regeneration, while the main rival on the horizon—China—was entirely focused on its internal development. Once Russia decided that it was strong enough to return to the great game of the main powers, and the United States woke up to the reality of China outplaying it in the economic sphere and posing serious competition in the field of technology, then the sovereign peace—the pax—ended.
The U.S.-Chinese confrontation differs from the Soviet-American standoff in that ideological and military elements play a smaller role. Instead, the issues at the forefront are related to the economy, finances, and technology. The competition is between the economic models, financial institutions, and tech platforms proposed and advanced by the United States and China, as well as between their agendas and desired images of the future. Geopolitics remains the deciding factor, but has taken on new dimensions relating to geoeconomics, geofinance, and geotechnology.
Unlike the United States, Europe does not view China as a military threat, and does not seek to protect its global economic leadership from its challenge. Europe is largely open to cooperation and interaction with China. Nonetheless, China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) has had a mixed reception in Europe.5 On one hand, China’s intention of creating or modernizing infrastructure linking Asia and Europe opens up new opportunities for the development of trade: the main area of the EU’s external activity. On the other hand, China’s ambition to acquire infrastructure abroad, establish relationships based on debt dependency with its weaker partners, and buy political influence in other countries is a source of concern, especially when it affects the EU’s neighbors to the east, and even more so the eastern and southern members of the EU itself.
Sixteen Eastern European countries are already in close cooperation with China, of which eleven are members of the EU. The biggest country in southern Europe—Italy—has also supported BRI. Greece has given China use of its ports. Many former Soviet countries—Ukraine, Belarus, and the countries of the South Caucasus and Central Asia, which are the EU’s neighbors to the east—view China as a crucial trading, economic, and financial partner. For their multifaceted foreign policy, Beijing is an alternative not only to Russia, but to Western countries and their institutions too.
Russia itself has not simply joined BRI like other partners of the Chinese project, but has proposed a formula to Beijing of “pairing” BRI with the Moscow-led Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU), whose other members are Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, and Kyrgyzstan.6 Russia is treading carefully, seeking to avoid excessive dependence on China, but economic interaction between the two countries is nonetheless growing stronger. Since 2014, China has displaced Germany to consistently hold the first place in Russia’s trade turnover7 (Russia, by contrast, is only tenth among China’s trade partners). China has also replaced Germany as the biggest supplier of machinery and equipment to Russia. Accordingly, in geoeconomic terms, the EU’s eastern neighbors are now not only Russia and the EAEU, but also the Russian/post-Soviet/Chinese economic “pairing.” Putin’s dream of a Greater Europe stretching from Lisbon to Vladivostok is giving way to a Greater Asia, from Shanghai to St. Petersburg.8
These changes are to a large extent the result of the economic sanctions introduced against Russia by the United States and the EU starting in 2014. Russia, which had for centuries oriented itself—in terms of attracting investments, loans, and advanced technology—on Western Europe, was forced to more actively look to the east in search of an alternative. Once subject to Western sanctions, Russia had to open up its energy resources to Chinese state corporations, something it had previously avoided doing. In December 2019, Russia launched its Power of Siberia pipeline, which is expected to deliver as much as 38 billion cubic meters of natural gas to China per year. This historic development is comparable to the entry of Russian gas to Western European markets in the early 1970s. In Russian foreign economic activity, the balance between East and West, in which the former had previously lagged behind the latter, is noticeably shifting in favor of the former.9
In addition to trade and investment, Russia is also turning to China for financing and technology. Seeing dollar-denominated bonds as vulnerable to possible U.S. sanctions, Moscow is diversifying its gold and foreign currency reserves. Although Russia is predominantly selling its dollar-denominated assets in exchange for assets in euros, the proportion of those held in Chinese yuan has also grown significantly.10 In response to U.S. financial restrictions, Russia is seeking to lower its dependence on dollar transactions with other countries. A small but growing proportion of Russian-Chinese trade is done in rubles and yuan.11 At Beijing’s instruction, Chinese state banks provide Russian state corporations with long-term loans.12 Financial and technological shifts are even more noticeable in Central Asian countries.13 This is not to say, of course, that a yuan zone is being created on the territory of the former Soviet Union, but Chinese positions in the region’s financial sector have grown stronger.
Where 5G communications technology is concerned, Russia, having fallen behind in the creation of its own platforms, also largely relies on Chinese rather than U.S. platforms, which have become politically unreliable and risky from the security standpoint. Moscow’s general idea consists of diversifying its communications technology policy by working together with all the key leaders: the United States, Europe, and China.14 The European companies Nokia and Ericsson are still potential partners, as far as Moscow is concerned, but in a crisis situation they are believed to be susceptible to possible pressure from the United States.15 Chinese companies’ successful lobbying activities are another major factor. If U.S.-Russia relations continue their negative dynamic, which is most likely in the medium term, and the development of Russian home-grown technology continues to lag behind, Russia’s technological dependence on China will grow, and Russia could end up in China’s emerging geotechnological sphere. In that case, this might create a technological barrier between Russia and the EU.
In the geostrategic field, such a barrier already exists in the form of the military and political confrontation line. The staging ground was the 2013–2014 political crisis in Ukraine, Russia’s interference in that crisis by way of taking over Crimea, and its support for anti-Maidan forces in Ukraine’s Donbas region. Since 2014, Russia-Ukraine relations have been marked by open hostility. Against this background, NATO and Russia have once again entered a period in which each side views the other as a potential enemy. Russia’s relations with its immediate neighbors to the west—Poland and the Baltic states—have also become strained. In this environment, the U.S. military presence has been moving eastward (to Poland, the Baltics, and Romania), while Russia is building up its forces and infrastructure in its westernmost enclave Kaliningrad, wedged between Lithuania and Poland, as well as in Crimea.
The strategic situation has also become more complicated on the greater Eurasian continent as a whole. Russian-Chinese military cooperation has reached a new level. After 2014, Moscow relaxed its export restrictions and agreed to deliver more modern weapons systems to China, such as its S-400 anti-aircraft system and Su-35 fighter jet.16 The joint military exercises held by the Russian and Chinese armies since the second half of the 2000s have become larger in scale.17 Furthermore, they do not only rehearse cooperation between the two armies in counterterrorism operations; they also explore joint action in other possible conflicts, including regional wars. Chinese navy sailors train together with their Russian counterparts, including in European seas, such as the Baltic, Black, and Mediterranean, as well as off the Cape of Good Hope and the Strait of Hormuz.18 The last two drills also include the South African and Iranian navies, respectively. As of 2019, the Russian and Chinese air forces have carried out joint air patrols in Northeast Asia, between South Korea and Japan.19
The collapse of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty in 2019 has removed the ban on deploying surface missiles with a range of 500 to 5,500 kilometers. The appearance of U.S. missiles on the European continent, should it occur, would lead to the most serious escalation of the military and political situation in Europe since 1983. It could trigger change in Russian nuclear strategy away from launch on warning and toward a first strike, meaning the threat of a nuclear conflict would sharply increase. After almost four decades, the INF issue is again linking European security with the situation in East Asia.
For now, the deployment of intermediate- and shorter-range missiles in Europe looks less likely than the appearance of such systems in Asia, where their probable targets would be sites of military and political importance in China. It seems that it was the increasing military might of China, and Washington’s determination to take a stand against it, that was the driving factor behind the U.S. withdrawal from the INF.20 The deployment in Asia of systems capable in a surprise strike of destroying the enemy’s main decisionmaking centers and key missile bases could lead to retaliatory steps not only by China, but also by Russia.
In 2019, President Putin confirmed that Moscow had begun assisting Beijing in the creation of a missile-attack early warning system that would make it impossible to carry out a surprise nuclear missile attack against China.21 Until now, only Russia and the United States had possessed such early warning systems. The strategic aspect of Russia and China’s military cooperation is therefore intensifying and becoming even more intimate. The echo of confrontation from one end of an increasingly interconnected and interdependent Eurasia may swiftly be heard at the other end.
The examples cited above are not yet testament to the formation of a Sino-Russian military alliance, still less of a monolithic bloc that would oppose the United States and its allies. Relations between Moscow and Beijing are increasingly those of allies, but not an alliance of the former Soviet type (the Warsaw Pact), or the current U.S. type (NATO), which are both dominated by their main member. Both China and Russia take their sovereignty very seriously and are keen to preserve their freedom of maneuver in terms of foreign policy. Neither China nor Russia wants to lay claim to leadership of their partnership, nor indeed could they. In this respect, the Moscow-Beijing bond is more reminiscent of the alliances that imperial Russia entered into with the other great powers, or of the Soviet Union and the Western Allies in World War II.
This arrangement creates opportunities for Russia to establish flexible relationships with other countries whose relations with China may be less trusting or friendly: with India to the south, Japan to the east, and European countries to the west. Russian foreign policy has already demonstrated its propensity for such flexibility in the Middle East, where amid the military operation in Syria, Moscow managed to maintain productive contact with political antagonists: Israel and Iran, Iran and Saudi Arabia, and Turkey and the Kurds, among others. It’s clear that Russia intends to maintain independent relationships with the United States and European countries.
This policy of flexibility makes it possible to avoid rigid bipolarity in Eurasia by taking parallel steps in Russia and Europe. It is obvious that in the field of security, Russia-EU relations could be improved if the 2015 Minsk agreement aimed at ending the conflict in Ukraine’s Donbas region were implemented. The change of leadership in Kiev resulting from the 2019 presidential and parliamentary elections in Ukraine has created a more conducive atmosphere for that to happen. Full implementation of the Minsk agreement and the reintegration of the Donbas into Ukraine would lead in principle to sanctions against Russia being eased or even lifted. This would help Moscow to balance Russian foreign policy and foreign economic relations between East and West. At the same time, progress in resolving the conflict in eastern Ukraine could increase the significance of Europe as a geopolitical player capable of working effectively to resolve conflicts on the continent. Still, as of the end of 2019, the prospect of a Donbas settlement appears very uncertain.
Ending the conflict there will take a long time, even in a best-case scenario. Ukrainian nationalists lambaste the Minsk agreements as a capitulation to Moscow, and the ultimate success of diplomacy is by no means sure. Even under the best of circumstances, a major gap between the EU stance and the much harsher U.S. position on Russia sanctions looks unlikely. It’s crucial to realize, however, that most aspects of Russian-European economic ties are not restricted by sanctions. In many areas, including information and communications technology, EU companies could present serious competition for Chinese producers on the Russian market. This would correspond not only to Europe’s commercial interests, but to its strategic interests too, as well as to Russia’s strategic interests, in terms of keeping the necessary balance between East and West.
Another area of international competition in which it would make sense for Russia and Europe to work toward a strategic balance is the exploitation of the Arctic and, in particular, the development of the Northern Sea Route from Asia to Europe that largely runs along Russia’s northernmost shores.
What is absolutely essential, however, is to prevent a new Euromissile crisis that could escalate along the same lines as in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Europe’s active participation in maintaining strategic stability in the region is essential not only for strengthening security on the continent, but also for increasing the geopolitical weight of a united Europe. For Russia, it makes sense not to repeat the mistakes that the Soviet Union made in its twilight years, and not to provoke the Europeans into looking to the United States for protection from Moscow. A discussion on these issues between Russia and European countries, as recently mentioned by French President Emmanuel Macron,23 would be a useful exercise.
The 2019 example of successful cooperation between the European Union, Russia, and the United States to resolve the domestic crisis in Moldova gives hope that at least some of the strong disagreements between Russia and the West in the post-Soviet arena can be mellowed. Taking into account the difficult lessons of the last twelve years, one way out of the situation concerning Ukraine, Moldova, and Georgia could be Russia’s willingness not to hinder the free development of relations between those countries and the European Union—so long as NATO does not expand further. An important stabilizing factor is the development of an independent Belarus that is friendly to Moscow, as a link between Russia and the EU, as well as between Russia and Ukraine.
In the twenty-first century, the Middle East and North Africa are part of Greater Eurasia. It is logical, therefore, that steps that could improve European security should also include:
These are just a few thoughts on how to avoid a rigid bipolarity and achieve a stable balance in Europe and Greater Eurasia overall. If these observations provide impetus for the discussion of the new geopolitical and strategic reality, so much the better. A dialogue on these issues is absolutely crucial, above all between the two major—but no longer main—players on the global stage of the twenty-first century: European countries and Russia.
This publication is part of the Sino-Russian Entente project carried out with the support of the UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office.
1 Dmitri Trenin, “Avoiding U.S.-Russia Military Escalation During the Hybrid War,” Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, January 25, 2018, https://carnegie.ru/2018/01/25/avoiding-u.s.-russia-military-escalation-during-hybrid-war-pub-75277.
2 U.S. National Security Strategy (2017), U.S. National Defense Strategy (2018), U.S. Nuclear Posture Review (2018).
3 Valdai Discussion Club session, Sochi, October 3, 2019, http://kremlin.ru/events/president/news/61719 (in Russian).
4 See, for example, Yan Xuetong, “Urging China to Adopt a More Assertive Foreign Policy,” New York Times, February 9, 2016, https://carnegietsinghua.org/2016/02/09/urging-china-to-adopt-more-assertive-foreign-policy-pub-62838.
5 For examples of the reactions of European countries to China’s OBOR initiative, see: Martin Hala, “China’s gift to Europe is a new version of crony capitalism,” The Guardian, April 18, 2018, https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2018/apr/18/chinese-europe-czech-republic-crony-capitalism; Ivan Dikov, “Counties ‘Wake Up in Dependency,’ Germany Warns after Italy’s BRI Deal with China,” European Views, March 24, 2019; Idem, “Commissioner Proposes EU Veto Power on Chinese Infrastructure Investments After Italy’s BRI Deal,” European Views, March 24, 2019; Alessandro Venturi, “China’s Belt and Road Initiative: Potential Threats for the European Union,” beGlobal, June 14, 2018, https://www.beglobal.it/china-s-belt-and-road-initiative-potential-threats-for-the-european-union-n-22.html.
6 An agreement to that effect was signed by Russia and China in May 2015.
7 In 2018, trade turnover between Russia and China reached $108 billion. See “Vladimir Putin: Trade turnover between Russia and China reached $108 billion in 2018,” Russian Ministry of Trade and Industry (in Russian), June 5, 2019, http://minpromtorg.gov.ru/press-centre/news/#!vladimir_putin_tovarooborot_mezhdu_rossiey_i_kitaem_dostig_108_mlrd_dollarov_v_2018_godu.
8 See Trenin, “From a Greater Europe to Greater Asia? The Sino-Russian Entente,” Carnegie Moscow Center, April 9, 2015, https://carnegie.ru/p-59728.
9 See “The search for a path and determining Russia’s place in trade with APEC countries,” Economic Journal (in Russian), 2008, № 3, http://economicarggu.ru/2008_3/17.shtml; "Economics and statistics. Foreign trade," Russian Center for Foreign Trade (in Russian), https://www.rusimpex.ru/index7.htm.
10 See, for example, “Russia has increased its gold and currency reserves held in yuan to 15 percent,” ТАSS (in Russian), June 28, 2019, https://tass.ru/ekonomika/6608389.
11 See “Three’s a crowd: Beijing and Moscow have dropped the dollar,” gazeta.ru (in Russian), June 28, 2019, https://www.gazeta.ru/business/2019/06/28/12459187.shtml.
12 See, for example, Mikhail Sergeyev, “Beijing will finance the expansion of Chinese companies in Russia,” Nezavisimaya Gazeta (in Russian), October 14, 2014, http://www.ng.ru/economics/2014-10-14/4_china.html.
13 See, for example, Martha Brill Olcott, “China’s Unmatched Influence in Central Asia,” Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, September 18, 2013, https://carnegieendowment.org/2013/09/23/ru-pub-53080; Adil Miankhel, “Why Central Asia chooses Chinese investment,” East Asia Forum, June 29, 2019, https://www.eastasiaforum.org/2019/06/29/why-central-asia-chooses-chinese-investment.
14 See, for example, “Akimov: Russia supports international cooperation in digital security,” ТАSS (in Russian), October 6, 2019, https://nauka.tass.ru/nauka/6967736.
15 Galina Dubina, “U.S. Sanctions are hurting European companies,” Kommersant (in Russian), June 3, 2019, https://www.kommersant.ru/doc/3990294.
16 “China will buy fighter jets, S-400 missiles, and anti-ship missiles from Russia,” Nezavisimaya Gazeta (in Russian), May 29, 2014, http://www.ng.ru/news/467962.html.
17 Information about the Chinese army’s participation in Russia’s Vostok-2018 and Tsentr-2019 military exercises: Tsentr-2019, Zvezda TV channel (in Russian), https://tvzvezda.ru/news/topics/?q=%D0%A6%D0%B5%D0%BD%D1%82%D1%80-2019; Ivan Safronov, “Elaborate maneuvers. What did the army show Vladimir Putin at the major Vostok-2018 military exercises,” Kommersant (in Russian), September 14, 2018, https://www.kommersant.ru/doc/3739873?from=doc_vrez.
18 See, for example, “Russian-Chinese ‘Naval cooperation’ exercises. A profile,” ТАSS (in Russian), https://tass.ru/info/1960969.
19 “China announces joint patrol with Russia,” Kommersant (in Russian), July 24, 2019, https://www.kommersant.ru/doc/4040386.
20 Andrei Baklitsky, “What the End of the INF Treaty Means for China,” Carnegie Moscow Center, December 2, 2019, https://carnegie.ru/commentary/80462.
21 Valdai Discussion Club session, October 3, 2019.
22 Dmitri Trenin, “How Cozy Is Russia and China’s Military Relationship?,” Carnegie Moscow Center, November 19, 2019, https://carnegie.ru/2019/11/19/how-cozy-is-russia-and-china-s-military-relationship-pub-80363.
23 Joint press point with NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg and the President of France Emmanuel Macron, NATO website, November 28, 2019, https://www.nato.int/cps/en/natohq/opinions_170790.htm.
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