Elections have consequences, former U.S. president Barack Obama once said. Administrations change, but bad ideas live to fight another day. One example is the notion, popular during the Trump presidency, that the United States should revive the old Nixon-era strategy of geopolitical balancing, and get Russia to change sides and align with the United States against China.

The latest incarnation of this idea appears in a recent paper that has attracted some attention in Washington. Written by an anonymous author, described only as a “former senior government official,” it is an attempt to replicate George Kennan’s famous article—also published anonymously—from 1947. Kennan’s article became the intellectual foundation for the strategy of containing the Soviet Union during the Cold War.

The aspiring twenty-first-century Kennan writes that “Dividing Russia from China in the future is [critical]. Allowing Russia to drift fully into China’s strategic embrace over the last decade will go down as the single greatest geostrategic error of successive U.S. administrations.” So far, the Biden administration has shown little inclination to embrace such thinking. Hopefully, it will refrain from doing so in the future.

The Trump administration’s heralded reinvention of great power competition was, among other things, a reflection of its strategic myopia: “a rising China and a vindictive Russia,” as some fans of Trump’s foreign policy describe the other great powers, had never abandoned their great power ambitions or resolve to compete with the United States. They have always resented and resisted America’s “unipolar moment.”

The fallacy of the Trump administration’s approach to Russia and China was further demonstrated by its supposedly clever “divide and conquer” tactic. Senior Trump officials, including Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, argued that instead of competing with Russia and China simultaneously, the United States should exploit Russia’s concerns about China to undermine their partnership and get it to side with the United States against China.

Clever as it may seem, the “divide and conquer” approach to Russia and China is based on a fundamental misreading of the past and misunderstanding of the present; it belongs in a wastebasket. Biden and his foreign policy advisers have pledged to be tough on Russia and make it pay a stiff price for its malign activities.

The Trump administration’s attempt to replicate Henry Kissinger’s diplomatic maneuvering between the Soviet Union and China in the early 1970s is a good example of the misuse of history. Kissinger’s triangular diplomacy succeeded for two reasons.

First, even though some still doubted it, he recognized and took advantage of the rift between the two Communist powers after their 1969 border clash. But he did not create the split between Moscow and Beijing, which was rooted in their ideological differences and geopolitical ambitions. By the time of Kissinger’s 1971 secret trip to China, the two had been bitter enemies for years. Beijing wanted better relations with Washington as a counterweight to Soviet power.

Second, Moscow wanted an opening with Washington to ease the twin burdens of the arms race with the United States and the standoff with China. Neither of those conditions exists today.

The notion that the United States can successfully entice Moscow to align with Washington instead of Beijing overlooks the motivations that cement the Sino-Russian partnership: they share a deeply adversarial relationship with the United States and want to thwart what they perceive as its hegemonic ambitions aided by democracy promotion and the unilateral use of military power.

Since the end of the Cold War, democracy promotion has been a staple of U.S. foreign policy in rhetoric and in practice, supplemented by frequent public criticism of Russia and China for their lack of democracy at home and support for authoritarian regimes abroad. The two countries resent this as a violation of their sovereignty and an existential threat.

They also consider the U.S. web of alliances and military presence at their doorstep a threat to their security. The Trump administration neglected America’s alliances, and called out authoritarian regimes only when it was convenient. The new administration has pledged to reinvigorate both democracy promotion and alliances. This will only add to Putin’s discomfort and reinforce his quest for closer ties to Beijing.

In trade and economics, Russia and China are a perfect match. The former is fabulously rich in natural resources, while the latter is a manufacturing giant. Putin and Xi Jinping extoll the prospects for their economic cooperation.

What has the United States got to offer Russia? U.S. officials used to say that trade and investment would improve bilateral relations. But as ideological and geopolitical differences between them spiked, the United States hit Russia repeatedly with economic sanctions.

The United States now produces more gas than Russia. The Trump administration relied on economic muscle and the threat of sanctions to try to get Europe—a critical market for Russia—to buy more gas from America and less from Russia. The use of U.S. vastly superior economic power to bend Russia to its will is hardly a comforting situation for Putin.

The partnership with China is critical for Russia, because an adversarial relationship would be fraught with dire consequences. Since the early 1990s, the normalization of relations with Beijing has relieved Moscow of the incalculable burden of maintaining a vast conventional presence—as many as fifty divisions at the height of the Sino-Soviet rift—along its 4,000-kilometer border with China, and remains critical today, when Russia is locked in a tense standoff with NATO. Knowing that Russia’s border with China is secure must help alleviate the discomfort caused to Putin by the breakdown in his relations with Europe and the United States.

Needless to say, it makes sense for U.S. policy to avoid actions—wherever possible—that drive Moscow closer to Beijing. But the idea of driving a wedge between them to weaken their alignment is wishful thinking. Their partnership is anchored in a convergence of economic, geopolitical, and domestic political interests.

Partnership with China is a strategic imperative for Russia, and its modern-day leaders see no alternative to it. Such a hopeless U.S. pursuit as trying to divide the two powers should be replaced with sharply focused strategies based on realistic assessments of the motivations and capabilities of each country, as each will remain a unique source of challenges to the United States.

This article was published as part of the “Relaunching U.S.-Russia Dialogue on Global Challenges: The Role of the Next Generation” project, implemented in cooperation with the U.S. Embassy to Russia. The opinions, findings, and conclusions stated herein are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of the U.S. Embassy to Russia.

By:
  • Eugene Rumer
  • Richard Sokolsky