There was a time when we made history. We wrote it together with other Central European nations. What we did was to come out of that Soviet marasmus, to affirm that the world order must be determined by democracy and many other things that go with it. We had some goals and we achieved some of them – we became the West – but some of which remained just dreams. One of those dreams was the transformation of Russia from an aggressive dictatorship into a peaceful republic. Russia has neither become democratic nor peaceful, so it is still a problem for us. We believe that we will not finish the chapter of the European history as long as that country remains as it is. We do not want to give too much importance to it globally, but we understand that it would be very dangerous to ignore it.
Today, however, Russia is not the centre of the global politics. The fact is that the most important paragraphs of history are written in the Pacific and Indian Oceans. The confrontation between the US and China is at the top of the list of political concerns. Russia is becoming similar to a ‘third’ country, far from being the most important in the search for global solutions.
For us Europeans, tired of decades of the Cold War, it may not be a bad thing to become a quiet “golden” province of the world, but for Russia the prospect of being a province of the world is not a happy one. Russia must be a great country, otherwise it is no longer Russia people have become accustomed to and tries to present itself to the world.
So, the logical question is: where is the place of Russia in the context of relations between the USA and China? An interesting fact is that the question is difficult to answer because we do not have intelligence on how Moscow has made up its mind. The point is that Moscow has not yet made up its mind, and we do not know whether it will make up its mind for itself regardless of the situation.
Today, several theories about where the Russians might turn, are swirling in the minds of political analysts. One hypothesis is that Russia, the political obsession of which is to regain its status as a great power, will choose an option in which it will not be the ‘little brother’ of either side, but an independent political player. Another hypothesis is that Russia will find it too difficult to commit to becoming an American ally and will naturally be on the side of China. The third hypothesis is that neither the Americans nor the Chinese will succeed in creating a dipolar world like that of the Cold War. A large number of influential countries will opt for a kind of neutrality, a reluctance to take part in a major conflict, and Russia will be in this group, and may even become a kind of an inspirer.
What are the real possibilities of this or another scenario?
Indeed, there is no shortage of arguments to suggest that the Russians will end up in the Chinese camp. Even the Secretary General of NATO has recently told that he thinks this will be the case. However, if we look back at the whole history of relations between Russia and China, we have to admit that it is not that simple.
There has never been a lack of trust between the two countries. There has even been an armed conflict. It is no secret that the USSR Communist Party wanted to regard their Chinese counterparts as younger and less advanced communists, but Mao Zedong’s communists did not want exactly that. Today, China is ten times the size of the country and, despite all problems of China, seems to be more advanced economically and demographically. So, Russia could technically play the role of a relatively minor ‘junior’, except for one factor: nuclear weapons. If China had nuclear capability of Russia at its disposal, it would certainly feel superior to the US today. Nuclear weapons are perhaps the last thing that allows Russia to still claim to be the great one.
China certainly has no reason to be angry about Russia, especially if resources of Russia are going to ‘feed’ China and not Europe. But no one today will agree that the Russians can lead the world. Russia and China have a Treaty of Friendship and Cooperation dating back to 2001 (recently extended for five years), but China does not recognise the annexation of Crimea, the independence of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, is competing more and more fiercely with Russia in Central Asia, and is beginning to question the treaties of more than a century ago which gave Russia the vast expanses of Siberia and the so-called Far East.
Of course, the United States do not want Russia and China to get closer at all, so driving wedges between them is an American weapon. Today, the US is (still unofficially) seeking to open separate arms control talks with China, in a way ‘bypassing’ Russia. In ‘childhood’ of NATO it was said that the task of the Alliance in Europe is as follows: ‘America in, Russia out, Germany down’. Now, in Asia, it would be good to have America in, China out, and Russia down, which means that it is best to neutralise the Russians – to make them politically and physically irrelevant.
The US are also keen to prevent Russia from making real friends with countries in South Asia. Russia does not exist in the Indian and Pacific Oceans, and it will not exist because it is incapable. It would be good for Russia’s distant friend India to become a close friend of the United States, so that some Iran does not become too close to Moscow. So far, so good, although this is not the end of the story yet. India has its own ‘scores’ with China, but it also has a history of friendly relations with Russia. So, its choices are also complex. Countries such as Turkey or Ukraine should not be forgotten. Their choices are also decisive not only for the Americans but also for the Russians. In this geopolitical dimension, the situation is evolving with fluctuating fortunes, and its outcome is so far only in the dreams of geopolitical experts.
In the confrontation between the US and China, the European factor (or rather the European Union factor) is important. To this day, the EU collective has not been able to say that Europe is a natural ally of the United States – there is still talk of a strange relationship with China, which the Europeans want to be a strategic partner and a systemic threat at the same time. In a situation of total peace, some fantasy of this kind may be possible, but the world is not in total peace, quite the opposite.
In Europe, of course, there is no shortage of talk about so-called strategic autonomy – some kind of separate European path or place in the world. If it were ever more defined, one could dream of a geopolitical triangle with the US, China, and the EU at the corners, united and divided by the same thing: the desire to communicate and the need to… to confront. In this geometry, there would also be room for Russia, whose presence would turn the triangle into a spatial tetrahedron. Europe still thinks that without Russia and China it cannot survive… but maybe it is Russia that cannot do without Europe? Can ‘neutral’ Russia get closer to the EU… to meet the aspirations of ‘neutrality’ of the EU? It would be strange, though… interesting. But if the EU decides in favour of the United States (which would be logical), Russia will be left alone and increasingly weaker.
And yet, is it possible to lure Russia into some kind of anti-Chinese alliance? AUKUS? That turned into an AUCURUS? After all, it is not by definition an anti-Russian alliance. In any case, Russia is becoming a problem for everyone – the United States, China, Europe and Asia. Once again, the old question arises as to whether this country is not really a geopolitical freak, a disease of world politics that we contracted centuries ago and have never cured.
And instead of a post scriptum, I will give a reminder that wars are not necessarily won by those who seem to be the strongest. The example of Afghanistan shows that in relations between the United States and China, too, neither ‘third’ smaller countries nor any Taliban movement can be underestimated. Taliban is not with China. Is it with China? Or with Russia? This is also not just a simple question.