Splitting Russia and China

In a piece today for RT (which you can read here), I discuss Ed Lucas’ latest article in which he seeks to define “victory” in the West’s geopolitical struggle against Russia and China. As I argue, victory as seen by Lucas wouldn’t do the West any good: either Russia and China would drag the West down with them, or you’d get “democratic” regimes in those countries who would pursue their national interests even more assertively than the “autocratic” regimes do at present.

Putting all that aside, what Lucas’ piece reveals is the worry, verging on panic, that China induces in policy circles in the West. Hegemony is slipping out of their grasp and they don’t know what to do about it. As Lucas puts it, “The bleak truth is that China (for all its problems) is rising, while we are floundering. Defeat is visible, while victory is not. That’s bad.”

For analysts like Lucas, Russia is a malevolent force but ultimately a bit part player in the larger scheme of things. China is what really matters. Still, Russia is large, has an impressive military, and helps tip the balance of power in China’s direction by being, if not an ally, at least very friendly with it. This leads to the issue of what can be done about the China-Russia relationship.

There are, roughly speaking, two schools of thought. The first sees Russia and China as an inseparable “axis of evil.” The second believes that Russia naturally belongs in the West and can brought back over from the dark side to stand with the West in opposition to the Chinese.

Lucas fits within the first school. Russia and China are different, he says, but their threats “overlap”. Pay too much attention to China, and Russia will attack while you are looking elsewhere. The way to get at Russia, he implies, is via China. Knock China down, and Russia will fall with it. Or as Lucas writes, “Nobody is safe against Russia if the West fails to deal with China.”

To put it in the language of military strategy, the logic here is that Russia and China are two fronts of a common war of autocracy against democracy, but the centre of gravity is China, which must therefore be the point of main effort.

Proponents of the second school disagree. Sun Tzu remarked that the best strategy is “to attack the enemy’s strategy … the next best is to attack his allies.” According to this view, it’s best to avoid strength and concentrate against weakness. Knock out the allies, and you weaken the stronger body while avoiding a direct fight with it. This logic suggests that the West should focus on Russia and attempt to detach it from China. If Russia ceases to be a Chinese ally, the Chinese position will become that much weaker.

An example of this thinking comes in an article by Charles Kupchan this week in Foreign Affairs magazine. Entitled “The Right Way to Split Russia and China,” Kupchan argues that US president Joe Biden “can’t stop China’s rise, but he can limit its influence by trying to lure away from China its main collaborator: Russia.” Kupchan notes that Russia and China aren’t natural allies, and that Russia doesn’t want too close a relationship with the Chinese because it knows that it will be by far the weaker partner in that relationship. There are, therefore, grounds for believing that Russia can be pulled away from China if given sufficient inducements.

To this end, Kupchan proposes that the United States drop its “democracy versus autocracy” rhetoric, since it serves only to drive Russia into China’s arms; that it (and its European allies) expand trade with Russia, so as to strengthen its ties with the West (for which reason, Kupchan believes that the US was wrong to oppose the North Stream 2 pipeline); that it refrain from additional sanctions; that it negotiate with the Russians over strategic arms control; that the US engages Russia over the Arctic; and so on.

If all this works, says Kupchan, Russia may make up with the West. At that point, China will no longer feel that its northern flank is secure, and will have to divert forces to defend itself against Russia. This will weaken China’s ability to threaten the USA and its allies.

Former Ambassador to Moscow, Michael McFaul, thinks that this approach might be worth pursuing at some later date, but not as long as Russia remains an “autocratic” state. In a recent article for The Washington Post, McFaul argues Russia has nothing to offer the United States beyond oil, of which the US already has plenty. Besides that, “in return for pivoting, Putin would demand unsavory concessions, especially regarding Ukraine and Georgia. That’s a bad trade.” “Someday,” says McFaul, “the United States should seek deeper partnership with Russia in containing and competing with China. But that policy should be initiated with a democratic Russia, not an autocratic Putin.”

As I point out in my RT article, such attempts to view democratization as the solution to international problems are misplaced. There’s no reason why a “democratic” Russia would want to ally with the West against China any more than an “autocratic” one would. Russian national interests would remain the same regardless. In fact, I rather suspect that a more democratic Russia would be more hostile to the West than is the government of Vladimir Putin.

But putting that aside, I have some sympathy with McFaul’s belief that attempts to split Russia and China will bring few benefits. The main reason is that such attempts are unlikely to succeed. Imagine that the West did what Kupchan suggests and that Russian-Western relations improved. Why would that induce Russia to be more hostile to China? Why would China suddenly worry more about its northern border? These things aren’t related.

Russia’s leaders seem to have a fairly good grasp of the international situation. They understand that China’s rise is inexorable.  Given that China is a neighbour, hostile relations with it are completely against Russia’s national interest. Whoever rules in Moscow will want good relations with Beijing. There’s nothing that the West can do about that. Better Russian-Western relations won’t mean worse Russian-Chinese relations.

I have no objection to the policies Kupchan proposes, but the reason he proposes them is, in my opinion, a little odd. The fundamental problem between Russia and the West at present is a total lack of mutual trust. Anything that can be done to overcome that is a good thing. But trying to fit Russia into the Western-Chinese struggle is, I think, completely pointless. If nothing else, the Russians have absolutely no interest in getting involved. Improving Russian-Western relations is a worthy aim, but one worth pursuing for its own sake. At least in this respect, China is irrelevant.

29 thoughts on “Splitting Russia and China”

  1. I believe John Mearshimer pointed out 10 years ago – it may have been at the time of the Obama/Clintonesque “Reset” attempt – the necessity for the US to have closer relationship with Russia in order to lessen the strength of China. Whereas the clownesque ‘attempt’ was dead in the water due to US incompetency and inherent (beautifully worded) ‘nyedogovorosposobnost’ of the US, the rapprochement of Russia and China went extremely slowly but is now very strong, and is unlikely to be upset by any US spoiling efforts.
    One can be a great nation, can compete well as a competent, flexible number 2. I worked for almost a decade in a company that was exactly that, and it was a dream: because of great service, great product and great flexibility we were more profitable than the revered #1. Yet such a scenario is unlikely to be chosen by the Western elite, because it would require going back to a manufacturing, industrial society, away from a service economy that is subservient in all things to the finance sector, which in turn needs to lead in order to maintain profitability. The finance sector demands minimal investment cost and maximum return; for that, China as its factory is essential. So this is a self-fulfilling prophecy, and the West – primarily the US, but I fear our subservient Canada too – will circle the drain ever faster.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Russia and China began getting on during the Yeltsin presidency, and was carried on under the current president.
      Border issues were settled so their was no areas of conflict.

      The initial friendship therefore did not depend on “ getting on or not getting on” with the west.

      Russia and China are neighbours and it makes sense to get on.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. There’s another aspect of how some in the West view Sino-Russo relations.

        The late Brzezinski said that Russia will eventually move West on account of an inevitable (as stated by Brzez) Russian fear of China. Likewise, James Carafano said that Russo-Sino relations will eventually collapse, with the animosity of the Sino-Soviet dispute in mind. Extreme knucklehead Ralph Peters, has echoed similarly, saying the West doesn’t have to do anything for Russia.

        If France-Germany, Germany-Poland, France-Britain can pretty much bury the hatchet, there’s no reason why Russia and China can’t.

        Putting aside the Sino-Soviet dispute (rather limited in historical context), Sino-Russo relations haven’t been so extremely bad. Unlike the Brits, the Russians didn’t pull an Opium War like action. Likewise, consider the large numbers of Chinese and Americans who fought each other in Korea.

        You bet this thread is awesome. Sure beats what the likes of McFaul and Lucas are peddling, with JRL and Paul Robinson propping.


  2. The anglophones tend to have short memories – yesterday’s insults can be forgotten easily
    The Anglophones are also full of self importance and think that all wish to be in their orbit, preferably in a subservient role
    The Anglophones are also do not seem to have an understanding and experience of humiliation

    Both the Russians and Chinese on the other hand have long memories and remember insults and humiliations from the past – although they are capable of forgiveness if there is understanding and respect between the former enemies

    Both the Anglophones and the Others appear to be inhabiting different universes – the sad part is that the Anglophones wish to impose their way of thinking on other people . The Russians learnt that this is pointless after the fall of the USSR I do not know enough about China but they seem more willing to let other cultures be themselves

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Professor, I believe you have a typo here:

    “Someday,” says McFaul, “the United States should seek deeper partnership with Russia in containing and competing with Russia. But that policy should be initiated with a democratic Russia, not an autocratic Putin.”

    That sentence should probably read “containing and competing with China”, not “Russia”.



  4. American ruling class prove, time and again, they can’t get along with anybody; there is a kind of mania here.
    They should be bowing down to the Chinese people and thanking them for their support. It was the Chinese working class who saved American capitalism by producing such cheap goods that American working families can afford.
    For at least a generation or more, American wages have not gone up one penny, so technically American workers should be as poor as serfs and not be able to afford even the minimal products which people need, including food, clothing, shoes, home supplies, electronics, etc.

    With wages frozen, Americans should, by all rights, be walking around in rags, have absolutely nothing, and starving to boot.
    Fortunately for them, the Chinese produced all the goods that are needed for life, at something I am sure is well below the actual value of these products. For example, a pair of shoes that technically should cost something like $50, an American worker can walk into a Dollar Store and buy for $5. Who is taking the loss for this gigantic subsidy? The Chinese working class, no doubt.

    In any case, and I am no economist, but I am sure the Chinese government, for whatever reason, have been subsidizing the American working class and keeping from from falling into complete misery, despite their own cluenessless and failure to organize unions. And for this, the American government, instead of thanking the Chinese, continues to curse and threaten them. What kind of people are these, anyhow? Not very good people, I reckon. Sociopaths, to be precise.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Sorry, Professor, but your essay has stimulated me, so one more comment: I think you are correct that the Russian people, in the majority, would desire a much harder-line policy against the U.S. I think that Putin, coming out of the Yeltsin clique, cannot be fully trusted. This clique was fundamentally pro-American at its core. As Margarita Simonyan herself once declared: “We loved America.” This was their first, and True, Love. And, as Turgenev once noted, the First Love is always the strongest.

    Hence, at any moment Putin might flip and return to his True Love, if the latter only stopped being so stupid. Seems like Westies have reorganized their kill-list to kill China first, and then Russia. Probably hoping that Russia will join them against China, and then they can spin around and kill Russia. I don’t think Putin is dumb enough to fall for this trick; but at the same time I don’t trust him 100% NOT to fall for trick. Would be better if somebody like Shoigu was in charge, who never had starry eyes about America. Just my own opinion…


    1. “I think that Putin, coming out of the Yeltsin clique, cannot be fully trusted. This clique was fundamentally pro-American at its core…

      …Would be better if somebody like Shoigu was in charge, who never had starry eyes about America. Just my own opinion…”


      Well, I for one am thankful for the wonderment brought to us all low and sundry, by the Internet, this vehicle for exercising people’s “right” of free speech! How else would we become familiar with such hottest of takes? Also, you demonstrate a commendable consistency in your commenting on all things Russian since at least this year’s… February.

      Yalensis, пешы истчо! American opinions matter ™.


      1. Lyt, you nailed it precisely! That’s exactly what Americans would say… well, if they were 80 years old or more.
        Where I live, the American youth would probably say, “Kiss my groovy grits”, which means exactly the same thing, only more hip, like. It’s the new jargon, you see.

        Still, very wonderful to see your mastery of foreign idioms improving by leaps and bounds. I suppose that comes from watching so many American TV shows.


      2. No, yalensis – the pleasure is all mine at seeing you naturalizing into the American socium so thoroughly and irreversibly. No matter how convoluted the path, by now you hate what is required to hate by the general discours of the proper American “society”. I’m really happy for you.

        Bless your heart.


  6. The problem with the Western elite and elite adjacent grifters that write such articles is that, by now, they’ve start to believe their own propagandistic BS 146% (if not higher). Mr. Robinson knows that. Let this thought hang here Chekhov gun’s stile.

    Key phrase here is “international order established after World War II” (c). If you find it in any “big serious magazine” ™ article or other ideological thought piece coming from the Western chattering masses, then be assured – the authors are self-deluded morons… tasked with the retranslating actual thoughts of their masters. Which, if you give thins thought a spin, should worry you, my dear Western interlocutor, very, *very* much.

    Now, a bit of a homework for you, my fellow commenters. It’s not much! Just try to find via Net search other examples of this trademark phrase in assorted articles and thought pieces. I assure you beforehand, that virtually all of them would have their “birth date” somewhere in 2010-s. Hell, even such neo-con glib-tongued fellater like Niall “Fookin’” Ferguson in his program, exemplar article “’We’re an Empire Now’: The United States Between
    Imperial Denial and Premature Decolonization
    ” (Spring 2005) AKA “Defense of indefensible 101” did not stoop so low as to proclaim the American empire as being equal to the “post WW2 world order”.

    Powers that Be in Russia have a memory span exceeding one of a golden fish, so they remember *all* of the Western triumphalism given printed form. They are also not fooled in the slightest in the now fashionable bromides about “rules-based international order” and the such. They now – we, the Russians, know – that “acshuyaly” you, the Westies, are talking about your empire.

    Now, let’s reframe all the BS seen in all above-linked articles and ask the real question: “Why should Russia bother supporting the American Empire?”

    This week I’ve stumbled upon on a forum thread in a place I’d been banned years ago. The contingent present there was, after January 2021 and earlier purges, totally handshakable US Dems votin’, LGBTAI+ right supportin’, “disband the police” chantin’, “Free Hong Kong” demandin’ (weaponized’n’naturalized Taiwanese represented in discussions), “Hang them internal terrorists Jan 06 trumpist mob” shoutin’, “pacifist” crowd. They are that “middle-class” on whose behalf Joseph Biden and Anthony Blinken promise to wage their foreign policy.

    Seeing their worldview spilled over in the “safe space” devoid of maligned foreigners and internal terrorist was, for me, very enLYTTENing. It was like gazing into a portal to Hell. “Unique” or “brand-new experience” is a way to describe it. Not the best, not the only way.

    These truly ignorant, parochial people, despite having this or that form of misaducation for which the US of A is world famous by now, are merely expressors of the views that tickle down from their elite. There is no deep thought present to see some reflection and analysis – only retranslation of the “established truths”. I repeat it again – a portal to Hell.

    The topic of discussion was the murder of the general Quassem Soleimani and the principle of assassinating foreign dignitaries by the US. The consensus of them, middle-class Dem voters, was that such program must be employed more often and expanded in its scale. In several pages long discussion no one bothered to bring up actual legislation or international norms to support ones argument – only “moral” justification, that befits people brought up on comics.

    As such forum, discussions go, they, inevitably, drift wide-wide away off-topic, encompassing more and more, but providing participants to demonstrate their total lack of wit and understanding how the world works. Under loud demands to “make the world safe for democracies” the ugly topic of the UN got brought up. One, slightly more older and less misaducated forumite had to admit, that post WW2 “the West” nearly got its dream embodied in making the UN an “alliance of democracies” (together with the colonial powers of Britain and France, left unsaid) but had to placate “Uncle Joe” and that’s the key reason of the United Nations ineffective nature. Then some zoomer asked (for real, I’m not joking) “Who’s Uncle Joe? Biden?”. After other slightly older and less mal-educated enlightened that young wise fellow, the discussion more or less died out.

    Boom goes the Chekhov’s gun. In his previous articles Mr. Robinson wrote, that the US and Russia literally speak different languages when talking about international relations. Example above was highly representative – the Westerners are invested in their Empire, but, deep down, they understand that it has no legal justification. So they try to legitimize it by both calling something else and inventing for it an illustrious and honorable pedigree (the same, btw, happened to the concept of “The West”). The process and elegance of it reminds Russian colloquial expression “trying to pull an owl over a globe”. Only this time, such unappetized feat is done via trying to pull America and US lead and created institutions over a globe.

    I ask again – why should Russia, any “Russia”, seek to assist a regime that not only “non-agreement-capable” but also moralistically murderous in its pursuit of global primacy? A regime, I hasten to add, that enjoys (it truly enjoys!) a thorough support and/or acquiescence of its subjects (“citizens”), thoroughly brainwashed by the best propaganda lots and lots of money could buy. As long as the American Hegemony is supported by (a real person who participated in that forum thread) members of a creative class (a writer), who are “avowedly pacifist”, yet demand hanging for the “internal terrorists” and a show trial for the “Cheeto Benito” (c) at home, while also supporting coup d’états, military intervention and over the horizon strikes “against bad actors” (c) beyond the US borders, there could be no peace between Russia and the US.

    US punditry (which includes Lucas albeit he’s a Brit) talks survival of the US empire. Russia talks survival of Russia. Logic of the US empire dictates the destruction of Russia, China and any other plunderable organized piece of land. What “enticement”?!

    Until and unless the USian pressitudes (yes, I’m slut-shaming here) will become honest to themselves and admit in the highly visible, printable and quotable form, that they are talking about the survival of the American Empire, without lame-ass justifications that it’s worth survival as “a force of good” (c) there won’t be any progress. Unfortunately for entire globe, this lack of progress could doom its population to extinction.


    1. I am wondering a bit about your chronology. The empire talk surfaced for me quite early post 9/11. End of history? There were very, very few dissenters. Lots of talk about the fall of the Roman Empire compared to the end of the US empire already then. Financial crisis 2008??? …

      “A force of good”, based on Manifest Destiny? It surely belongs into the larger context. Lots of talk about Human Rights, bringing democracy, especially women in the Arab sphere? Did they? Are women better off there now than they were before? In Iraq? Syria, Afghanistan, Libya?

      For me as German, both Russia and the US were indeed forces of good post 1939. Russia no doubt paid a far higher price.

      Otherwise wondering what comment section you have in mind. I would be interested.


      1. read your article incidentially. Only once, admittedly …

        Not least since I partly followed the futile attempts to clarify involvement in doping of the German pope in sports medicine at one of my earlier Alma Mater’s, Freiburg university.

        Really curious matter. German page:

        What I have trouble with, other than basic news pyramid dynamics, in your article. Meaning, I might feel some facts should be moved higher? Argument wise. Does it really make sense to bring “Woke” into this way longer brewing story? … In Germany, sports may well have been some type of national system competition, once upon a time, over the decades. West vs East?


      2. Woke definitely applies as evidenced by the reporting of the IOC investigating derisive comments made about some Western LGBTQ athletes on Russian state TV.

        No such investigating of the numerous examples of anti-Russian bias among Western sources with government ties.

        I can go on and on as the examples are numerous.Meduza and its Russian flacks don’t cover such matter.


      3. Woke definitely applies as evidenced by the reporting of the IOC investigating derisive comments made about some Western LGBTQ athletes on Russian state TV.

        Look, I might be able to help Alexei Zhuravlyov via my gay friends here in Cologne, They no doubt would be able to train him in the historically quite old tradition of Travesty. Maybe it would help him too? At least a little? Or do i misunderstand braids are a recognized symbolism for Russian females nowadays?

        Ydmitted before 9/11 I never once was seriously involved in big vs small human politics….

        But yes, as somome that vivivdly remembers her teenage gender troubles, I do indeed have quite a bit of “woke” symipathy for some gay friends,


      4. Sorry for this really superfical response. Bad proofreading.

        I cannot have mixed feelings? Yes, admittedly I was pleased about liberalisation on personal vs political matters up to the point it was used as polical tool,.

        Thus, I surely have sympathy with live-and-let-live liberals. …

        Or for that matter drag queen Conchita: singing Summer Wine with Georgij Makazaria, while playing a little with stereotypes too; Georgij, the Russian cannot be easily made more easily pliable, since he can stand much alcohol. But still, ‘she’ admits, surprise, surprise she loves beards, And he thus he is one of four, s/he would like to kiss. Now, four is my favorite number. What is yours?
        Summer Wine, with admittely a longer introduction:


  7. This is all inane – a repeat of the Brzezinski ally with China vs. Russia against Kissinger’s ally with Russia vs. China policy conflicts from the 1970s.
    Nor should McFaul be relied on for anything except agitprop.
    The reality is that Russia – its people, its ruling class, its leader and its government all firmly believe that the US cannot be trusted as a partner to do anything. So ends the “ally with Russia” part.
    And China’s first hand view of what happened to Russia after the collapse of the USSR has led the CCP to firmly believe that the US cannot be trusted as a partner to do anything except be a consumer of Chinese products. So ends the “ally with China” part.
    Lucas et al are just fiddling while Rome burns – the Ghosts of Foreign Policies past are all coming home to roost.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. The thing that strikes me most about Lucas’ article is the sheer paranoia the fear! The West, certainly the US and the UK have had it all their own way for a century+ and the idea that the ’empire’ will now have to start sharing and competing on a level playing field is more than they can stand. In reality it is the idea of equality which scares them the most, which is quite, quite ironic considering its obsessive push towards a woke, diverse future of ‘equality’ for all. The West completely, time and time again, misjudges Russia, misunderstands and simply doesn’t know how to deal with them beyond lazy stereotypes, this signals the continuous decline in the West in all spheres. Sadly for the UK and the US (the UK is but a bit part player and no real threat to Russia but they are leading Russophobe of the West without a doubt) until they start listening and moving away from the self interested and self servicing circle jerk of think tankdom things will only deteriorate further. It is a lack of intelligence and critical thinking ability which is undermining the West (a large dose of arrogance too) along with the corruption in Washington and Westminster, not the Chinese or the Russians. Multipolar world view with the UN at its center with respect for individual sovereignty is a laudable aim, Western ‘business as usual’ simply has no part to play in the 21st century. An absolute refusal to face reality and deal with it spells the end for Western hegemony.


  9. I find it hilarious how certain western quarters believe that Sino-Russian rivalry is a natural thing.

    It is not. There is not even much of a “hatched to be buried”. There are as a matter of fact very few example of 2 powers in Russias/Chinas weightlcass bordering each other for a bit over 300 years (kind of fuzzy when the treaty of Nerchinsk was) and never seriously going to war with each other.

    You had the Alburzin flareup in 1700 something, which was a bunch of fairly irregular Russians clashing with Chinese and Yoseon troops in the general area of the Stanovoi range, Russia did “yoink” territory from China during century of humilation (so did everyone else), Yuan Shikai did try to joink the Transiberian railroud during the Russian civil war (spoiler, he failed because USSR allied with the KMT, inlcuding having Chiang Kai Shek as a student at Frunze academy for 3 months or so, fun fact that to blow peoples minds), Sino Soviet split was a hissy fit brought on partly because Chruschev and Mao didnt get a long (and partly over who owned communism), and the clash in 1979 was over Soviet influence in South East Asia, which the Chinese considered their turf.

    Russias current policy in South East Asia is that they trade with everyone, and otherwise give no fucks. China has no grounds to oppose this. Unless China invades Vietnam for no reason, this is not a possible irritant.

    Believing in a clash because of competing interests in Central Asia/Mongolia/North Korea, is also far fetched. Chinese and Russian interests do compete in these areas, but compared to how “western” interests compete with either Chinese or Russian interests elsewhere, the Sino-Russian competition is very civilized, polite, and generally speaking performed with a certain degree of respect to the country that “hosts” these competitions (particularly in the case of Kazakhstan and Mongolia, as these are fairly well functioning states). In other words, China vs Russia in central asia is Karate olympics, complete with respectfully bowing and perhaps have a drink afterwards, Russia vs West or China vs West is Khabib Nurmagomedov vs Conor McGregor.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. “You had the Alburzin flareup in 1700 something, which was a bunch of fairly irregular Russians clashing with Chinese and Yoseon troops in the general area of the Stanovoi range”

      A bit earlier. If you are interested, there’s a fairly recent (2019) research paper covering the historical background, course of events, as well as reconstruction of the Albazin’s ostrog, as well as equipment of the opposing forces. It’s in Russian, though.


      1. Thanks for the link,

        My Russian reading skills aint great, but I can read it, especially if I read along loudly and its a subject I have preexisting knowledge off.

        (War and Peace is easier for me then a Russian instruction for how to fix a car, and thats not because like a third of war and peace is in french).

        Still makes me more of an expert then Ann Applebaum “Can anyone give me the English translation of Putins piece of Ukraine?”, may have been an anglo atlanticist ploy of unusual cunning as it nearly spilled a lot of beer on my keyboard.


      2. Actually, I was previously unaware how much the Russians reinforced it.

        Its second reincarnation was a pretty seriousy fort apparently.


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