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Where Russia Went Wrong

Feb 01, 2023
  • Xiao Bin

    Deputy Secretary-general, Center for Shanghai Cooperation Organization Studies, Chinese Association of Social Sciences

Competition and conflict between countries describe the normal state of international politics. Structural realism in international politics can explain the general laws of conflict, but this also needs to be analyzed at the unit level, because that’s where the details of a conflict can be explained best. The Russia-Ukraine war, which broke out last year, came as a result of both structure and unit. 

Ungrateful Western world 

As the initiator of the war, Russia’s relationship with the West (the United States in particular) was a direct structural response. As the so-called hegemonic dividend gained from the Soviet heritage has shrunk since the end of the Cold War, Russia has increasingly rejected the series of institutional arrangements under the Yalta system. Consequently, a view of Russian exceptionalism has been widely held among the country’s political elites. In their view, the West failed to see both Russia’s unique role on the Eurasian continent and its special relevance to world stability.

In this view, Russia should consider joining the Western world only after it is given reasonable international status. The current Western policy toward Russia is unfair and ignores the latter’s contribution to the West, be it at the Battle of Verdun, the Soviet-Germany war or even ending the Cold War. The West has been ungrateful by regarding Russia as its No. 1 geopolitical opponent and taking every opportunity to weaken it.

From the Russian perspective, the United States has always led the Western world to contain Russia after the Cold War and must bear the primary responsibility for the fragile U.S.-Russia relationship. After the outbreak of the war in Ukraine, U.S.-Russia relations have been on the verge of collapse. The two countries, however, have not closed their channels of communication.

Maintaining the status quo may be the new normal in U.S.-Russia relations, a situation that may be beneficial to the U.S. and its NATO allies. Although they have spent heavily, the war could be used to weaken Russia’s strength to the greatest extent and thus reduce its threat. Judging from the costs and benefits of maintaining national security, this war investment is a very good value for the money. 

Trilateral relations 

The relationship between Russia and the West in the war — especially with the U.S. — draws attention to another important but difficult relationship: the one between China and Russia. After the outbreak of the war, China came under enormous external pressure. Still, historic progress has been made in bilateral economic cooperation with Russia. According to China Customs, as of the end of 2022, two-way trade had increased by 29.3 percent, reaching a record $190.27 billion.

The comprehensive strategic partnership of coordination has withstood external pressure, a very positive thing for the further consolidation of the overall bilateral relationship. But even though it set a record high, trade with Russia accounted for just 25 percent of Chinese trade with the United States in the same period. China continued to maintain a huge trade surplus with the U.S.

More important. China gained two important perceptions from the Russia-Ukraine war. First, major-power competition is cruel, so it is vital to maintain strategic stability in major-power relations. Second, it is in China’s national interest to develop ties with Russia on the basis of non-alignment, non-confrontation and not targeting any third parties.

Severe external pressures shape national behavior. Based on the balance of power theory and given the state of U.S.-Russia relations, China-Russia relations will indeed help alleviate China’s external pressures to a certain extent. However, this expectation is achievable in concrete diplomatic operations only when multiple subjective and objective conditions are met. Russia will not act as a diplomatic tool for some countries to balance others when there is no war. During a war, Russia would prefer that other countries to share some of its war burden.

For China, only by transcending old-style balance of power politics and developing a normal trilateral relationship with the U.S. and Russia can we enhance our flexibility in our diplomatic strategy and take the strategic initiative for national development and security into our own hands. 

Avoiding regional “Ukrainization” 

The struggle for power between countries is a long-term fact. To safeguard national interests, it is necessary for a country to have a fighting spirit. Eurasia is the primary region for power competition between Russia and the Western world. In the long-term struggle, a fault line has appeared in Russia’s neighborhood that has become wider and deeper as the war has progressed. Many differences have emerged even between Russia and some traditional allies, Kazakhstan and Armenia.

This fault line eventually led to “Ukrainization” around Russia, as neighbors with previous differences have swung to the anti-Russian camp and become strategic tools for the West to counter Russia. Russia’s irrational struggle strategies have accelerated this process. For various reasons, Russia chose war against Georgia and Ukraine, which is a costly way of fighting. Our country needs to choose rational strategies in international struggles, especially learning to win without fighting and overcome the strong by applying soft methods.

In this connection, an improved open decision-making system based on extensive solicitation of opinions and kindness with regard to differences to avoid “information cocoons” or group polarization will help China gain the initiative in international struggles and move toward the strategic goal of national prosperity and security.

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