Today’s global power structure can be described as a modified bipolarity. Despite increased spending across NATO, the United States will continue to be the bulwark of Western military power, including nuclear deterrence. Despite its many vulnerabilities, China’s power relative to the United States is undeniably on the rise. In the theoretical conceptualization of bipolarity, a single non-superpower cannot significantly shift the global balance of power in favor of a pole. Russia holds a special status given that it is a nuclear peer associated with vast resource wealth, relatively formidable conventional capabilities, and influence in its region and in the Global South. Russia is not a superpower, but it can tip the balance towards either pole. by Kenneth Waltz balance of power realism suggests that weaker powers tend to cooperate together to “balance” themselves with the stronger power. In Stephen Walt’s “balance of threatvariant, states are meant to oppose not necessarily the most powerful state, but the most threatening state. In the current system of modified bipolarity, with whom will Russia join and against whom will it balance? All things being equal, in the “great game” of global energy competition, the United States should want Russia on its side, rather than China. However, US and Western policy towards Russia threatens to create the opposite result.
China is on the rise and its power is growing faster than that of the United States. Currently, only China has the ability to compete with the United States diplomatically, informationally, militarily, and economically. China and Russia are the two revisionist powers with forms of government and territorial ambitions that make them feel maligned by the current US-dominated world order. As Brookings Institution Senior Nonresident Scholar Angela Stent ExplainChina and Russia “share a commitment to creating a ‘post-Western’ world order that accommodates their interests and is conducive to authoritarian rule.”
Power transition theory suggests that as a potential new superpower rises, it begins to chafe under the existing order and seeks its “place in the sun”. As China rises, it will likely seek to overhaul the world order currently guaranteed by the hard and soft power of the United States, with the US dollar as the world’s reserve currency. The current world order prioritizes values and norms, including national sovereignty and freedom of navigation and commerce. China would like to revamp this order to fit its authoritarian image, with the ability to dominate its neighbors with impunity and settle disputes through coercion and, if necessary, force. Likewise, Russia shares China’s authoritarian political system and its drive to revise its territory and influence through force and coercion. This makes them natural partners with the common goal of degrading and ultimately overthrowing the US-dominated world order. However, China also poses a threat to Russia and they have a history of territorial disputes and suspicion towards each other. A shrewd US foreign policy would seek to exploit these differences. Currently, it is doing the opposite.
The United States, the United Kingdom and much of the West are publicly pushing for Ukraine’s Maximalist Vision of victory over Russia which requires the expulsion of all Russian forces from all Ukrainian territory, including territory disputed or controlled by Russia since 2014. This policy will likely result in years of continued bloodshed, destruction , Western financial and military support and the risk of escalation. It also hurts competition with China in two key ways. First, it focuses US spending and attention on Europe and leaves the West with fewer resources to use in the Indo-Pacific. Second, attempts to economically and politically isolate Russia will drive it into a closer economic and military partnership with China, threatening to create an authoritarian bloc in control of vast resources, manpower and military arsenals. The emergence of a global power structure featuring China and Russia united against the United States is both undesirable and unnecessary.
There are three possible triangular configurations for the global balance of power in the future. First, Russia could remain non-aligned, which has largely been the dynamic since the end of the Cold War. Second, as the United States and its democratic allies isolate Russia, it could bring Russia and China closer together as these autocracies seek to create an alternative order made up of those who are excluded from the club of “good democratic actors” in the world. ‘West. Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov alluded to this, saying that a new “iron curtain” is falling between Russia and the West. Finally, the United States could convince Russia that despite its similar authoritarian model, China poses a greater threat to its interests and sovereignty. The United States could also offer to cooperate with Russia on economic and technological development and shared security concerns if a coherent and mutually acceptable order can be established in Europe. Moscow has Express openness to “dialogue on strategic stability and nuclear non-proliferation” despite the ongoing conflict in Ukraine. Greater cooperation between the United States and Russia is the optimal power configuration to contain a rising China, especially since it would allow the United States to complete its “pivot to asiaa goal the Obama administration adopted as a top US national security priority more than a decade ago. But the window to complete the pivot may have already closed or at least is closing quickly.
While the current mood makes this third outcome unlikely, history provides parallels that suggest the possibility and utility of pursuing interest-based partnerships, and warn of the risks of forgoing them. For example, Britain and France, two democracies, were understandably opposed to a partnership with the authoritarian and aggressively communist Soviet Union as World War II approached. This helped push the fearsome Soviet Union into an alliance of convenience with Germany – another autocracy – as it desperately sought more time to prepare for the inevitable war. Conversely, American policy under President Richard Nixon sought to balance China against the Soviet Union to succeed in reducing the power of the Communist bloc by making overtures to Communist China.
A realistic approach that considers both power and determination would have argued for Ukrainian and NATO concessions to renegotiate the European security order, which still assumes an outdated posture of complete asymmetric Western superiority over Russia that existed in the end of the cold war. The current war in Ukraine does not rule out this possibility. On the contrary, it serves as a useful demonstration of Russian capabilities that have been largely misjudged. No doubt, if Russia’s military capabilities had been known, the war might never have broken out. The war could also have been averted through robust diplomacy as the crisis escalated. Unfortunately, that never materialized.
The conflict in Ukraine unfolded advantageously and disadvantageously for the West and Ukraine compared to Russia. The war has revealed Russia’s military weaknesses, strengthened NATO cohesion and shown that Ukraine is willing and able to fight. However, Russia has also made operational gains, including almost cutting Ukraine off from the sea, capturing large swathes of its industrial regions and crushing its economy, which it can later use as a bargaining chip. Ukraine performed much better than expected, but it is still unlikely that they can regain lost territory. Without a strong ceasefire or peace agreement, the war will continue to be a bloody and unstable stalemate. As Ukraine’s losses and economic devastation continue to mount and reverberate globally, for example by exacerbating food and energy shortages, the West will at some point have to choose between continuing to push for a victory. Ukrainian maximalist or convince Ukraine to accept limited objectives and facilitate a negotiated settlement.
A settlement on Ukraine should strengthen NATO, but it should also seek to accommodate Russian interests, however unappetizing that may seem, and reconnect with Russia through trade and diplomacy. The West can explain to Russia that its strengthened military posture is the result of the war it started in Ukraine, but that this posture could be reduced to pre-war figures if Russia takes steps to restore the mutual trust. The ultimate goal should be to achieve a stable European security order. The United States could then use this outcome to draw Russia away from China and closer to the West. In the past, Russia had territorial disputes with China. Currently, however, Moscow fears China’s growing influence and does not wish to be beholden to it as “junior partner.”
For those who argue that staying the course and viewing Russia as an eternal pariah is the best option, it is important to understand that Russia is capable of sustaining a highly destructive attrition war in Ukraine for a long time. He could also see further gains if Western weapons do not offset Ukrainian losses on the battlefield quickly enough to turn the tide, and the weather doesn’t seem to be on On the Ukrainian side. Russia also remains the only nuclear peer of the United States and it has an “escalation to defuse” nuclear strategy which, as two experts Explain in 2018, “lowers the bar for the use of nuclear weapons to an awfully low level”. This makes continuing the conflict in Ukraine risky. In addition, NATO countries risk seriously exhausting their large arsenals of weapons the longer the war drags on.