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The Role of Ideology in Foreign Policy: Why Contemporary Russia Cannot Be Compared to the Soviet Union

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Ideology is a crucial component in understanding the motivation behind any individual or group of people. Realism falsely presupposes that the motivation of actors can be understood purely through the lens of survival in a limited resources zero-sum domain. At face level, this sounds rational and economic, but it should be understood that in microeconomics, even though people are assumed to always act self-interestedly, it is also understood that what their self-interest is actually composed of is ultimately subjective. Therefore, a more realistic and analytical view of realpolitik allows us to understand that the self-interest of nations is also subjective, which means that the role of ideology cannot be discounted as it pertains to foreign policy.

Throughout human history, nearly every nation has been founded for the sake of itself, even expansionist empires. A glaring exemption to this rule was observed during the Cold War, a clash of two markedly ideological countries.

The United States is a country that was founded on the ideology of humanist enlightenment liberalism and is a country whose founding was assumed to be not for the sake of themselves, but for the sake of all mankind. This was seen as early as the settling of the American continent, with John Winthrop’s famous imagery in A Model of Christian Charity which portrayed the country as a moral paragon, a city on a hill for all the world to see. Likewise, this idea of liberal universalism was evident in the very founding documents of America. In the United States Declaration of Independence, the founding fathers wrote that their country was being incepted to secure the idea “that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness”.

This founding ethos directly affected America’s foreign policy, as America has historically occupied a position as the world’s “policeman,” believing that they uniquely have an obligation to defend democratic values everywhere. This rhetoric can be found exhaustively in colloquial American media, but one noticeable concrete example of it is found in George Bush’s 2006 U.S. National Security Strategy, where the document states that “It is the policy of the United States to seek and support democratic movements and institutions in every nation and culture, with the ultimate goal of ending tyranny in our world”.

In a similar vein, the Soviet Union was also founded upon an ideology that extended beyond its national borders. The USSR was the product of Marxist theory and was therefore not founded for the sake of national interest or nationalism, but for the sake of facilitating the international communist revolution, a sentiment captured in the final remarks of Marx’s Communist Manifesto: “the proletarians have nothing to lose but their chains…WORKING MEN OF ALL COUNTRIES, UNITE!”

This created an interesting vision for communist statehood, because in the USSR, the state was not the merely the final end, as it is in many governance structures, but both an end in itself and a means to a further end. This Proletarian internationalism manifested itself into an interventionist foreign policy, one that sought to propagate communist ideology across the world and facilitate revolution. In fact, it could even be said that this was the primary function of the USSR. Even Lenin once admitted that “from the beginning of the October Revolution, foreign policy and international relations have been the main questions facing us” (Jacobson, 1994) [1].

The clash between these two ideological superpowers became physically manifest during the Cold War through various “cold conflicts” such as the Vietnam War, conflict in Angola, and Cuban missile crisis, instances when the US and USSR sought to project their values onto other nations. As can be imagined, the war made tensions very high between the two countries, and in the West, a staunch fear-based perception of Russia developed. The Cold War was portrayed in America as a fight between good and evil, and Russia was portrayed as a relentless enemy that will never back down, a sentiment which had a lasting effect on the way that Russia is viewed in the contemporary West. This impact has been so salient, that even Russia today is still often characterized as if it was some great evil, waiting for “red dawn” to arrive.

When the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, the communist ideology that had influenced the behavior of the USSR fell with it. Without this ideological superstructure, Russia reverted back into a country that falls into a normal range of ideological behavior, determined primarily by a defined set of national interests. While the USSR and US fought for the ability to hegemonize a bipolar system into a unipolar one, contemporary Russia rejects the idea of unipolarity and seeks to coexist with other nations in a multipolar world. Russia certainly has defined geographical areas in which it has foreign interests, specifically the Eurasian sphere, but these interests are predicated on a shared history and mutual economic benefit, and not desires to imperialize.

Nevertheless, in the modern age, there are still fears about Russian imperialism and a “new cold war”. Such fears come from a misunderstanding about the role of ideology in foreign policy. These sentiments demonstrate both a failure to understand the determining factor behind Soviet foreign policy—the union’s ideology, and a failure to analyze a modern country independently of its ideological history. These feelings come from an assumption that Russia today has the same motivational foundation as the Soviet Union, and that is simply not true.

The ideology supporting modern Russia’s foreign policy had formed largely in response to the conclusion of the Cold War, when a bipolar system was turned into a unipolar one, dominated by the United States. In this condition, the world was severely influenced by American foreign policy, military interests, politics, culture, and media, and could be defined as what many scholars would call a global hegemon. Russia considers such a distribution of power to be undemocratic and an affront to the individual autonomy of nation-states.

In his 2007 Munich address on security policy, Vladimir Putin criticized the idea of an America controlled hegemonic order when he stated that in our world, “there is one master, one sovereign. And at the end of the day this is pernicious not only for all those within this system, but also for the sovereign itself because it destroys itself from within”. Another comment by Putin from around the same time period attacks this model of governance was when he stated that “(the) people are always teaching us democracy but the people who teach us democracy don’t want to learn it themselves”.

It was in response to this new structural backdrop, as well as increasing levels of globalization, that an ideology of multilateralism and polycentrism became the underlying motivator behind contemporary Russia’s foreign policy. Russia’s ideology rejects a vision of an American led hegemonic order, but also does not seek to hegemonize the order for itself either, it merely beckons for the mutual coexistence and recognition of autonomy between the world’s global powers and regional subsystems.

This sentiment is captured in the words of Sergey Lavrov, the current Minister of Foreign Affairs for Russia in 2013. Lavrov stated that the world was undoubtedly moving towards a polycentric system of international relations, and that in order to ensure an equitable outcome during this transition, “fairer and more democratic systems where economic growth centers and new financial power centres should play a greater role in managing the world economy and political processes”. While the moves and actions of modern Russia are often framed in a realist lens by Western critics, the underlying ideology of the Russian Federation is actually quite liberal, as Russia accepts that a multipolar world should be brokered by polycentric or multilateral means, such as the United Nations.

It would be foolish to judge any country by its ideological history. It would be intellectually dishonest to evaluate a previously religious state in the context of religious ideology after secularization. Likewise, Russia today has largely, if not completely separated from its interventionist communist past and has embraced a new vision of both the world order and its foreign policy. When evaluating contempo

1. Jacobson, J. (1994). “The Ideological and Political Foundations of Soviet Foreign Policy.” In When the Soviet Union Entered World Politics. University of California Press. pp. 12.

From our partner RIAC

MSc student in multilateral diplomacy at the Moscow State Institute of International Relations (MGIMO). He has a bachelor’s degree in economics

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What Russia Wants In The Balkans

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Popular narratives on Russia’s geopolitical interests in the Balkans point to two rather divergent directions. One of them, inherited from the 19th-century strategic thought, says that Russia, as a landlocked empire, must expand into the Balkans, so as to gain access to the Mediterranean Sea. According to this narrative, the Balkans is treated as an empty space, regardless of the ethno-religious identity of the inhabitant population. The other one, which can be traced back to 19th-century romanticist pan-Slavism, but which has been popularized in its present form after the publication of Samuel Huntington’s theory of „the clash of civilizations“, says that Russia conceives of its influence in the Balkans through the cultivation of fraternal relations with the region’s Orthodox Christians, using common religious identity to project its geopolitical ambitions.

Facts on the ground, however, do not support either. Russia’s influence in the region, from the early 19th century to the present day, could never compete with the influence of the Anglo-French axis, exercised through the channels of Serbian and Greek nationalisms, constructed on the anti-Ottoman/anti-Islamic and anti-Habsburg/anti-Catholic foundations, in accordance with strategic interests of the two West European powers to dismantle the declining empires and transform them into a number of weak nation-states. Although these nationalist movements used Orthodox Christianity and a popular folklore motif of fraternity with Orthodox Russia as effective tools for mobilizing the targeted populations on the anti-Islamic and anti-Catholic grounds, their elites always remained clearly detached from Russia, being continuously oriented towards their true patrons in London and Paris.

The Russian motive in mobilizing Serbian nationalism in the 1990s was, of course, quite convenient for London and Paris, having concealed their continuous support to the Serbian military invasion of Bosnia and Croatia, which produced a gigantic campaign of ethnic cleansing of the non-Serb population in the occupied areas, with more than 100.000 dead and over one million expelled. That was one of the reasons why the British propaganda, both diplomatic and public, insisted on the alleged Russian support to Serbia and its military expansion as a reason why the Western powers could not intervene in the war in Bosnia and prevent further bloodshed. Another reason, much more important from a strategic point of view – indeed, the reason why the Serbian campaign of genocide and ethnic cleansing was supported by London and Paris in the first place – was the global promotion of Hungtington’s theory of „the clash of civilizations“ as „the next pattern of conflict“. According to that pattern, future geopolitical blocs would be formed on the basis of religious identities, acting as „civilizations“ in ineradicable conflicts. As a model of such conflicts at a micro-level was the one launched in Bosnia, in which Catholics, Muslims and Orthodox Christians were pushed to the point of mutual extermination, in an attempt to form „ethnically cleansed“ areas. This scheme was imposed on these communities’ self-appointed leaders (Izetbegović, Karadžić, Boban) by the European Community’s negotiator Lord Carrington at the conference held in Lisbon in 1992, several months before the war. The widely promoted narrative of the alleged Russian support of the Serbian aggression on Bosnia, and the alleged pan-Islamic support to Bosnia’s defenders (with the deliberate media characterisation of all Bosnians, whatever their religion, as „Muslims“) served the purpose of transforming the world into one of clashing „civilizations“. The ultimate goal was to generate an analogous conflict between Orthodox Christians and Muslims on the macro-level, which would eventually push Russia into a lasting armed conflict with the former Soviet republics populated by Muslims, and then into a global conflict with the rest of the Islamic world. Needless to say, such a development would have created a significant strategic advantage for the Anglo-American powers and a great strategic loss for both Russia and the Islamic countries. 

Yeltsin’s foreign policy at the time did not show too much understanding of that geopolitical game, allowing for a public image of Russia as a promoter of pan-Orthodox ideology and a sponsor of the Serbian aggression in the Balkans. However, it must be noted that Russia was not drawn into any major conflict that would fit the pattern of Hungtington’s „clash of civilizations“, although the local conflicts in Chechnya and Nagorno-Karabakh, in which it was directly or indirectly involved, did possess some elements of that model. In contrast, Putin’s foreign policy was based on a much deeper understanding of global relations and geopolitical games at play, so that eventually the Anglo-American strategy of drawing Russia into inter-religious conflicts in Central Asia, in line with Huntington’s theory, did not bear much fruit. And so did the constructed image of Russia’s involvement on the Serbian side gradually wither away.

Yet, paradoxically, in the last couple of years Russia has played the role, previously insinuated by the Anglo-American propaganda, of a protector of Serbia’s efforts to create a Greater Serbia out of the territories of the neighbouring countries with a Serb ethnic minority population (Bosnia, Montenegro, Kosovo).It is difficult to imagine anything more destructive for a country, which is a home to more than 190 ethnic groups, than to adopt the principle of ethnic and religious homogeneity. However, contrary to the principles of ethnic diversity applied in its own territory and in the broader area of the former Soviet Union, Russia’s attitude in the Balkans has shown open support to the Greater Serbian programme of uniting all Serbs into a single, ethnically homogenous state. Russian foreign policy of open support for the Serbian efforts to cede the Serb-populated renegade province of Bosnia to Serbia is self-contradictory, to say the least. It is also self-defeating, if taken seriously and applied to Russia itself and the neighbouring countries with a Russian ethnic minority. Can anyone imagine today’s Russia in permanent efforts to cede parts of all post-Soviet republics populated with Russians, so as to unite them in some mythical Greater Russia? Or, can anyone imagine Russia attempting to ethnically cleanse its own territory, so as to expel or exterminate all those 190 ethnic communities, in the name of an ethnically homogenous Russian nation-state? Of course not. Yet, that is precisely the policy of Serbia towards its neighbours and towards its own population that Russia now openly supports on the international scene. Therefore, one has to rightfully ask, what is it that Russia wants in the Balkans?

In the first place, it is highly questionable how influential Russia really is in Serbia, despite its public support for it. For, the very existence of Serbia, from a semi-autonomous principality within the Ottoman territory in the 1830s to the creation of the Kingdom of Serbia in 1882 , to its expansion into other South Slavic territories in the form of the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes (later, the Kingdom of Yugoslavia) at the Versailles Conference in 1919, always had explicit support by London and Paris. The dissolution of the communist Yugoslavia, which Serbia used as a convenient opportunity to implement the Greater Serbia programme, was also clearly backed by London and Paris, with no relevant participation by Moscow. Under these conditions, it is difficult to imagine a strategic shift from the centuries long Anglo-French influence to that of Russia. It is also difficult to identify Russian strategic interests in the Balkans, given that Russia’s foreign policy was not designed to exert control in the zones outside the territory of the former Soviet Union. 

Yet, if Russia has no real influence on Serbia, then the current Russian support of Serbia’s continuing hostile policy towards its neighbours may well be a simulation of influence. Even if such a simulation cannot deceive the foreign policy circles in London, which are quite familiar with the extent of their long-term control over Serbia, it may well deceive such circles in Washington, which are commonly persuaded that Moscow’s influence can be detected everywhere. For what purpose? If the Balkan region is of strategic importance for the US, not only as a link between the West and the Middle East, but also in terms of its natural resources (e.g. Kosovo), then the simulated Russian influence in the Balkans might serve as a leverage against the American influence in the zones of true strategic importance for Russia. What first comes to mind, of course, is Ukraine and its aspirations to join NATO: if a tactical simulation of Russian influence in the Balkans, as a zone of traditional strategic influence of the West, turns out to be successful, then it might be possible to push Washington to reduce its ambitions in Ukraine and leave it outside NATO structures.

There is also another purpose for which such a simulation might serve. Not so many analysts, diplomats or politicians are aware of the tacit strategic alliance between Russia and Turkey, which has elevated Turkey to the status of a great power. This alliance has already been tested in Libya, Syria, and Nagorno-Karabakh. In Libya, Russia and Turkey simulated a possibility of mutual military confrontation, each supporting one of the warring parties, while in reality they agreed to divide the spheres of influence, using the Libyan warring parties as their respective proxies. In Syria, under the pretended confrontation, the new allies also divided the spheres of influence. Still, the most interesting game was played out in Nagorno-Karabakh, where Turkey openly supported Azerbaijan in its efforts to restore sovereignty over this region. On the other side, Armenia was persuaded by Western powers, namely France, to go into the war over Azerbaijan’s region under the pretext that Russian military support to Armenia was a geopolitical inevitability. However, Azerbaijan, with Turkish military support, took the region over, with no resistance on Russia’s part. Russia thus returned to the principle of inviolability of post-Soviet borders and finally abandoned the principle of ethnically homogenous greater states, advocated by Armenia and its patrons in Paris and London. Is there a possibility for Russia and Turkey to play a similar game in the Balkans? Is there a possibility that Russia and Turkey want to generate an illusion among the Serbian nationalist elites that Russia would unquestionably support their attempts to cede parts of Bosnia and Kosovo, at the same time leaving Turkey with a free hand to extend its military support to Bosnia’s and Kosovo’s efforts to prevent Serbia from questioning their sovereignty? Is there a will in Russia to return to the principle of inviolability of borders in the Balkans, too, thereby abandoning the principle of ethnic homogeneity advocated by Serbia and its sponsors in London and Paris, the most harmful principle for Russia’s own interests? Is there a will in Russia to follow its own geopolitical interests, in cooperation with Turkey, along the same lines and with the same implications as in Nagorno-Karabakh? Really, what is Russia doing in the Balkans? 

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Brewing Instability Following Navalny’s Imprisonment

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Image source: themoscowtimes.com/Pavel Golovkin / AP / TASS

The fuming tensions in Russia post the arrest of the championed Kremlin critic, Alexei Navalny, have entered a catatonic phase as the Moscow court, on Tuesday, sentenced Navalny to a 2.5-year prison in reference to a suspended verdict in 2014. Despite of the suspected nature of the outcome of the court proceedings, a new tremor of protests in support of Navalny is expected to surge the already alarming situation in core Russia. Since the entire trial has been realised as a systematic scheme to bring down the biggest Kremlin critic of the decade, the decision is hardly expected to be well received amidst the blooming supporters turning aggressive day by day.

Alexie Navalny is a widely acclaimed blogger and a political activist running campaigns against the Putin-regime. Navalny has been the prime political rival to Vladimir Putin for a long span of time: a decade long period of leading processions over alleged rigging claims to exposing corruption and embezzlement in government records. His most famous campaign came out to be in 2019 when massive waves of protests sparked over the elections being shaped in support of Putin. Navalny has also brought use to his colossal following online; his exposé video depicting the luxurious Palace as the property of Putin resulting from high-end corruption scandals has gained more than a 100 million views. The sheer drive of Navalny to dethrone Putin has accumulated support over the last few years primarily due to the relentless yet failed attempts of the Russian regime to detain him despite his acquittal in 2014.

Navalny inspired the contemporary opposition against Putin, his words putting direction to his supporters: “He [Putin] can pretend to be a great politician but he will go down in history as a prisoner”. In line with this vision, Putin has been popularly been known as ‘fearing’ the advancing opposition. Navalny was allegedly poisoned last year, whilst he returned from an investigation in Siberia. Navalny accused the Russian regime; Putin to be specific, for deploying state intelligence agencies to exterminate him by ‘Poisoning his underwear’. However, whilst his accusations were repeatedly met with denial and subsequent warnings from the Kremlin, his imminent visit was being awaited. After spending 5 months recovering in Berlin, Navalny finally returned to Moscow late last month to ‘Lead the opposition from the roads of Russia’. However, Navalny was detained from the Moscow airport leaving his supporters under frustration and outrage.

Over the past few weeks, protests have poured all over Russia; mounds of supporters arching the motto ‘No fear’. Even Navalny pressed on in his trail during his court proceeding; claiming this exercise as a political ruse to underwhelm him and his supporters. In spite of multiple warnings from the Russian authorities, protestors in copious groups have gripped hold of the streets of Moscow with more than 5600 arrested including top journalists and members of Navalny’s group. The situation is distending beyond Russia with the recent expulsion of the diplomats of Germany, Poland and Sweden followed by a coordinated retaliation from the respective countries ousting out the Russian diplomats. With worsening relations with Europe and the European Parliament to convene on slapping sanctions on Russia coupled with a stoppage on the Nord Stream project, the Kremlin regime is constricted to make fluent decisions instead of feigning justification.

Now with the prison sentence of Navalny in action followed by an aggressive response of the Russian government, not only an implosive response of the protesters is on-cards, but even the Newly-elect US government may cause foreign policy problems as could be gauged from the recent statement of the US Secretary of State, Antony Blinken: “The U.S. condemns the persistent use of harsh tactics against peaceful protesters and journalists by Russian authorities for a second week straight. We renew our call for Russia to release those detained for exercising their human rights, including Aleksey Navalny”.

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Should China and Russia Form an Alliance?

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In Chinese and Russian academic circles, views advocating such an alliance have existed for a long time, but they are not mainstream. The governments of both countries have always adhered to the policy of strategic partnership rather than alliance, and the issue of the alliance is not on the agenda of China-Russia dialogue.

However, at the plenary meeting of the Valdai Club, which was held in October 2020, President Putin said that theoretically the possibility of a China-Russia alliance is not ruled out, although it’s unnecessary right now. It received positive, albeit implicit response from Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman, which was intensified by China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi, saying that there was no restricted area for bilateral strategic cooperation, rather than repeating the usual rhetoric of non-alignment. This is a delicate change in the official statements of the two countries, and thus made the issue of the China-Russia alliance relevant.

A Brief History of the China-Russia Alliance

In history, China has formed alliances with Russia more than with any other countries. The two countries formed alliances three times, respectively, during the Qing Dynasty, the Republic of China, and the People’s Republic of China.

In June of 1896, China and Russia signed the Li-Lobanov Treaty in Moscow, also known as the Sino-Russian Secret Treaty. This was the first official alliance in the history of Sino-Russian relations. The Treaty was suggested by Russia in defence against Japan for a period of fifteen years. From Russia’s perspective, the main purpose of the Treaty was to make an inroad into northeastern China to gain a competitive edge against Japan in China and the Far East. Following the Chinese defeat in the First Sino-Japanese War in 1894, China was bullied into ceding the Liaoning peninsula, Taiwan, and the Penghu (Pescadores) Islands to Japan, in addition to paying huge sums in reparations. In 1895, Russia united with France and Germany to force Japan to return to China the Liaodong peninsula, which had been ceded to Japan via the Treaty of Shimonoseki. This action led China to the hope and expectation that Russia would help China to resist Japan.

This alliance was only illusory. In 1898, Russia forced the Qing government to lease Port Arthur. In 1900, following the Boxer Rebellion, Russia sent soldiers to occupy all of Manchuria (Northeast China) and even participated in the attack on Beijing. The Sino-Russian alliance was over.

According to the Sino-Russian Secret Treaty, Russia obtained rights to construct the China Eastern Railway, a railway through Northeast China to Russia’s Vladivostok. It was presumed that the construction of the China Eastern Railway would allow Russia to send soldiers and material aid to China when necessary. Once the railway was completed, however, this capability was never utilized. In fact, the railway was a source of conflict between the two countries. China and Russia ceaselessly disputed over ownership and rights to the China Eastern Railway, eventually leading to the Sino-Soviet Conflict of 1929, the largest armed conflict between the two countries in all history. The issue of the China Eastern Railway lasted for half a century, until 1950, when the Soviet Union returned the railway to China.

On August 14, 1945, the Chinese Nationalist government and the Soviet Union signed the Sino-Soviet Treaty of Friendship and Alliance in Moscow. This was the second official alliance between the two countries, valid for a period of 30 years. This alliance was based upon the mutual war against Japan, but the next day after the Treaty was signed, Japan announced capitulation. Although this Treaty was titled as one of friendship and alliance, according to Chiang Kai-shek, the president of the Republic of China at the time, this Treaty was neither one of friendship nor alliance. The Soviet Union signed the Treaty in order to ensure the independence of Mongolia from China in addition to once again gaining special rights in Manchuria. The goal of the Chinese government at the time was to prevent the Soviet Union from remaining in Manchuria once Japan’s Kwantung Army was defeated. Furthermore, it hoped that the Soviet Union would support the Nationalist Party in its war against the Chinese Communist Party. Through this alliance, Russia received official Chinese recognition of Mongolia’s independence, joint ownership and operation of the China Eastern Railway, the right to use Dalian port and a tariff exemption, in addition to allowing the lease of Port Arthur as a military port.

The second Sino-Russian alliance was short-lived. In 1949, after the creation of the People’s Republic of China, the Soviet Union established diplomatic relations with the new Chinese government. It broke off relations with Chiang Kai-shek’s government, annulling the Sino-Soviet Treaty of Friendship and Alliance in 1950.

In February of 1950, the Soviet Union and China signed the Sino-Soviet Treaty of Friendship, Alliance, and Mutual Assistance. This was the third and, to the present day, last official Sino-Russian alliance. The Treaty was to extend for a period of thirty years. According to the Treaty, neither country would enter an alliance against the other, would participate in any activities against the other country, and if either was attacked by Japan, the other would use all its efforts to supply military and other aid. According to the agreement, the Soviet Union promised to turn over all rights and property of the China Eastern Railway to China without compensation, to withdraw from its naval base in Port Arthur, and even to transfer all Soviet property in Dalian to China. In addition, the Soviet Union would supply China with a loan of USD 300 million.

This alliance was significantly different from previous Sino-Russian alliances. It was a comprehensive alliance that touched on political, economic, security, diplomatic, and ideological interests, and it brought huge benefits to China. Although this alliance lasted longer than the previous ones, it was still unable to be carried out from start to finish. As the alliance reached its ten-year mark, cracks in the relationship began to appear. In the early 1960s, the relationship between the two countries publicly ruptured, and by the end of the 1960s, China and the Soviet Union had become enemies. The alliance existed in name only. In 1969, tension between China and the Soviet Union erupted into a military conflict in Zhenbao Island, Heilongjiang province, in the Tielieketi region, the Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region. The danger of a large-scale war hung over both countries. China and the Soviet Union each became the other’s most dangerous enemy, even more dangerous than the targets against whom the original alliance was supposed to defend. The alliance was completely meaningless, and the two countries entered a long-term period of mutual isolation. In 1980, when the term of the alliance was reached, it was not extended.

From the above-illustrated examples, we could see, though different in times and certain context, the three alliances shared some similarities in terms of their destiny. All three were short-lived, with the longest only lasting about ten years and the shortest ending almost as soon as it began. All three alliances began with many hopes and ended on bad terms before they had run out. The cause of the disintegration of these alliances was not because the outside threats had disappeared, but due to issues in bilateral relations. All three brought bilateral relations to a higher point for a short time, after which they fell to an even lower level than before the alliance had been formed.

Advantages and Disadvantages of an Alliance

Under the condition that the Chinese government insists on the policy of non-alliance, the proposition for an alliance is marginal in the Chinese academic circle. Nevertheless, it still has some influence.

According to the views of alliance theory, the alliance between China and Russia is in both countries’ interests. Neither China nor Russia could join the western camp. The United States could not accept either as an ally, which blocked the way for China and Russia to enter the international coalition dominated by the U.S. At the same time, with the deterioration of Sino-U.S. and Russia-U.S. relations, both China and Russia are facing more and more serious strategic pressure and security threats. In this context, the demand for an alliance has become more and more important for China and Russia. They need to form an alliance with countries of similar strategic interests, especially powerful ones, to ease international pressure.

They believe that the China-Russia alliance will not substantially change the nature of great power relations, nor aggravate the structural contradictions between their relations with the United States, nor is it likely to create confrontation between China and Russia and the United States.

They argue that the alliance is not a new Cold War, but behaviour in line with the trend. It has no necessary connection with the Cold War mentality.

Since China’s military strength does not exceed that of Russia, the Sino-Russian alliance will not be an alliance of unequal partners, and neither side will be suppressed. However, objectively, the comprehensive power balance will be tilted towards China.

The Sino-Russian alliance will be an alliance of allies, not of friends. It will be based on common interests, not affection. Therefore, “trust” is not a problem, as long as the common interests exist, the alliance can continue.

Finally, the advocates of alliance believe that China should give up its non-alignment policy because it is not a consistent policy of China all the time, nor is it a policy adopted by most countries in the world.

The above mentioned undoubtedly points to the favourable conditions and positive effects of the alliance. However, the question is that the rationality and possibility of the alliance have not been fully proved. More importantly, there is a lack of investigation on the possible negative effects and side effects that the alliance may produce. It is difficult to make a comprehensive assessment of a policy by highlighting only its potential positive effects and ignoring the negative ones.

The alliance between China and Russia can lift the theoretical level of bilateral relations. Still, it is unlikely to significantly improve its actual level and will not promote bilateral cooperation in various fields. A strategic partnership is already a high position, which has no restrictions on the cooperation between the two countries. If the potential for such collaboration between the two countries has not yet been fully realized, then the alliance is not the key to unlock this path. Therefore, the alliance will have little impact on China-Russia cooperation in practical areas.

In the past years, China and Russia give each other support to the extent that possible by their domestic policies in their conflicts with the other major powers, such as in the Diaoyu islands dispute between China and Japan, China and the United States military confrontation in the South China Sea and Taiwan strait crisis, the Russia-Georgia war, Crimea issues. The alliance will not make the two countries take a completely different policy on similar issues. That is to say, the alliance will not help significantly change both countries’ positions in similar situations.

Alliance and strategic partner are quite different statuses and have very different psychological expectations and requirements for them. Being allies, the two countries will see each other with different visions and demands and set a higher standard for their relations. It is simplistic to think that the alliance will just function in the security sphere and will have no impact on the other bilateral relations areas. Although the alliance is mainly a strategic security concept, it will also create new political, diplomatic, economic, and other requirements for China-Russia relations.

As the standards and expectations rise, it is easier for disappointments and dissatisfaction to appear in the bilateral cooperation, and their gradual accumulation will eventually erode the relationship. Therefore, the alliance is a double-edged sword which, on the one hand, is a way to deepen the bilateral relations. Still, on the other, it could also be a way to hurt the bilateral relations in the pessimistic scenario. What result it will produce depends on the specific situation and conditions.

The alliance between China and Russia will profoundly impact international politics and great power relations. It would be rash to assume that it will not substantially change world politics. The pros and cons of such an effect, however, can be debated. The alliance between China and Russia will undoubtedly stimulate the formation of two camps and promote international politics’ development towards two systems. Simultaneously, both China and Russia are big countries, which is very different from the alliance between a big country and a small country. It will definitely affect the two countries’ foreign policies, even their development strategy and direction, as well as their relations with other big countries. While improving the two countries’ strategic capabilities, it will also put certain restrictions on their space of strategic manoeuvre, which is undesirable for them.

Alliance may create benefits, but not without costs and risks, and it may bring adverse side effects.

For China and Russia, the alliance is mortgaging trust and the long-term future of the relationship between them. According to alliance theory, there are two major worries about alliance: one is the fear of being abandoned by allies when in a crisis situation; the other is the fear of being dragged down by allies to undesired war. The China-Russia alliance would also face these tests. An alliance is a military bloc, which requires the two countries to form a united front in military security and support each other in case one side is attacked. It is safe to say that neither China nor Russia is ready for this. It is rash to bet on the assumption that the other side will not fight a war, or that a small war will not require the support of the other side. This not only means not being prepared to perform the alliance treaty when need to but also risks default of the Treaty. In fact, one side in a war, no matter big or small, will demand the support of the other side. Without such political preparation, the foundation of the Sino-Russian alliance will be unreliable and fragile, and it will inevitably end sadly, destroying the mutual trust between China and Russia that accumulated in decades. To rebuild it won’t be easy.

The Flexible Strategic Partnership Model is Still Preferred

In order to enter into an alliance, the decisive factor is whether China and Russia will change their current policy and shift bilateral relations to suit the alliance. The transition from non-alignment policy to alignment is easy to do in theory, but in practice is much more complicated. Such change requires careful consideration of various factors and a careful weighing of the pros and cons.

So far, there is no sign that China is preparing to ally with Russia. From Russia’s side, although President Putin has softened his position on this issue in theory, it is not enough to prove that it has become Russia’s policy, and it is not clear whether Russia wants to align itself with China. In the Russian academic circles, those who advocate an alliance with China are not mainstream. Many people worry that an alliance with China would make Russia a “junior partner” of China, and fear that Russia could be drawn into a possible confrontation between China and the United States. They prefer a policy of “sitting on top of the mountain to watch the tigers fight”.

Taking all these factors into consideration, strategic partnership is still the optimal form for China and Russia. Although the level of the strategic partnership is not as high as an alliance, it is more in line with the logic of development of China-Russia relations, closer to its current level and state, and more suitable for the domestic political ecology of the two countries. It is readily accepted and supported by the elites and public of different views inside the two countries. It is more inclusive and can accommodate problems and contradictions in bilateral relations to a greater extent so that it is less likely to be politicized or emotional. Therefore, the strategic partnership model has more robust survival flexibility than alliance and can be applied to different domestic and international environments to be maintained over a long period. In contrast, it is not easy for China and Russia to maintain alliance for a long time.

Simply put, Sino-Russian relations have a very complex past, and trust is both a precious and valuable asset. Only by ensuring the continuous accumulation of mutual trust and not interrupting this process again can we ensure the long-term stability of China-Russia relations. The strategic partnership model is the best fit for this goal.

Although the strategic partnership has several advantages, the question now is whether or not such a partnership may become relevant due to deteriorating Sino-U.S. and Russia-U.S. relations. In the case of a worsening security situation, should China and Russia seek an alliance?

For Russia and especially for China, an alliance would mean breaking the long-held principle of non-alignment. In the abstract sense, non-alignment is of value meaning.

But in real international politics, it has both the value meaning and the tool attributes. One of the purposes of non-alignment policy is not to engage in confrontation. However, an alliance is not always about confrontation, and self-defence may also be the goal. That is to say, alignment or non-alignment is not a priori right or wrong, just or unjust, but depends on particular situations and purposes. Since international relations are far from their ideal state, its instrumental nature in international politics is inevitable, so it is a policy option for countries, rather than a fixed dogma. Therefore, theoretically, the principle of non-alignment is not an insurmountable obstacle.

Although China and Russia have the opportunity to form an alliance, from the perspective of the possible effects, that may not be the most favourable option for China-Russian relations.

The most essential function of an alliance for China and Russia is, first of all, to ensure the support of the other side in the event of war, and second of all, to neutralize the security threats presented by the United States. In the former case, it is hard to imagine either side will join the other side fighting war with third countries, though the odds of war between great powers are not high. The latter is the normal function of the alliances. However, with the alliance being formed, this function of checks and balance has reached its limits.

The United States is worried about the possibility of an alliance between China and Russia.Now, since such a partnership has come to light, the worry has become a reality and thus disappeared.

In this regard, drawing the bow without shooting is an even more powerful and effective way to counterbalance the security threats. That is to say, not entering into an alliance but keeping the door to one. This format possesses great expansionary possibilities and allows China and Russia to have broader freedom of strategic manoeuvre. The strategic partnership model could have this kind of effects. The China-Russian strategic partnership includes security and military cooperation, and now it only needs to strengthen it. The main difference between it and the alliance is that there is no compulsive obligation of military support for the other side in case of war. Still, there are no restrictions on not providing such support.

China and Russia had a practice of military support without a formal alliance. In July of 1937, the War of Resistance against Japan officially broke out in China. In the second year, China and the Soviet Union signed the Sino-Soviet Non-Aggression Pact and the Sino-Soviet Commercial Pact. Following this, the Soviet Union supplied China with a loan worth 250 million U.S. dollars to purchase weapons from the Soviet Union. As a result, China bought large amounts of tanks, planes, artillery, firearms, and other materials from the Soviet Union. The Soviet Union even dispatched a Soviet volunteer Air Force group to aid China. Over 1000 Soviet pilots came as volunteers to fight against the Japanese on Chinese soil directly. Military aid to China from the Soviet Union continued until April 1941 when the Soviet Union and Japan signed a neutrality pact.

It is equally important that, while creating needed strategic security functions, the strategic partnership model can avoid a series of adverse effects that may result from an alliance, and it does not have to cross the political principle of non-alignment.

An alliance is a possible option, but the last resort. The possible condition for the Sino-Russian alliance is that the United States pose a serious direct security threat to China and Russia at the same time, and military confrontation may occur, making security the overriding strategic need for both China and Russia.

In the context of current China-Russia-U.S. relations, once China and Russia align, it means that the United States is an open enemy. Although the threat of the United States can be alleviated through an alliance, the fact that a great power becomes an enemy itself constitutes huge strategic pressure. This is just like the case of the triangle of China — U.S. — USSR during the Cold War. The triangle reduced the security threat from the Soviet Union to China. Still, it did not solve China’s security problems, because it did not eliminate the threat itself, but merely increased its ability to deal with it. This threat was indeed removed only after normal relations between China and the Soviet Union were restored. The same was true of the Soviet Union. The strategic confrontation between China and the Soviet Union ended only when the two countries regained friendship.

From this point of view, for China and Russia, a normal relationship with the United States is the ultimate way to eliminate the strategic pressure and threat. Undoubtedly, both China and Russia wish cooperative relations with the United States. It’s in their interests. But it depends on the intentions of the U.S. as well. Without mutual positive interaction, it’s impossible to foster cooperative relations. Now the ball is on the side of the U.S. Surely the U.S. thinks it is the other way.

The conclusion is simple. China and Russia should maintain a strategic partnership, take full use of the possibilities it contains, and leave the door to alliance open. The two countries should not set limits on their strategic choices. Under the condition that international situation continues to deteriorate, China and Russia’s strategic and military security threats are likely to increase. At a certain critical point, the alliance may become a practical need for China and Russia.

From our partner RIAC

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