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Last week Russian President Vladimir Putin publicly demanded that the U.S. and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization bar Ukraine from its military alliance, move troops, weapons and installations from its eastern flank and issue “security guarantees” about the future of the region.
“The ball is in their court,” Putin said at a news conference last week. “They need to respond to us with something.”
While Western officials responded with indignation, saying Putin would not tell NATO what to do, Chinese President Xi Jinping applauded Putin’s brinkmanship. At a video summit last week with Putin, Xi denounced the U.S. and NATO for “interfering in the internal affairs of China and Russia,” according to China’s state-run news agency Xinhua.
The increasingly warm relations between China and Russia are raising eyebrows, as well as the potential stakes, across the Western world, but the tensions with Washington have been building for months.
When the U.S. became the first nation earlier this month to announce that its government officials would boycott February’s Olympic Games in Beijing in response to China’s treatment of Uyghur Muslims and its steamrolling of Hong Kong’s democracy movement, Putin rose to Xi’s defense, calling the diplomatic protest “pointless” and saying he planned to attend.
In October, in between Chinese sorties in violation of Taiwan’s airspace, China played war games in the waters off the contested island and was joined in its impressive naval and aeronautical display of force by the Russian military.
“Whether one calls it a marriage of convenience, a bromance or a strategic cooperation, the relationship between Putin and Xi is definitely intensifying,” Roland Freudenstein, vice president and head of Globsec Brussels, a nonpartisan think tank, told Yahoo News. If Russia instigates a military invasion of Ukraine, he added, “the temptation for the Chinese to do something about Taiwan increases exponentially — and vice versa.”
“A two-front war would, in principle, be gravely challenging,” Nigel Gould-Davies, senior fellow for Russia and Eurasia at the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London, told Yahoo News, adding that he believes such an outcome is currently unlikely. “However, [China and Russia] each watch the West’s responses to the other. So if the West is seen to lack resolve against one adversary, the other may be emboldened to act.”
Answering a question posed by Yahoo News, Heather A. Conley, senior vice president for Europe, Eurasia and the Arctic at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C., told an Atlantic Council webinar that the double-theater scenario would put the Biden administration in a precarious position. “What would stretch the U.S. military capabilities the most?” she asked. “Making a choice between having to respond to a challenge on NATO’s eastern flank [while] making sure Taiwan is protected.”
That scenario, said Markus Ziener, Helmut Schmidt fellow at the German Marshall Fund, is “being debated quite a bit here in Washington. What’s going to happen if we have two theaters of war, two theaters of tension, at the same time? Can the United States handle that?”
Having moved to the U.S. for a research project involving Russia, China and the U.S., Ziener sees growing concern about the Russia-China relationship ramp-up in recent weeks. Putin has amassed some 100,000 troops and military equipment near Ukraine's border, while China keeps sending warplanes into Taiwanese airspace and loudly objecting to Taiwan’s moves to be recognized as independent, including having its own seat at the United Nations.
The mood in D.C. “even two months ago was more like, Russia and China don’t have friends, there are no other options for them but to cooperate,” Ziener said. “China needs the energy from Russia and Russia wants to sell them energy and weaponry, so it makes sense. But now, it seems like there are more overarching goals for both of them. And one of them is definitely to push back against the United States.”
The cozying up between Russia and China, two nations targeted by the U.S. with sanctions, is about rearranging the global power board, Samir Puri, senior fellow in urban security and hybrid warfare at the International Institute for Strategic Studies in Singapore, told Yahoo News.
“They’re big and they’re authoritarian — that in itself seems to be enough to disqualify you from favorable relations with the USA. And they’re both being hit with sanctions,” Puri said. “The Russia-China alignment is one of the defining factors of modern geopolitics. The two countries dominate Eurasia. They have two of the five permanent seats in the U.N. Security Council. They’re two of the eight declared nuclear weapon states. And the fact they’ve gotten closer has changed things.”
Velina Tchakarova, director at the Austrian Institute for European and Security Policy in Vienna, refers to the partnership between China and Russia as “Dragonbear” and sees 2014 as the pivotal year for Putin and Xi. After seizing Crimea from Ukraine, “Russia was absolutely isolated — internationally and regionally. It was struggling with sanctions, which were really harsh. And in 2014, the Russian currency hit rock bottom,” she said. With the Russian economy teetering and the government on the brink of default, China came to the rescue.
“Russia was facing a crisis of existential scale. Then China stepped in, introducing different measures, currency swaps, their central bank intervened, making declarations that it will do whatever needed to basically save the Russian currency and default was prevented,” Tchakarova said. “This is just one example of many, which opened my eyes that this is something much more systemic than just a sum of ad hoc events.”
Now, the two countries are linked on everything from energy to trade to technological and military hardware. Yet, despite their occasional exchanging of “friendship necklaces” and public shows of mutual support, fissures between the two nations haven’t been patched over. Neither leader is particularly trusting of the other, said Freudenstein, and the two countries, which share a 2,600-mile border, have experienced a shaky history, from a schism between the Soviet Union and Communist China in the 1950s to a brief border clash in 1969.
“There are naked figures that indeed indicate that the relationship is not that hot. Foreign direct investment, for example, is dismally low in both directions,” Freudenstein said. Russian direct investment in China only amounts to a couple of hundred million dollars a year, he added. “This is nothing; this is not even peanuts, these are crumbs.”
Trade is not exactly robust either. While China is Russia’s main trading partner, Russia is not China’s. That distinction goes to the U.S. Nevertheless, there is some technology transfer, and Huawei is installing Russia’s 5G network.
The bigger worry for analysts is the threat posed by the potential for the two countries to coordinate militarily. China and Russia have not yet committed to “come to each other’s aid in a time of war,” Puri said. “Were that to happen — if they did sign a mutual defense agreement — that would be a global game changer,” he added. And if they did coordinate in planning separate military attacks simultaneously, he said, “we’d be in Tom Clancy territory of geopolitical situations that feel more like a film than real life.”
Until this week, David Stulík, a Russia analyst for the European Values Center for Security Policy, a think tank in Prague, thought Putin was probably bluffing the U.S. and NATO over Ukraine. But when Russian state news services this week began reporting that the U.S. had deployed chemical weapons in Ukraine and had them pointed at Moscow, a claim Pentagon officials flatly deny, he had second thoughts.
“Putin is taking it to the next level, increasing the temperature in the room, and portraying Russia as a victim of the aggressive behavior of NATO and the U.S.,” Stulík said. “This is a deliberate step. But then I ask myself: ‘Why? What’s Putin’s end objective?’ And that I just can’t answer.”
The good news, at least according to Tchakarova, is that even if Russia does militarily move on Ukraine, China is unlikely to strike Taiwan — at least for the next couple of months. And for that we can thank the upcoming Olympics in Beijing, which don’t begin until Feb. 4.