The United States Should Not Align With Russia Against China

Authoritarians make bad allies—and Washington already has the stable and democratic friends it needs.

By Matthew Kroenig, deputy director of the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council.
Russian President Vladimir Putin and U.S. President Donald Trump shake hands during the G-20 summit in Osaka, Japan, on June 28, 2019.
Russian President Vladimir Putin and U.S. President Donald Trump shake hands during the G-20 summit in Osaka, Japan, on June 28, 2019. MIKHAIL KLIMENTYEV/AFP via Getty Images

As the coronavirus pandemic rages across the world, it has brought into sharper relief today’s foremost geopolitical rivalry. The United States and China are engaged in an increasingly intense competition for global political influence, economic and technological leadership, and military superiority. And while China now stands as the United States’ primary geopolitical rival, Russia also seeks to undermine U.S. interests and disrupt the U.S.-led system. The challenge these autocratic powers present could be even more severe if they work together.

In its most recent annual worldwide threat assessment to Congress, the U.S. intelligence community stated that “China and Russia are more aligned than at any point since the mid-1950s.” In the early days of the Cold War, the Soviet Union and Communist China were formal treaty allies, but they subsequently split, and China eventually switched to America’s side in the early 1970s.

Some national security strategists argue that the United States should work with Russia to counter the even bigger threat of China. But this recommendation is misguided.

Now these revisionist autocratic powers are once again working together closely. In response, many national security strategists have argued that the United States should seek to peel them apart by working with Russia to counter the even bigger threat of China.

But this recommendation is misguided. Autocracies like China and Russia will not form a deep strategic partnership, and the costs of cozying up to Russia far outweigh the benefits. Fortunately, there is a better path: Washington can leverage its democratic advantages, working with its existing democratic allies to counter both Beijing and Moscow at the same time.

The growing Russian and Chinese strategic relationship is worrying. The two autocratic powers have cooperated on major energy deals, including a blockbuster $55 billion arrangement to pipe Siberian natural gas into China. Russian President Vladimir Putin and Chinese President Xi Jinping have met in several high-level summits, and Xi even declared Putin “his best friend and colleague.” Perhaps most troubling, Beijing and Moscow have participated in joint military exercises in both Europe and Asia. If they were to coordinate and conduct simultaneous military attacks on the U.S. alliance system in Eastern Europe and the Indo-Pacific, for example, the United States and its allies could be overwhelmed.

These facts have led many observers to conclude that the solution is to play them off against each other. Just as President Richard Nixon opened to China to work against Moscow during the Cold War, they argue, today Washington could do the reverse. China is the bigger threat now, so the United States could partner with Russia against the rising power in East Asia.

Former U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger has reportedly urged this course of action directly in conversations with President Donald Trump, and Robert Blackwill of the Council on Foreign Relations—a former U.S. ambassador to India—has recommended that Washington “make concessions in order to improve its relationship with Moscow” as part of a strategy to counter China. And these and similar options are being considered in the working levels of the U.S. government.

But Russia and China will not form an effective alliance against the United States anytime soon. In a new book, I examined the strengths and weaknesses of democracies and autocracies in great-power competition and found that autocracies are poor alliance builders. The ease with which unconstrained dictators rapidly shift their country’s policies, backtrack on commitments, and dissemble are not traits that are conducive to building international partnerships.

Indeed, history shows that autocratic allies tend to fight each other more than the enemy. In spite of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, Adolf Hitler turned on and invaded the Soviet Union, betraying his partner Joseph Stalin. The major military action of the Warsaw Pact during the Cold War was attacking its own members, Hungary and Czechoslovakia. The last time China and Russia were aligned, they nearly fought a nuclear war with each other in the 1969 Sino-Soviet border conflict. And Putin invaded Ukraine and Georgia at a time when these countries were involved in the Russian-led Commonwealth of Independent States.

Moreover, there are many conflicts of interest between Russia and China that will push them apart without any help from the United States. Depopulation in Russia’s Far East has led to fears that an expanding China will attempt a land grab. Russian colleagues report that Russia’s new nuclear-armed intermediate-range missiles are not aimed at NATO but meant to deter a rising China. More broadly, Moscow was the senior partner during the Cold War, and Putin will not be keen to now play second fiddle to Beijing.

While these autocratic powers may cooperate when convenient and opportunistically exploit U.S. weaknesses, they are not likely to form an enduring and coordinated alliance that will pose a major threat to the United States.

Furthermore, there is little to be gained and much to be lost by attempting to sidle up to Moscow. Russia is unlikely to be open to helping Washington confront Beijing. While Russia does not want to subordinate itself to China, it does not want to be openly antagonistic toward it either.

In addition, Putin will not want to bolster the United States, the country he sees as his foremost enemy. In exchange for giving China a cold shoulder, Putin would almost certainly demand unpalatable concessions, such as granting Russia a sphere of influence in Eastern Europe and limiting U.S. missile defenses.

Even if Putin did promise to work with the United States, it would be a mistake to believe him. Putin cannot be trusted to abide by arms control agreements or cease-fires in eastern Ukraine. Why would Washington stake its strategy for the most important national security challenge of the 21st century on his word?

Finally, Russia does not bring much to the table. It is a declining power with a GDP smaller than Italy’s. When energy prices are high, Russia can afford an impressive military, but oil prices have been sagging, and Russia’s military spending has declined over the past several years.

Fortunately, the United States has other potential partners from which to choose. Democracies excel at building effective alliances, and the United States enjoys formal alliances with the 29 other members of NATO, as well as Japan, South Korea, and Australia. These nations account for 59 percent of global GDP. This compares favorably with only a combined 19 percent of global GDP for Russia and China.

The power of this alliance of free nations could be better harnessed in a global strategy to counter autocratic revisionist powers. The free world is concerned about the threats posed by China and Russia and are already cooperating on similar policy measures to counter them, but these efforts could be amplified with a coordinated global strategy led by the United States. Rather than pursue alliances with shifty dictators, Washington should play to its strengths and mobilize its existing strategic partnerships.

The United States and its democratic allies already enjoy the economic, military, and political power needed to excel in this new era of great-power competition. Beijing and Moscow, not Washington, are the ones that should worry about powerful and ideologically hostile enemies aligning against them.

Matthew Kroenig is deputy director of the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council and a professor in the Department of Government and the Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University. His latest book is The Return of Great Power Rivalry: Democracy Versus Autocracy From the Ancient World to the U.S. and China. Twitter: @matthewkroenig