antique map of Europe and Asia

Russia and US National Interests: Maintaining a Balance of Power in Europe and Asia

August 05, 2020
Nikolas K. Gvosdev

Editors' note: Whether there is a change of guard in the White House or not next January, the aftermath of a presidential election traditionally offers the U.S. president a chance to commission a review of U.S. domestic and foreign policies. This primer is the first in a series designed to facilitate a reassessment of America’s relationship with Moscow by detailing exactly what impact Russia does or can have on each of five vital U.S. national interests, as defined by a task force co-chaired by Graham Allison and Robert D. Blackwill, and offering selected recommendations on how to best advance these interests during the next presidential term of 2020-2024. These interests are as follows:  (1) maintaining a balance of power in Europe and Asia; (2) ensuring energy security; (3) preventing the use and slowing the spread of nuclear weapons and other weapons of mass destruction, securing nuclear weapons and materials and preventing proliferation of intermediate and long-range delivery systems for nuclear weapons; (4) preventing large-scale or sustained terrorist attacks on the American homeland; and (5) assuring the stability of the international economy.  

Executive Summary

While Russia is not a superpower, it remains one of the few countries that both defines its interests in global rather than regional terms and retains limited but real global power-projection capabilities. Meanwhile, U.S. national security continues to be guided by the premise that the United States cannot allow another state to become the preponderant power in either Europe or Asia, the two continents Russia famously spans. This primer attempts to assess Russia’s impact on a vital U.S. interest: maintaining a balance of power in Europe and Asia that promotes peace and stability with a continuing U.S. leadership role. Its main conclusion: As the United States endeavors to retain favorable balances of power in both these key regions, its interests are best served by having Russia remain an independent pole within the international system rather than grow even closer with China and forge a formalized, strategic Sino-Russian entente.

Key takeaways:

  • Post-Cold War efforts to replace the balance-of-power approach to foreign policy with other strategies have failed because of the resurgence of powers, primarily China but also Russia.
  • Russia and China, over the last decade, have demonstrated increasing capabilities and propensities to challenge U.S. preferences and produce outcomes that clash with U.S. expectations.
  • Balances of power in Europe and Asia reduce the risk of another major power being able to impose its will on the United States, while protecting U.S. interests and creating conditions for the continuation of U.S. global leadership.
  • The two basic types of balancing are defensive, which aims to keep adversaries out of a state’s sphere of influence, and transformational, in which states want to change the balance in their favor but without leading to outright conflict.
  • Coalitions of European and Asian states can maintain defensive balances of power vis-a-vis Russia and China without U.S. leadership, but these coalitions would be fragile.
  • The United States will find its principal partners in agreement that containing and balancing Chinese and Russian power is desirable but will find much less support for open contestation.
  • The U.S. can (and should) simultaneously maintain defensive balances of power in both Europe and Asia but can only promote a transformational balance in one region or the other, not both.
  • The United States must avoid a worst-case outcome where failed balancing efforts produce a formal Russia-China entente enshrined by treaty commitments, while other major powers adopt a more neutral stance than today; U.S. policy toward Moscow should not create incentives for closer Russia-China ties.
  • U.S. policy toward Russia should likewise prevent further deterioration in the bilateral relationship.
  • Transformational balancing is meant to promote integration and assimilation into the U.S.-led international system; however, the resulting competition may incentivize countries to compete and contest using non-traditional tools of statecraft, a.k.a. “measures short of war.”
  • The long-term impact of Covid-19 on the international balance of power is difficult to assess at this point, but it would be risky to assume the pandemic will tip the balance in favor of the U.S. or to use the pandemic as the basis of a grand strategy.
  • A sustainable, long-term U.S. strategy vis-à-vis Russia cannot emerge as long as the United States is unable to prioritize its global and regional interests; areas of disagreement or confrontation between the two should not torpedo productive and necessary cooperation.
  • Moving forward into the 2020s, U.S. grand strategy, in the words of two former government officials, “will need to be attuned to opportunities for downshift or détente.”

Strategic Realities and American Necessities

For the last several years, the documents that provide strategic guidance to the U.S. national security establishment have maintained that the United States now finds itself operating within the context of “great power competition.” To borrow China’s foreign policy nomenclature, the United States may retain the rank of “superpower” (chaoji daguo), but it must contend with a series of “great powers” (daguo) that have the ability to set regional agendas and have a degree of influence—and even veto power—over its preferences, starting with China and Russia, but also including countries like Germany and India. As the 2017 National Security Strategy notes: “The United States must marshal the will and capabilities to compete and prevent unfavorable shifts in the Indo-Pacific, Europe and the Middle East.” Under such conditions, the NSS continues, the U.S. must sustain “favorable balances of power.” This stance reflects the gradual petering-out of the immediate post 9/11 assessment that the United States was threatened more by problems emanating from weak states than strong ones, but it is hardly a new position in U.S. foreign policy thinking.

For much of the 20th century, the United States accepted the necessity for a balance of power in both Europe and Asia as a necessary precondition for U.S. national security. Per the strategic principle President Franklin Delano Roosevelt enunciated in his famous “Arsenal of Democracy” address (Dec. 29, 1940), “European and Asiatic war-makers should not gain control of the oceans which lead to this hemisphere.” Moreover, it was of vital importance that no one country gain a predominant position in the Old World, for then it would “be in a position to bring enormous military and naval resources against this hemisphere.” Following World War II, George Kennan went into greater detail, with his conception of five principal “military-industrial” centers spread out across Europe and Asia and the importance for American security of safeguarding Western Europe and East Asia from Soviet domination.1

Kennan’s dictum to prevent any hostile power or coalition from exercising control over these two main global foci—the Euro-Atlantic and Asia-Pacific basins—remains as relevant today as in 1947, even with impressive economic progress in sub-Saharan Africa and Latin America. The Indo-Pacific region hosts seven of the 10 largest militaries in the world and is expected, by various counts, to generate half of the world’s gross domestic product in the next 20-30 years. The European Union itself accounts for 22 percent of global GDP, and when countries like Turkey and Russia are factored in more than a quarter of the world’s economy is centered in the greater European space. In addition, three nuclear powers are based in Europe and the region’s collective defense spending is greater than China’s, which means that Europe has the world’s second largest military budget. After the United States, which outspends the next 10 nations of the world in defense and accounts for a quarter of global GDP, Europe and Asia are clearly the other principal drivers of global economic growth and the main repositories of military power. The Middle East’s importance comes from its energy reserves and its strategic real estate, but it has not emerged as a defining pole of power in the contemporary international system.

For brief periods following each of the two world wars, the United States hoped to transcend the requirement of maintaining stable, positive balances of power in favor of promoting collective security arrangements grounded in shared values that would move the international order beyond power politics. The failure of the League of Nations and the effective paralysis of the United Nations dashed those hopes. Moreover, the United States lacked the wherewithal to impose its preferred vision of global order: The Cold War occurred as a result of another near-peer competitor not only not sharing any common ideological or values-based framework with the United States, but also having opposing geopolitical interests that could not be reconciled with American national security considerations.

The end of the Cold War again offered the possibility of transcending the balance of power. The collapse of the Soviet Union and the inward focus of a post-Tiananmen Square China created what Charles Krauthammer termed the “unipolar moment”—when, for the foreseeable future, “the center of world power is the unchallenged superpower, the United States.” Josef Joffe argued that the United States should build on that reality to construct a new international order that would connect other global power centers to the United States in a “hub and spokes” model (what he termed “structured multipolarity”) where other major actors would be incentivized to support U.S. leadership and where recalcitrants could be isolated and neutralized.

These approaches were grounded in an assessment that the United States could move beyond the compromises that the Cold War balance of power had forced on Washington—chief among them, accepting that anti-liberal and anti-capitalist regimes in the Soviet Union and the People’s Republic of China would be able to impose their will on parts of Earth’s surface regardless of American wishes, and that these two powers would not only be able to influence international affairs but exercise a degree of veto power over U.S. actions. Moreover, to contain Moscow’s and Beijing’s influence, the United States had been required to partner not only with fellow democracies but with a series of authoritarian regimes in southern Europe, the Middle East and across Asia.

As appealing as the “unipolar moment” and the “hub and spokes” model were to U.S. strategists and politicians, the unique set of circumstances that created what French Foreign Minister Hubert Védrine called the American “hyperpower” were not enduring. As other powers rose or resurged, and as they began to create alternatives to bypass the American hub, their ability to deter the U.S. increased while America’s compellent power declined. Moreover, particularly in the case of Russia and China, as Hal Brands observed, their resurgence enabled them to contest U.S. preferences “in the Western Pacific or in Eastern Europe, as a result of both disadvantageous geography and targeted military buildups by Moscow and Beijing.” The unipolar moment of the 1990s thus evolved into the hope of the early 2000s that emerging powers would choose to become “responsible stakeholders,” voluntarily aligning their policies and preferences with those of the United States to maintain the international status quo.

Throughout the 2010s, and moving into the 2020s, the United States retains its superpower status but has seen a decline in its ability to either compel or convince other major states in the international system to accept its preferences. As the Lowy Institute’s 2019 Asia Power Index concluded: “[T]he United States is unlikely to halt the narrowing power differential between itself and China. Hard and soft qualities of 20th-century U.S. power endure in the early 21st century. … Nevertheless, the United States faces relative decline. … This is significant because U.S. diplomatic leadership will have to punch above a declining share of military and economic power to maintain some degree of primacy in Asia.” In Europe, the relative resurgence of Russia and new strains in trans-Atlantic relations have also reduced America’s agenda-setting power. As Brands and Evan Montgomery point out, the strategic challenge for the United States is how to maintain its position given a number of potential challengers spread out “across three separate theaters—Europe, the Middle East and the Indo-Pacific”—where the United States cannot simultaneously impose its preferred outcomes in every region. This has reintroduced the strategic imperative of the balance of power, where the United States must make choices about where to confront and where to compromise.

Those policy choices, in turn, must rest on some sense of what is most important for the nation. At the start of this century the Commission on American National Interests identified the core U.S. national interest as preserving “the United States as a free nation with our fundamental institutions and values intact” and ensuring the international conditions required to achieve this condition. The commission then broke down this overarching, vital interest into its five most pressing components—a list that, updated by two of the authors in 2011, forms the basis of this series. To repeat the vital U.S. interests from the introduction: 1) preventing the use and slowing the spread of nuclear weapons and other weapons of mass destruction, securing nuclear weapons and materials and preventing proliferation of intermediate- and long-range delivery systems for nuclear weapons; 2) maintaining a balance of power in Europe and Asia that promotes peace and stability with a continuing U.S. leadership role—the topic of this primer; 3) preventing large-scale or sustained terrorist attacks on the American homeland; 4) ensuring energy security; and 5) assuring the stability of the international economy.

Two Types of Balancing

What is balancing in foreign affairs? The trick is to retain as much freedom of action as possible without tipping into an open conflict that could be detrimental to one’s interests. Per Paul Saunders’ formulation, a country will seek to maximize its “agenda-setting” role within the international system while minimizing the degree to which it must accept or implement the agendas of others. A balance of power recognizes, as Michael Miner has observed, that states will draw from a toolbox of policy instruments—using a mix of military, economic, diplomatic and political power, among other sorts—to pursue their national objectives. If the United States lacks a preponderance of hard and soft power to impose its preferences on Russia and China or to induce them to align with those preferences, then the fallback position is to create conditions for the appropriate balances in both regions. At a minimum, a balance of power should be sufficiently robust to disincentivize rivals from gambling on a short, decisive war or other conflict that would upset the status quo while also incentivizing the avoidance of inflammatory or escalatory behavior. As Henry Kissinger has noted, a “balance of power” offers the prospect “that each state, in pursuing its own selfish ends, would … contribute to the safety and progress of all” by creating stable frameworks.

From the middle of the 20th century, U.S. administrations shifted gradually from a defensive conception of balancing—in which great powers had spheres of influence they wanted to keep free of adversaries—to a conception we can call “transformational,” which saw great powers wanting to change the balance in their favor but in a way that would not lead to outright conflict with adversaries; after the end of the Cold War, this latter view became somewhat more extreme, with Washington seeing no need to recognize adversaries’ spheres of influence because the entire world seemed like the U.S. sphere. Roosevelt had articulated the defensive conception of the balance of power, where rivals and competitors needed to be prevented from achieving preponderant power in Europe or Asia. It was designed primarily to prevent hostile powers from being able to impose their will on America’s domestic and foreign policy choices by drawing defensive lines beyond which a competitor’s influence could not extend. Roosevelt emphasized that the first goal of his balance was to avoid “agenda-taking,” i.e., being forced to accept another country’s agenda. Kennan’s conception began with the same starting point but was more proactive: It was about maintaining a balance that would preserve peace, or at least the absence of all-out war, in the short run but also help to create conditions in the longer term that would either reduce the power of rivals or transform them into friends. In other words, near-peer competitors would be turned either into non-peers or into near-peer partners. This was a balance designed to facilitate, over the long term, a greater agenda-setting role for the United States. This second approach, which Kennan termed “containment,” was updated by Condoleezza Rice, when she was national security advisor, as a “balance of power that favors freedom.” It is a more dynamic balancing act and by necessity more interventionist, but with greater risks for clashes and conflicts.

Today, a defensive balance of power, as articulated by thinkers such as John Mearsheimer and Steven Walt, in Europe and Asia that meets the minimal requirements for U.S. national interests would be to maintain the outer “barriers” to China’s and Russia’s ability to project power into the Atlantic and Pacific basins. This refers not only to military maritime activity but more broadly to any extension of influence. This is to ensure, in accordance with Kennan’s proposals, that the Western/Central European economic core and the East Asian manufacturers remain connected to the United States, and that Middle East resource endowment and the Indian subcontinental emporium remain in a condition of “open doors” accessible to all but dominated by none. It would seek a series of modi vivendi in both geophysical and virtual global commons that would define accepted rules of the road rather than seeking to impose U.S. standards. To some degree, accommodation of some Russian and Chinese preferences in Eastern Europe and East Asia would be a tradeoff to ensure that Moscow and Beijing would have less incentive to form a full-fledged, formal entente (for instance, limiting the extension of U.S.-led alliances so they encompass fewer states along Russian and Chinese borders). Significantly, the defensive balance of power approach accepts that parts of Eastern Europe, Central and South Asia and Southeast Asia are less critical to maintaining deterrence, and therefore American contestation for influence in these areas is not essential for U.S. security.

A transformational balance-of-power strategy starts from the assumption that China and Russia under their current management and with their current configuration of power pose a long-term threat to the interests of the United States, but one that cannot be countered by direct action. The transformational balance of power seeks to make the costs for a direct clash with the United States too high for Moscow and Beijing to pay, but at the same time is designed to prevent either from consolidating clear and defined spheres of influence—and, more significantly, from being able to repress movements for democratic change either on their frontiers or ultimately within their own societies. This approach therefore recognizes no permanent spheres of influence or delineation of “lines” (even if it seeks to promote more informal rules of the game). The end goal is not simply to prevent great power conflict but also to promote integration and assimilation into the U.S.-led international system.

However, the resulting competition may incentivize countries to compete and contest using non-traditional tools of statecraft, the so-called “measures short of war,” which would include economic tools (such as debt diplomacy) and the deployment of cyber measures. Chinese military thinkers have reportedly argued that under such conditions using legal action, economic pressure or cyberattacks should move beyond traditional battlefields to target “culture, information networks, economics and finance, natural resources and energy”—in part, to shift the struggle away from the conventional warfare capabilities where the United States still predominates into other arenas where countries like China (or Russia) can find advantage on their own terms. In a similar vein, while there is much that remains unclear about the “Afghan bounties story” (allegations that Russian military intelligence made payments to Taliban elements and organized crime to target U.S. forces in Afghanistan), the basic charge fits into this playbook: an approach that avoids direct confrontation in favor of using proxies to roll back American influence.

Transformational balancing might also prove to be difficult to pursue simultaneously against two major powers in two different regions, Europe and Asia, with the possibility of an added theater in the Middle East. The United States would be challenged both by the demands of active balancing, as well as holding together disparate coalitions of allies and partners in both Asia and Europe. One of the critical reasons that the Obama administration’s efforts to “rebalance” U.S. attention and priorities to the Asia-Pacific region faltered after 2014 was that the pivot was based on an assessment that Russia would not actively challenge the status quo in Europe, allowing for more assets to be shifted eastward. Moreover, transformational balancing against both Moscow and Beijing would only serve, as Graham Allison warns, to convince both Russia and China that, despite their differences, they are better served by working closer together against the United States.

American policymakers are divided over their assessments of the challenges posed by both Russia and China, as well as the timing for action. Even assuming that most people would accept the characterization reached by James Dobbins, Howard J. Shatz and Ali Wyne—that “China presents a greater geoeconomic challenge to the United States than Russia does,” that “Russia is a more immediate and more proximate military threat to U.S. national security than China” and that “China presents a regional military challenge and a global economic one”—it does not follow that there is one standard approach to dealing with great power competitors. Russia has one toolbox it uses to challenge American preferences: so-called “hybrid warfare” techniques, well-developed informational “sharp power” instruments, limited but genuine military power-projection capabilities outside of its immediate region and control over vital resources; China’s toolbox is different: growing maritime influence and its large checkbook for wielding influence via economic, trade and financial projects. Nor is it clear which power must be contained first. One could propose a defensive balance against Russia to contain its more revisionist impulses, which remain geographically limited, while focusing attention and resources on the long-term effort vis-a-vis China across the entire world, or one could argue in favor of pursuing transformational balancing against Russia, even at the risk of letting Chinese power grow, to change the balance in Eurasia so as to deprive China in the longer run of a more effective partner that would be capable of distracting and entangling the United States. Strategists must decide whether Russia should be prioritized given the immediacy of its threat or whether China’s more global ambitions and reach (as opposed to Russia’s more limited aims and constrained capabilities) deserve more attention.

An ambitious strategy of actively containing Russia and China simultaneously would also require that America’s Asian and European allies be prepared to expand their contributions in both theaters. Yet U.S. allies are divided on this question. Not surprisingly, there is a wide variance between the stands taken by countries like Poland in Eastern Europe from that of Japan in East Asia. In Poland, Russia is seen as the immediate threat that must be addressed, while China is either not perceived as a problem or is a much longer-term concern. In contrast, Japan has been reluctant to impose major penalties on Russia for its revisionist activities in Eastern Europe if it weakens Russia’s ability to serve as a partial counterbalance to China or drives Moscow closer into Beijing’s embrace.

There are also domestic political realities that any U.S. government must take into account. There is little public support for broadly transformational agendas in either Europe or Asia, whereas one can detect clear trends in favor of American retrenchment and even partial disengagement. Thus, as Evan Sarkey has pointed out: “Despite America’s advantage in raw national power, it has repeatedly demonstrated that it lacks the patience and risk tolerance to prevent determined adversaries from making local gains, especially given its commitments elsewhere in the world.”

Thus, we must assess whether there have been changes in either Europe or Asia that are dangerous to U.S. national security, as opposed to just being “less desirable” in an ideal assessment. Then, we must apply the same criteria that Roosevelt, in 1940, had identified as any guide to American action: 1) could existing powers in Asia and Europe create balances against aggressive and revisionist powers without American involvement; 2) could existing powers do so with offshore assistance from the United States; or 3) was direct American participation in the European and Asian balances of power required? Finally, we must determine whether the U.S. should engage in defensive or transformational balancing and whether to prioritize the Russian or the Chinese challenge.

The Revisionist Resurgence of Russia and China

Most Americans who are interested in foreign affairs take as their starting point the observations made by James Lindsay and Ivo Daalder that the international order as it emerged during the 1990s is the norm that must be defended: After the Cold War, the “success of American policy ... means that no power—not Russia, not Germany, not a united Europe, and not China or Japan—today poses a hegemonic threat to Eurasia. In this new era, American foreign policy will no longer pivot on geography. Instead, it will be defined by the combination of America’s unrivaled power in world affairs and the extensive and growing globalization of world politics.”

In practical terms, and based on the paradigm described by Joffe, this meant that the U.S. expected to take the lead in shaping not only the global security architecture but also regional ones. In these processes, other major powers would be invited to cooperate and, indeed, there was hope, as former U.S. ambassador to Russia Michael McFaul put it, that “Russia’s capacities [as a great power] did not automatically mean there would be conflict.” However, while Washington would allow for their voice, it would not permit their veto. Instead, the United States would exercise “adult supervision” and try to dissuade other great powers from, in essence, acting like great powers.

The European powers and Japan, which have their own ways to influence Washington, were prepared to work within this state of affairs, but, of the major powers in the world, as Andrew Krepinevich has pointed out, it is Russia and China that are the most likely to pursue revisions.

This is because both Moscow and Beijing have major disagreements with the post-Cold War order.

In more concrete terms, what that order entailed, in Europe, was that Russia would acquiesce to subsequent waves of enlargement for the North Atlantic Treaty Organization even if there was no guarantee for Russian membership and influence. In Asia, China was likewise expected to defer to American preferences for regional security. In global affairs, despite being veto-wielding members of the United Nations Security Council, both powers were encouraged to accept American assessments and vote accordingly, with the passage of the key U.N. resolutions on Iraq in 1990-1991 as the gold standard whereby other powers would accept the U.S. lead for addressing international security problems.

Instead, since the beginning of the new millennium, Russia and China have increasingly adopted, in the terminology of Aglaya Snetkov and Marc Lanteigne, the position of the “loud dissenter” and the “cautious partner”—both prepared to defy U.S. preferences or put forward their own counter-proposals—either to stymie American action or to force compromises on Washington.

The standing American assumption has been that the benefits Russia and China have gained from the U.S.-led international order would outweigh any of the losses in influence. However, from Moscow’s and Beijing’s perspective, they seek not to overturn that order completely but to reduce and renegotiate the U.S. role. As then-Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi pointed out at the 2010 Munich Security Conference: “We deserve a chance to express our views on how things in the world should be run. What we are trying to do, like other countries, is to improve the international mechanisms to make sure that both developing and developed countries will benefit from our cooperation in the future. We are offering our views and we have the modesty to listen to others. It has always been the tradition of China. But I think we also deserve a hearing of one kind or another. … One country or a few countries definitely cannot decide the future of the world.” Russian President Vladimir Putin, for his part, was much more blunt in his address to the State Duma on March 18, 2014. Speaking about the status quo of the post-Cold War order, he declared that it was shaped when Russia “was going through such hard times … that realistically it was incapable of protecting its interests.” He offered his metaphor of the Russian wish to pursue revisions to that order as follows: “If you compress the spring all the way to its limit, it will snap back hard. You must always remember this.”

That Russia and China might be dissatisfied with aspects of the international system would not be important unless they had the wherewithal and ability to exercise a veto over U.S. preferences or impose their own will, even in their immediate geographic neighborhoods, in defiance of American pronouncements. What has changed over the last decade is the relative decrease of American power vis-à-vis Russian and Chinese capabilities and increased assertiveness in their own proximate neighborhoods. For Russia, this has primarily been a focus on reasserting its interests in Eurasia, the northern Middle East, the Arctic and central and southern Europe, although Moscow has also been willing to assert itself in other parts of the world. China’s ambitions start with establishing itself as the leading power in the Asia-Pacific region and to take steps to springboard into other parts of the world.

With successive post-Cold War U.S. administrations having defined “democratic enlargement” as the status quo, any delay, pause or stop in that process could be defined as revisionism. Rice’s definition of a “balance of power that favors freedom” is effectively challenged if the balance no longer permits unlimited enlargement and expansion and instead shifts the U.S. focus back toward defending existing lines of influence and attachment.

As gaps have opened up between America’s rhetoric and promises and what it can actually deliver, other countries have been incentivized to hedge their bets by seeking alternatives—and at a time when other powers, starting with Russia and China, have increased their capabilities. Former Sen. Jim Webb (also a former secretary of the navy) identifies the U.S. decision to invade Iraq in 2003 and other interventions in the Middle East as the proximate cause of the shift in the distribution of power within the international system. By causing rifts with key allies, and focusing U.S. attention and resources on these operations, it provided the opening for other powers, especially China, to expand their influence and reach. Subsequently, the 2008-2009 global financial crisis, the Obama administration’s reluctance to enforce its red lines and the political disruptions caused by the actions of the Trump administration are also seen as further eroding America’s ability both to direct the global system and to predominate in specific regions of the world.

Since 2007, Russia and China have both, separately and in concert, engaged in a series of initiatives designed to reduce U.S. influence and rebalance both regional and global distributions of power and influence more in their favor. Without commenting on the ultimate efficacy or success, we can summarize these efforts as follows:

  • In the European theater, Russia has successfully used force to separate Abkhazia and South Ossetia from Georgia (in 2008) and to annex Crimea and foment separatism in the Donbas in Ukraine (in 2014). This built on earlier efforts to degrade the sovereignty of those states (for instance, by issuing Russian passports to Georgian and then Ukrainian citizens so as to create a basis for interference in their affairs). In so doing, Moscow effectively halted the prospect of further eastward NATO enlargement despite U.S. legislation defining expansion as a U.S. policy objective. Russia has partially completed a series of new energy infrastructure projects that reduce the ability of Ukraine and other Central European states to influence Russian energy exports to Europe, while cementing stronger economic linkages to key European states including France, Italy and Germany, and again doing so in spite of U.S. legislation designed to forestall these plans. Russia was able to launch the Eurasian Economic Union in 2015 and take the first steps toward regional integration under its watch, rather than under the direction of Western institutions. Russia’s intervention in Syria and other out-of-area operations have also demonstrated the possession of (albeit limited) power-projection capabilities beyond its immediate region and an ability to sustain those operations. Finally, Russia’s military modernization has enabled Moscow to develop anti-access/area denials zones in the Arctic, Baltic and Black sea basins that raise the costs for any U.S. or allied activity in those zones.
  • Throughout Asia (and beyond to Africa and Europe), China has launched its Belt and Road Initiative designed to link some 70 countries and reorient trading patterns and supply chains to be centered in China. Over the last decade China has displaced the United States as the leading trade partner of every state in the Asia-Pacific region, sometimes by a factor of two. Since 2007 China has been more active in asserting its claims in the South China Sea and rejecting U.S. definitions and preferences for how maritime disputes should be settled—and even suggesting that the United States has no role to play, while extending its perimeters in both the South and East China seas. In May 2018, Adm. Philip Davidson, about to take charge of the U.S. Indo-Pacific Command, bluntly acknowledged: “China is now capable of controlling the South China Sea in all scenarios, short of war with the United States.” China is also working to extend its “string of pearls” facilities westward from northeast Asia to southwestern Asia to extend its range of activities. All of this is changing the overall balance of power in the region in China’s favor.

The economic influence generated by the Belt and Road, combined with China’s development of power-projection capabilities, changes the nature and scope of Chinese influence. As Nadege Rolland, senior fellow at the Washington-based National Bureau of Asian Research, concludes, China’s goal is to increase its “political and strategic influence” and to broaden that influence “in countries that are potential providers of natural resources, as well as future markets, and gain allies in international arenas such as the United Nations at a time when the U.S. is pulling back.” Similarly, as Parag Khanna points out: “Much as we see China continuing its military doctrine of probing for opportunities, it will still seek to use BRI [the Belt and Road Initiative] as an umbrella for increasing its geographic connectivity, supply-chain efficiency and commercial leverage with key states in Asia, the Middle East and beyond.”

Initially, these actions by Moscow and Beijing were separate and uncoordinated—Russia’s efforts to define a “zone of privileged interests” in Eastern Europe and Eurasia, and China’s imperative, per Mark Tokola’s conclusion, to guarantee that “countries on its periphery will not counter Chinese interests.” When it became clear, however, that the United States would continue to contest these efforts, Russia and China found common ground in partnering to offset American advantages. Russia did not contest China’s desire for security around its frontiers while, as Paul Bolt and Sheryl Cross have discussed, China was prepared to support Russian political and security predominance in Eurasia (while expecting that China would exercise greater economic leverage). Beyond that, in the last decade, Russia and China have worked together (and with other rising powers) to create new hubs that bypass the United States. The Shanghai Cooperation Organization has evolved from a mechanism originally designed to settle border disputes into an embryonic security organization, and Russia and China have increased their military cooperation both in the framework of the SCO and in bilateral formats in a manner that, as Richard Weitz concluded, now has “greater potential to challenge the vital security interest of the United States and its allies.” Russia and China reached out to Brazil, India and South Africa to set up an alternate global forum (BRICS) and laid the foundations for a possible alternative to the Western-dominated World Bank, while China has also created an alternative to the U.S.-inspired Asian Development Bank. China and Russia now form a reliable tandem in the U.N. Security Council and have taken the first steps toward reducing the use of the U.S. dollar as the world’s reserve currency. At the same time, China has taken the lead in seeing how it can leverage market mechanisms and educational opportunities in terms of acquiring U.S. and Western skills and technologies with the ultimate aim of reducing the Western lead in advanced technology and to further level the military playing field. Ultimately, China and Russia are creating alternatives to be able to route around global and regional institutions in which the U.S. plays a role—the so-called “world without the West” approach.

Finally, China has embarked on a defined strategy of becoming a greater player in European affairs. In some cases, this comes about via its partnership with Russia, especially in terms of military engagement—such as joint drills in the Baltic, Black and Mediterranean seas. Overwhelmingly, however, China is planting its flag in Europe via investment and finding ways to influence European affairs and weaken any common Western position vis-a-vis China, especially on matters of trade and technology; examples of this approach include the “17+1” format with Central and Eastern European nations and signing up European states as part of the Belt and Road Initiative.

In short, Russia and China have more of a voice in European and Asian affairs and, by extension, in global affairs than the United States may like. Russia has fended off further NATO enlargement on the territory of the ex-USSR and has forged partnerships with key U.S. European allies, like Italy, Germany and Turkey, which allow for some of Russia’s preferences to be extended into the councils of the Western alliance. America’s partners in Asia are now more inclined to hedge between Washington and Beijing rather than automatically side with the United States in any dispute with China.

At the same time, while Brands notes that “China and Russia ... are chipping away at American influence in East Asia, eastern Europe and the Middle East,” neither China nor Russia have successfully breached any of America’s core red lines. No American ally in Asia has repudiated or denounced treaty commitments binding them to Washington, and NATO has no plans to dissolve at any point. If “democratic enlargement” further into the greater Eurasian core has been halted, the defensive perimeters in Europe and Asia remain intact, for now. It is also important to note, as Simon Saradzhyan has stressed, that Russia and China are not allies but keep their relationship at the level of a strategic partnership, with both countries still preferring to retain their freedom of action and not be constrained by obligations to the other. But does all of this mean that a stable balance has been achieved?

Measuring Power and Assessing Balances

If one is to develop a group of “great powers”—adapting the criteria used by Walter Russell Mead and Sean Keeley and matching it to rankings of the world’s largest economies—then, after the United States, one usually ends up with Germany, Britain, France, India and Japan, alongside Russia and China. In Europe, the EU’s population base and economic potential (500 million people and $10 trillion in GDP) dwarf Russia’s (145 million and $1 trillion, respectively). In Asia, similar trends can be observed vis-à-vis China as countries like Japan, Korea, India, Vietnam, Indonesia and the Philippines also increase defense budgets and capabilities.2

On paper, even without the United States, Russia and China ought to be reasonably balanced in their neighborhoods by other major powers. French and British defense spending combined essentially balances Russia’s expenditures, and most European countries are committed to a strategy German Chancellor Angela Merkel labels as “deterrence and dialogue” with Moscow. When one adds Europe’s “middle powers” into the mix, then European states acting in coalition should be able to balance Russia. Using the research collected by Richard Connolly, combined Japanese and Indian defense spending approximates some three-fourths of Chinese expenditures, and when other middle Asian powers are factored in, a rough parity between China and other Asian states is achieved. Not surprisingly, Japan under Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and India under successive prime ministers have been looking to solidify trade and security ties among Asian nations precisely to be in a better position to counterbalance China. As T.V. Paul points out, in the wake of Chinese pressure, India has formed “limited coalitions with the United States, Japan, Australia and some ASEAN countries.” The Indian concept of the “crescent of cooperation” is meant to provide a counterbalance to China’s “string of pearls” and to promote closer security ties throughout the region.

Yet confidence in the idea that China and Russia can be balanced by coalitions of their neighbors has eroded over the past decade. The work done by Saradzhyan and Nabi Abdullaev in 2018 shows that for the past two decades, Western states have all seen relative declines in national power, while Russian power has remained relatively stable and Chinese and Indian power have increased. The Lowy Institute classifies China’s and Russia’s power as continuing to rise, while the United States but also Japan and India are effectively treading water. When power is broken down into components (economic resources, military capabilities, etc.), the picture becomes more troubling. As Saradzhyan and Abdullaev note, if one relies on a metric they call the “Revised Geometric Index of Traditional National Capabilities (RGITNC),” which includes “countrywide population, urban population, energy consumption, military expenditures and value-added manufacturing,” then Russia’s national power has remained constant between 1999 and 2016 (a 0.98 percent decline); however, “the power of Italy, Germany, Britain, France and the U.S. decreased, respectively, by 34.17 percent, 29.6 percent, 29.6 percent, 26.85 percent and 18.47 percent. The same period saw the power of China and India … grow by 106.53 percent and 29.84 percent, respectively.” The Lowy Institute’s criteria define China as an “emerging superpower” based upon an analysis of military capabilities, economic resources and diplomatic relationships. Over time, China is amassing power that cannot be easily balanced. As Hervé Lemahieu points out, “Within its region, China’s defense budget is 56 percent larger than those of all 10 Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) economies, Japan and India combined.”

But raw statistics only tell part of the story. As Ashley Tellis points out, it is necessary to take the raw materials of power and shape them into “operationally effective” practices that can achieve results. In his assessment of China’s naval capacity, for instance, James Holmes makes the important point that “capability is catching up with aspiration”—something that can also be said of Russian military capabilities. Adrian Hyde-Price further specifies the makeup of a great power as a state that defines its national interests in broad-based, systemic terms, has a willingness to use power and has the ability to project power beyond its borders.3 In the ways a country like China (or for that matter Russia) will be able to wield power, the Lowy Institute concludes, “long-term political will and defense economics will be deciding factors.”

What this has meant, in Asia, as Stephen Burgess has concluded, is that “China has shifted the Asian strategic balance through robust diplomatic and economic engagement and military pressures. Using aid, trade and investment, China has developed influence with most Southeast Asian countries and has been stressing U.S. allies and partners and causing some to hedge.” In the greater Eurasian space Russia has been somewhat successful in pushing back against Western influence and re-extending its own influence not only in former Soviet republics but in parts of southern and central Europe.

Based on these metrics, we can come to two major conclusions: First, the balance of power in both Europe and Asia have tilted in Russia’s and China’s favor, but neither Beijing nor Moscow can exercise decisive hegemony at this time. However, China and Russia can overshadow any one other major power in Europe or Asia.

Is the United States Needed?

If a core U.S security concern, as Hans Morgenthau noted in 1968, is to prevent the rise of a hegemonic power in Eurasia, does this require the U.S. necessarily becoming involved in continental affairs? What if the United States were to turn inward? Would this current balance hold over time? This question has increased salience at a time when U.S. domestic politics has turned against the notion of creating new economic blocs—for instance, the Trans-Pacific Partnership and the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership—that were originally envisioned as extensions of America’s security relationships in Europe and Asia.

This is the crux of the problem: Without the United States, coalitions of European and Asian powers can only defensively balance against Russia and China—and even then only if they remain united and their power remains consistent. Indeed, American integrative power, in both Europe and Asia, has been crucial in knitting together and sustaining these coalitions. Moreover, the United States has been able to add the capacities of small and medium powers to these coalitions. (The drawback, however, is that many U.S. allies fill niche capabilities and assume that they will be acting in support of a U.S.-led effort, rather than being able to operate in a “standalone” fashion.)

Thus, if these coalitions fracture, the dikes holding Moscow and Beijing in check will give way. Thus, it is not surprising that both Russia and China have actively pursued policies designed to undermine the solidarity and cohesion of such coalitions—using an entire toolbox ranging from economic incentives and diplomatic action to cyber tools and the deployment of so-called sharp power. China’s successful efforts to use economic and diplomatic pressure to fracture ASEAN states and frustrate Indian and Japanese efforts to develop a more robust coalition, and Russia’s more mixed record in developing pro-Russian tendencies among EU and NATO members, suggest that both Moscow and Beijing understand the strategic importance of frustrating the emergence of strongly unified coalitions in both Europe and Asia. In particular, as the foreign affairs committee of the European Parliament warned in 2016: "The Russian government is aggressively employing a wide-range of tools and instruments, such as think tanks…, multilingual TV stations (i.e. Russia Today), pseudo-news agencies…, social media and internet trolls, to challenge democratic values, divide Europe, gather domestic support and create the perception of failed states in the EU's eastern neighborhood.” Russian efforts continue in the wake of the 2020 coronavirus pandemic to try to undermine European solidarity, while China’s line is that the pandemic has shown American global leadership to be illusory.

To some extent, both Chinese and Russian missteps have helped to keep the coalitions balancing them intact. In particular, China’s inability to reach an accommodation with India and Beijing’s pursuit of maximalist claims against New Delhi, including in spring 2020, have continued to incentivize India to reach out to other Asian states and to the U.S. for support. Yet earlier bouts of more creative Chinese diplomacy have shown the possibility that India, under the right circumstances, could achieve a modus vivendi with China. Similarly, more agile Russian engagement of the main powers of Europe, especially France and Germany, might produce both a willingness to compromise with Russia and to rebalance trans-Atlantic ties.

After a major tabletop exercise in summer 2019 explored the ramifications of a U.S. disengagement from Europe, its organizers concluded that “it becomes clear that without U.S. security guarantees, the principles of European unity and mutual solidarity were quickly challenged and Europe was at serious risk of splitting into different camps”—with one of those camps more prone to accommodate Russian demands. Under such conditions Russia would be able to increase its influence in and leverage over European affairs. Thomas Wright reaches a similar conclusion for Asia—that U.S. disengagement would not lead to greater Asian integration but that individual countries (with the exception of Japan) would work to accommodate China and accept its position to set the regional agenda. The perception that the U.S. is “absent without leave” in the larger Indo-Pacific basin creates conditions for countries not to unite against China but to individually, on a bilateral basis, negotiate terms with China.

Given the risks of a major loss of influence in both Europe and Asia should the United States turn inward, U.S. policymakers must decide to what extent an active U.S. role and direct U.S. participation is needed in creating and maintaining regional balances. Before turning to those options, however, we must address a situational question: Will the twin crises of 2020—the COVID-19 pandemic and the oil price collapse—reverse the trends that have been observed over the last decade and so remove the necessity for U.S. action?

COVID-19 and Oil Price Collapse

Two “gray swan” events—a pandemic and major disruptions in energy markets—raise the question as to whether pre-existing vulnerabilities in Russia and China will be exacerbated, causing one or both to be unable to sustain their challenge to the U.S. These vulnerabilities include brittle political systems, Russia’s dependence on energy export revenue and China’s debt overhang.

Russia was already coping with Western sanctions that acted as a drag on its economy before coronavirus hit, but the combined impact of the pandemic and low energy prices are going to pull its economy into negative territory, while opening up budget deficits. The massive “national projects” designed to jump-start economic growth and position Russia to retain its great power status via Arctic development may be delayed or suspended. All of this suggests that the Kremlin will begin to scale back its plans both for domestic development and for expanding Russian influence in the world and will try to reduce points of confrontation with the West.

For China, even before 2020 started, there were clear signs that the Belt and Road Initiative was running out of steam, both as Chinese firms reassessed likely profits and risks and as other countries revisited the fine print on Chinese loans and decided that the strings attached to China’s foreign direct investment was not welcome. But events in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic have accelerated these problems. China’s economy contracted for the first time in decades in the first quarter of 2020, by nearly 10 percent; delivery of component parts for BRI projects have been held up as China’s economy was on lockdown; and concerns cropped up about the sustainability of some of the projects. The Oxford Business Group has concluded: “Chinese capital resources are likely to be mobilized to meet domestic needs in the short term, which could translate into reduced investment in the BRI’s more peripheral markets over the next 12 to 24 months. Combined with the fact that many of the countries signed up to BRI projects face escalating foreign debt pressures, the stage may be set for a long-term reorientation toward more strategic and cost-efficient infrastructure projects, which meet clearly defined domestic or regional demand.” One of the most significant components of the Belt and Road, the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, has been especially hard hit. In his assessment, Andrew Small of the German Marshall Fund concluded: “The full-scale version is not really in the cards. It’s going to land in a far more modest place than envisaged. It’s not going to be a game changer.” Other reports suggest that budgetary pressures and the need to cushion the economic shock of the pandemic will cause China to lower its defense spending, while the artificial islands in the South China Sea, heralded as a game-changing factor that demonstrated China’s ability to shift the regional balance of power, may already be deteriorating. China has also been put on the defensive for its handling of the pandemic, which has impacted its international standing and has led to questions about its reliability as a partner.

On the other hand, the United States and its allies are being impacted as well by the economic downturn and the pandemic. The overall global economy is expected to shrink by 3 percent in 2020; the economic impacts in China that may affect its great-power-projection capabilities are also dragging down the economies of the other developed states. The health and economic damage in the United States is likely to reorient future spending away from national security; Gen. David Barno and Nora Bensahel bluntly warn national security practitioners that a result of the crisis may be that “economic recovery and preparing for domestic threats like pandemics will be far greater concerns for most Americans than threats from foreign adversaries.” No matter what, spending increases to support a more robust program to contain and roll back Russian and Chinese influence may not be in the cards. Indeed, cuts in foreign assistance to deal with domestic needs could provide China with the opportunity to regain some of its lost influence, in Asia and further afield, should Beijing be able to proffer aid while Washington cannot.

Moreover, some of the concerns raised about the strength of European or Asian solidarity in the face of a Russian or Chinese threat are amplified by the coronavirus pandemic, which has been reducing trust in coalitions, a trend most noticeable in Europe. At the same time, despite taking damage, Russia and China have lower-cost options for continuing to push back and establish their zones of interest. Given that Russia has shown a degree of resilience and creativity in dealing with setbacks, and that any decline by China is matched by declines in the West, it would therefore be risky to assume that the pandemic and economic crises of 2020 will rebalance power and influence in favor of the United States.

Unlikely Outcomes

Given the mismatch in power and capabilities between Russia and China, and the reality of Moscow’s steady decline in the coming years versus China’s ascension to near-superpower status, strategists have questioned whether this creates opportunities to balance Russia and China against each other or whether the two partners might even end up in open clashes reminiscent of the Sino-Soviet rivalry during the Cold War. These contemplations reflect the conclusion reached by former Secretary of Defense James Mattis in 2018 that there is “little in the long term that aligns Russia and China” and that there is a “natural non-convergence of interest” between Russia and China that makes their cooperation ephemeral.

At the end of the first decade of the 2000s there was talk about a possible “G-2” between the United States and China, a proposal coined by Zbigniew Brzezinski and Fred Bergsten, or the related “Chiamerica” concept coined by Niall Ferguson and Moritz Schularick. Behind these ideas was the notion that Beijing and Washington would regulate global affairs—and, by implication, China, having a guaranteed position of status, would be less inclined to support Russian efforts to maintain its zone of privileged interests in Eurasia. However, as Ferguson acknowledged at the end of 2019, this concept is effectively dead due to the ongoing deterioration of U.S.-China relations, and with it any idea that China would work with the United States to restrain or restrict Russian influence.

Even without Chinese support, there may still be an interest in focusing attention on Russia as the primary strategic challenger and to concentrate on containing Russia even at the expense of more attention to the Asia-Pacific. However, as Nicholas Eberstadt reminds us, “the Indo-Pacific, then as now, will be the locus of global economic, political and military power—and will remain so for at least the coming generation, possibly much longer.” The snap-back to Europe that took place after 2014 undermined the confidence America’s Asian allies had in the priority of their region in American strategic planning, on top of existing concerns that the U.S. might accommodate Chinese preferences—and heightened fears that the rebalance was about getting other states in the region to contain the Chinese for Washington. But deprioritizing the focus on China now could complicate American strategy in several years; as assessed by former assistant secretaries of defense and state, Elbridge Colby and Wess Mitchell: “The West must recognize that it will either pay now or pay later to contain China.” This may prove untrue if Russia is so weakened in the next 12 to 36 months that dual containment, in both Asia and Europe, can take place without much involvement by the United States; however, all indicators are that Russia will be diminished but not knocked out by the current crisis.

Former deputy national security advisor Bob Blackwill along with other American and Russian strategic thinkers have mulled a different proposal: one where China’s rise reaches a point of such threat to both Russia and the United States, along with other powers like Germany and India, that it would impel the creation of a China-balancing coalition. Under such conditions, either the West would make a tacit acknowledgment of Russia’s zone of interests in the Eurasian space, or the threat to Russian survival would be so dire that the luxury of viewing the United States and NATO as the primary threat to Russian security would no longer be tenable.

Today, the Sino-Russian relationship involves its own delicate balances. Russia and its strategic partner India are concerned about the rapid rise of Chinese power, and this concern sustains their security and economic relationship and is the basis for Russian interest in using India as a partial counterweight to China in the greater Eurasian space. Yet China has seemingly accepted the need to limit and regulate its ambitions in Eurasia in order to tap down competition with Moscow that could disrupt the more beneficial aspects of the strategic partnership with Russia. China-Ukraine relations demonstrate the extent to which Beijing, in pursuing its own economic interests, is not prepared to fundamentally challenge Russian preferences. For Moscow to really sour on Beijing, China would have to be much more aggressive in moving against Russian interests—intervening against Moscow’s preferences concerning regime succession in Central Asia, or funding geoeconomic projects that would directly compete with core Russian interests. This could only occur in conditions where U.S.-China relations were improving and Beijing no longer needed the partnership with Russia. At the same time, Russia would need to believe it would be possible to reinvigorate its relationships with the West.

Given the importance Xi Jinping and Putin have placed on crafting the Russia-China partnership, neither seems interested in throwing away the benefits to pursue what might be ephemeral gains, like greater Chinese influence in Eurasia or the promise of a new U.S.-Russia relationship. As Paul Stronski and Nicole Ng concluded: “With both countries seeing greater threats to their security emanating from the West than from each other, it is unlikely that the shifting power dynamics in the Russian-Chinese bilateral relationship will cause the partnership between Moscow and Beijing to slow. Both in fact have more to gain from working together to try to contain the West—specifically U.S. power—than in confronting each other.” However, neither country is pushing for a fully integrated alliance, and there are important differences in how each country views its interests that currently preclude such a development. As Saradzhyan and Wyne pointed out:


Today’s Russian-Chinese partnership can safely be expected to keep growing deeper as the two governments take pains to increase bilateral trade and investments, while also advancing their multilateral cooperation projects, such as the SCO and BRICS. But despite this convergence of interests, China-Russia relations may epitomize the Chinese proverb “same bed, different dreams”: Putin’s ambition is to retain Russia’s positions in the bilateral relationship even as Russia continues to grow weaker relative to China; the rising China, in contrast, is looking to expand its clout not only vis-à-vis Russia, but also in neighboring regions and globally.

Thus, an important objective for U.S. policy is to ensure that balancing against Russia and China does not create conditions where both Moscow and Beijing, for their own reasons, believe that their only option is to move toward an actual alliance.

The Most Dangerous Scenario

Prior to his death, Brzezinski warned that the “most dangerous scenario” for U.S. security would be “a grand coalition of China and Russia.” While U.S. policy in Europe and Asia should seek to shape what Colby calls “favorable balances,” it is important that the United States not take risky steps that could backfire and create a worse outcome. This would include taking steps that seem to suggest that U.S. security cannot be insured unless there is regime change in Moscow and/or Beijing, or adopting maximalist definitions of U.S. interests in every region so that the end result is that no Chinese or Russian disagreement with U.S. preferences can be permitted to stand.

This remains a risk because U.S. policy—and in some cases actual statute—impel the United States to push back on Russian or Chinese influence if third parties wish to take actions that Moscow or Beijing believe imperil their own vital interests. In Asia, for instance, the United States has determined that its defense commitments (with Japan and the Philippines) include territory and maritime zones that are disputed with neighbors, including China, and in theory require the United States to defend those claims should Manila or Tokyo ask for U.S. support. In Europe, the NATO Freedom Support Act of 2007 commits the United States to support the admission of Ukraine, Georgia and Moldova to the alliance. Unless a future administration is willing to walk back such commitments, various proposals for deconfliction—such as creating a series of neutral states on the Kazakhstan or Azerbaijan models—will not be possible. Moreover, maintaining extensive transformational balances to reshape Eastern Europe or Southeast Asia requires a great deal of U.S. investment and a willingness to counter Russian or Chinese activity without tipping over into actual conflict. This is likely only in conditions where Russian or Chinese power has been negatively impacted, reducing their ability, per the Tellis formulation, to be able to promote their preferential outcomes.

On the other hand, if a policy of dual containment is handled poorly, the first result could be to solidify the Russia-China relationship as a true entente, with China taking the momentous decision to abandon its traditional policy of no binding alliances. But this same policy might not automatically lead to China’s and Russia’s neighbors flocking to rally under the U.S. banner. Paradoxically, a closer Russia-China relationship could unravel the current coalitions in Europe and Asia that are essential to any successful American balancing strategy. If the United States was perceived as being rash and unreliable, and if Moscow and Beijing were more deft with their statecraft, they might succeed in enticing key European players into a “grand bargain” that would delineate spheres of influence between China and Europe, set contractual obligations in play for governing trade and technology and ensure a guaranteed Eurasian role for Russia. China might agree to limits on its presence “west of Suez” and ensure Russian compliance in return for Europeans’ agreeing that there would be no role for Europe to play in Asia-Pacific affairs. In Asia, Russia and China could seek to reassure other countries—notably India—that possible conflicts could be mediated through the SCO or other such mechanisms without needing to rely on uncertain U.S. guarantees. Given the U.S. withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership, China could use its Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership to demonstrate that it is willing to moderate its demands for regional influence in return for acceptance of its leadership.

A core U.S. assumption is that the Xi and Putin administrations are likely to overreach and be clumsy in wielding their influence, which will redound to American advantage. However, if Beijing and Moscow become more adept at statecraft, the risk would be different: Important states whose participation in the U.S. balancing strategy is essential could move to a position of greater neutrality if faced with possible involvement in any clash between Washington, on one hand, and Moscow and Beijing on the other. We have already had a small example of this at work, when the United States was unable to prevent some of its key European and Asian partners from signing on to participate in the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank in 2015, despite significant pressure from Washington. As David Dollar concluded, the “AIIB episode reveals clearly that Asian and European countries do not want to choose between China and the United States.” In the AIIB example, even American treaty allies chose to take part in a Chinese-led initiative over curtailing or containing Beijing’s influence. This set a precedent that the United States will need to avoid repeating—where allies and partners of the United States reach accommodations with Moscow or Beijing that have the impact of reducing the effectiveness of U.S.-led coalitions in Asia and Europe.

A Defensive Focus for the Near Future

No matter what course of action the current and future U.S. administrations embark upon, any proposed strategy will have to be acceptable within a domestic U.S. political context. As much as Barack Obama was derided for his formulation of the “leading from behind” approach, the United States will work primarily through the agency of its regional allies and partners. Barring the start of a massive conventional conflict, it is unlikely that the United States will be willing to carry the bulk of the burden for a new Cold War-style confrontation with Russia and China.

For the immediate future, focusing on defensive balancing of both Russia and China is the most sustainable approach. This strategy would build on the so-called “porcupine defense”—strengthening the capabilities of American partners in both Europe and Asia to push back against both conventional and non-conventional forms of pressure from Russia and/or China without requiring a large presence of American forces and materiel, because the large-scale deployment of U.S. forces may prove more difficult in a post-pandemic environment and in constrained budgetary environments. It would focus attention on reducing dependence on supply chains running through China (and a lesser extent Russia) and promote greater trade and technological innovation between the United States and its core partners. Given likely reductions in defense spending in Asia, Europe and the United States, the focus would need to be on promoting greater security self-sufficiency on the part of U.S. allies, in part so the United States could pivot to deal with crises in either part of the world and ensure that the two European and Asian coalitions would not fracture.

Under this strategy, Colby sees the tasks for the immediate future in defensive terms—keeping China and, by extension, Russia on their side of the lines and unable to dictate to America or its allies—rather than focused on creating conditions for the immediate transformation of China (or Russia) itself. While not recognizing any formal spheres of influence, the United States would seek to deescalate contestations in the borderlands surrounding Russia and China and would be more accepting of the approaches taken by states like Kazakhstan or Azerbaijan where partial accommodation of Russian or Chinese concerns is balanced with partial integration or involvement with Western-led institutions. Building on Richard Haass’ concept of nonpolarity, a defensive balancing strategy should be matched with efforts to ensure that key states in Europe and Asia that lie outside the formal treaties binding others to the United States can function as pressure-release valves by reducing the potential or incentive for conflict between major power centers. Policies like the multi-vector approach developed Kazakhstan’s Nursultan Nazarbayev or the “balanced neutrality” embraced by Azerbaijan’s Heydar Aliyev have sought to reduce zero-sum competition by finding ways to accommodate competing interests while allowing these countries to retain their independent freedom of action. For instance, Azerbaijan is both a “dialogue partner” of the SCO and has partnerships with NATO and the EU. Baku manages its interactions with the major powers so that the fundamental equities of each are not foreclosed; it has, for example, not only distributed equity in key energy projects to American and European firms but also ensured that Iranian, Indian, Chinese, Japanese and Russian companies are represented. This follows on the Colby and Mitchell conclusion that, moving forward into the 2020s, U.S. “grand strategy will need to be attuned to opportunities for downshift or détente.”

Implications for US Policy Toward Russia

Grandiose proposals for resets between the United States and Russia are impractical and unfeasible given the current set of international and domestic factors in both countries. Nor is Russia likely to experience a major collapse that will suddenly remove it from the ranks of the great powers and end America’s “Russia problem.” Nor can the United States decide to eschew the pursuit of strategic stability with a coequal power in the nuclear weapons realm.

However, U.S. policy toward Russia has suffered from a critical flaw: the American insistence on Russian compliance with a whole host of U.S. preferences without much thought about the costs and consequences for the core vital interests of the United States. Somehow, the United States believes that it can bring to bear financial, economic or even military pressure on Moscow without Russia having any commensurate ability to impact U.S. security. Indeed, over the last seven years there has been a sense that taking steps that push Russia closer to China is not a problem despite the risks that a closer Russia-China entente pose to U.S. interests. Moreover, the dysfunction that has emerged in the relationship has led to a lack of prioritization, so that every Russian transgression or disagreement with Washington is seen as meriting an all-out response.

Instead, U.S. strategists need to focus on the following set of questions.

How does the U.S. relationship with Russia impact the maintenance of the vital American interests spelled out earlier in this primer in the Euro-Atlantic and Asia-Pacific theaters? Given Russia’s own sets of capabilities and interests, to what extent does the promotion of peace and stability—as well as a continuation of a U.S.-led regional order and coping with China’s emergence as the world’s second major power—require cooperation as opposed to competition and confrontation with Moscow? In short, where does Russia fit within the American conception of the balances of power in both Europe and Asia that are most advantageous to U.S. interests?

The principal conclusion is that the core mission of the U.S.-Russia relationship moving into the 2020s is to disincentivize further Russia-China convergence. Every new defense agreement, every new intelligence collaboration, every new diplomatic coordination in international institutions adds needless complication for U.S. and allied interests. Russian and Chinese officials are frank in their evaluations of areas where their interests overlap or converge, but also where the two countries have important differences in perspectives and priorities. China, for instance, has abstained on questions about the status of Crimea, neither recognizing nor condemning the annexation. China has also pursued Belt and Road projects and investments in Azerbaijan, Georgia and Ukraine that would compete with Russian desires to control access points between Asia and Europe. Similarly, Russia pursues its own policies—a close strategic partnership with India and Vietnam and a growing economic relationship with Japan, all of which have the secondary impacts of strengthening these three states vis-à-vis China. Russia and China have developed what we might term a “2-C” paradigm for their partnership: outlining areas of cooperation and setting down parameters for where, when and how they will compete. Yet there are clear limits as to how far this can go. Russia understands the finiteness of the “Chinese lifeline” Beijing was willing to offer to help Moscow deal with Western sanctions and pressure after the incursion into Ukraine, while China understands that Russia will not come to Beijing’s defense or even necessarily promote China’s claims—for instance, against Vietnam in the South China Sea.

In 2018, the dialogue for a “Sustainable Bipartisan U.S. Strategy Towards Russia,” informally known as the Mayflower Group, produced the outlines of what might be termed a “3-C” paradigm for the U.S.-Russia relationship: cooperate, compete and confront. It is designed to mitigate the current lose-lose dynamic where areas of disagreement or confrontation—over Ukraine, Syria, election interference or energy sales—spill over to torpedo productive and even necessary cooperation (in areas such as arms control or nuclear non-proliferation). Not only does this create problems for the United States, this dynamic also negatively strains relationships with key allies. The U.S. desire to punish Russia for its transgressions, especially with regards to Ukraine, has not allowed discretion to recognize Germany’s or Japan’s need for balancing condemnation of Russian actions (such as the invasion of Ukraine) with economic and security interests that arise from the closer geographic proximity these countries share with Russia. In addition, key allies—starting with Germany and Japan—worry that a weakened Russia will be driven into an even closer embrace with China and that this threatens their own national interests—Germany’s because of the loss of markets and influence, Japan’s because of Russia’s increased willingness to sell even more high-technology arms and weapons systems, eroding Japan’s qualitative advantages. For other allies, there is no desire to put the Ukraine issue at the center of their own relations with Russia—and yet they remain potentially subject to U.S. sanctions for continuing their business, economic and security ties with Russia. In turn, all of this serves as one of the major drivers pushing Russia closer to China.

The United States needs to regain a degree of flexibility in its relations with Russia—to incentivize progress in the areas of most divergence while holding the defensive line firm in Europe, especially in terms of honoring security guarantees. Here, American strategists should examine the German approach to reconciling competing imperatives regarding Ukraine and Russia in how Berlin handled the energy-transit question: authorizing the construction of the second Nord Stream line but insisting that Russia commit to continued energy transit via Ukraine as one of its export routes. The compromise produced a Ukraine-Russia gas deal at the end of 2019 and the restarting of efforts to achieve a settlement to the Donbas conflict. One hope is that this type of diplomacy will help rebalance Russia’s relations between China and the West—and create conditions for tapping down other areas of conflict.

Great power competition cannot be conducted on the basis of “shoulds”—what other powers “ought” to be doing. Instead, it must rest on the deft application of carrots and sticks. The United States enters the 2020s with considerable advantages: a global network of allies (which neither Russia nor China possesses), a dynamic and innovative economy, the world’s reserve currency and a conventional military force unparalleled in its ability to deliver and sustain force far from the continental United States. Effective management of those resources should permit the United States to remain the de facto chairman of the board of the international system while reducing the risk of destabilizing conflict.

This report was made possible with support from the Carnegie Corporation of New York.

Edited by Natasha Yefimova-Trilling. Thomas Schaffner contributed research for this report.


  1. George F. Kennan,Memoirs, 1925-1950” (Boston: Little, Brown, 1967), p. 359.
  2. Military budget comparisons can be misleading, because the ruble or renminbi can buy more in defense capabilities than a simple comparison with dollars or euros would suggest. Re-examining through the lens of the purchasing-power-parity metric suggests that, after the United States, the next largest military spenders were China, India, Russia, Saudi Arabia, France, the United Kingdom and Japan.
  3. Adrian Hyde-Price, "European Security in the Twenty-First Century: The Challenge of Multipolarity" (Routledge, 2007), 38.

Nikolas K. Gvosdev

Nikolas K. Gvosdev is the Captain Jerome E. Levy chair at the U.S. Naval War College and a senior fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute (FPRI).

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The opinions expressed herein are solely those of the author.