American Foreign Policy has Created Dangerous Geopolitical Scenarios in Eurasia

Artyom Lukin, an Associate Professor at Russia’s Far Eastern Federal University, previously posed an interesting hypothetical scenario of Russia becoming a de facto mercenary of China.

To start off, we should understand some of the context. Some interesting facets of the current Biden administration is how it has allayed tensions with Russia in certain respects.

Lukin observed that Biden “has made a number of significant moves aimed at stabilising the relationship with Russia.” The moves Biden made to lower the temperature with Russia  included the following:

The prompt extension of a crucial strategic arms treaty with Russia, refusal to block Russia’s Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline to Germany, and holding a face-to-face summit with Putin in Geneva at which the two leaders agreed on a joint statement on strategic stability and launched bilateral working-level talks on security issues.

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In addition, there have been no real escalations between Russia and Ukraine in the Donbas and other flashpoints in the Russo-Ukrainian war. Though with recent talks about Ukraine and Georgia potentially joining the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), tensions with Russia are likely going to mount again. 

On a more interesting note, the Biden administration has surprisingly maintained the Trump administration’s foreign policy priority of treating China as the US’s principal national security threat. For example, Biden has not fully discarded Trump’s tariffs on China, which comes as a surprise due to the Biden family’s business connections to China. Lukin argues that the Biden administration’s way of containing China is “more sophisticated and systemic.” 

The formation of the AUKUS military pact made up Australia, the United Kingdom, and the US has further reinforced this observation.

At the center of Lukin’s article, is a hypothetical scenario where “Russia could become a giant military contractor — a twenty-first-century condottiero state, and a nuclear-armed one at that.” In this role, Lukin hypothesizes that Russia could offer its services as a mercenary state that uses its military strength to do “the bidding of a rich superpower — for remuneration.” 

It’s clear that a policy of dual containment, which was run previously against Iraq and Iran, will not work with two behemoths like Russia and China. The Biden administration and subsequent administrations will have to recognize that antagonizing Russia will further push into China’s arms potentially compelling it to form a military alliance with it. In essence, there will need to be a relative degree of calm between the US and Russia, so that the US can focus the bulk of its energy on China. 

One problem with a normalization of relations between Russia and China is that this type of engagement between the two countries could lead to a coherent Eurasian axis that is more equipped to stave off the West. Looking back to two decades ago gives us an idea of how much progress has been made on this front.  In 2001, both countries signed off on a “Treaty of Friendship, Cooperation and Good-Neighbourliness” that was a significant move towards the beginning of their strategic partnership. Lukin noted that Putin and Xi celebrated the 20th anniversary of this treaty during a time when the relationship between the two countries is reaching all-time highs. 

Lukin did highlight an interesting point about the Arctic, which Russia and China have mutual interests in, and how it’s played a significant role in recent Russia-China talks:

One interesting bit of the joint statement concerns the Arctic. Moscow and Beijing pledged to enhance cooperation on the Russia-controlled Northern Sea Route (NSR), but, as the statement stipulates, this should be based on “respect for the interests of the littoral state”, i.e. Russia. This is the first time China explicitly acknowledged the NSR as Russia’s domain.

Lukin is correct in observing how China and Russia engage in “strategic transactionalism” in which China’s recognition of Russian interests in the Arctic may be reciprocated with Russia’s recognition of Chinese interests elsewhere.

What is most remarkable about Putin and Xi’s joint statements is how they describe the Sino-Russian relationship as “superior” to the Cold War style of political-military alliances.  Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov reiterated this kind of message, declaring that Russia-China relations are “not similar to a military and political alliance in the Cold War era, but a new type of state-to-state relations that transcends that model.” 

It should be noted that the growing rapprochement between Russia and China may not be such a novel development. Lukin is astute to observe that it “strongly resembles some of the great power alignments that existed more than a century ago, specifically the Triple Entente of Russia, Great Britain and France.”  We have to remember that the Triple Entente was not predicated on a mutual defense treaty like in the case of NATO. Lukin called attention to the fact that “informal understandings and the shared purpose of countering their mutual main adversary: the German Empire” undergirded the Triple Entente.

Indeed, an entente between great powers can only function if there is a rough degree of economic and military parity among the members. Right now, Russia enjoys a respectable degree of parity in strategic terms with China. However, Lukin is correct in highlighting how China will likely surpass Russia in terms of geo-economic indicators by a wide margin as its economy grows and it grows closer to superpower status. 

Russia’s economic base has raised questions about the country’s economic prospects in the upcoming decades. Energy markets can be pretty volatile and with alternative sources of energy gaining in prominence, Russia’s strong fossil fuels industry could be incapable of providing the Russian state with enough revenue. As a result, Russia will be compelled to make money in some other way. 

Lukin makes the case that even if Russia’s energy driven export sector no longer rake in cash, it still possesses an x-factor that’s still in demand in international politics — military muscle — that could be used by China. In effect, Russia could “perform military missions Beijing is unwilling, or unable, to undertake on its own.”

Lukin mapped out some interesting scenarios:

There are various ways Russia could serve as a mercenary for China. For example, Beijing could ask Moscow to amass Russian troops on the borders with the Baltic or Nordic countries to put the US on high alert in the European theatre and keep it this way as long as possible. Another creative option would involve Russian forces harassing Alaska which is just across the Bering Sea. Russian units could even be hired by China for expeditionary missions in places like the Middle East or Africa.

What Lukin is brainstorming is not far-fetched. Russian private military companies — Wagner Group comes to mind — are already quite active on the world stage in areas like Sudan, the Central African Republic, Madagascar, Mozambique and Libya. Although such an activity is in a limited, privatized form, it could be a precursor to a potential role that Russia could assume in a not-so distant future. Lukin hypothesizes that  “Russia could become a giant military contractor — a twenty-first-century condottiero state, and a nuclear-armed one at that.”

Lukin notes that this arrangement is not exactly far-fetched. He posed an interesting question: “Ten years ago, who could have thought that an American president would demand that allies pay protection money to the US? “ This referred to the Trump administration’s request that countries like Germany, Japan, and South Korea pay more for stationing US troops. While this may be shocking to some, international relations has been historically transactional.

Lukin does make an interesting point about Vladimir Putin in that his approach to foreign policy has been rather strained. Save for Russia’s involvement in Georgia, Syria, and Ukraine, which have been rather limited in scope compared to other great power interventions in recent memory, Putin has been rather restrained in his interventionist plays.

However, Putin’s successors may actually be more keen on not only intervening abroad but also working in concert with China to decisively push the West out of Eurasia altogether. Lukin spelled out several scenarios where Russia could serve as China’s de facto mercenary:

For example, Beijing could ask Moscow to amass Russian troops on the borders with the Baltic or Nordic countries to put the US on high alert in the European theatre and keep it this way as long as possible. Another creative option would involve Russian forces harassing Alaska which is just across the Bering Sea. Russian units could even be hired by China for expeditionary missions in places like the Middle East or Africa. 

This is the problem with US foreign policy over the last 40 years. By expanding NATO and constantly ignoring Russia’s legitimate national security interests, it has essentially brought Russia into China’s arms. Now, we’re witnessing the creation of a Eurasian geopolitical block that is now acting as a check against the West. The rise in the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO).

The geopolitical center of gravity is changing in a way that is freaking the foreign policy establishment out. The Eurasian space will no longer be decided by external actors such as the British in the 19th century nor the way the US did throughout the 20th century up until the early years of the 21st century.

If the US doesn’t recalibrate its approach to foreign policy and exercise restraint, some of the scenarios Lukin put forth in his piece will likely become a reality in future foreign affairs. And that will not augur well for geopolitical stability.

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