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Andrey Kortunov

Ph.D. in History, Director General of the Russian International Affairs Council, RIAC member

America’s foreign political discourse has long featured Russia and China as the principal geopolitical threats to the U.S. Often, no distinction is drawn between these states, they are listed together, followed by Iran, North Korea, Syria, Venezuela and other sources of worry and concern for Washington. The strategic “double deterrent” paradigm is generally the same for Moscow and Beijing.

Nonetheless, sophisticated politicians and experts do attempt to paint a more complex picture focusing on both the similarities and the differences between America’s two strategic opponents. A short while ago, presidential candidate Joe Biden also said that Russia is currently the USA’s principal threat, while China is America's key competitor.

There is a subtle distinction here. So what exactly is the difference between a competitor and an enemy? A competitor generally plays by the rules, yet is also willing to break these rules if the occasion arises. An enemy, on the other hand, knows no rules. A competitor attempts to push you out of the market or to take over your favourable geopolitical standing. An enemy attempts to destroy your institutions and values. You can try to achieve an amicable agreement with the former through mutual concessions and compromises. The latter has to be fought to the bitter end (in the words of Maxim Gorky, “if an enemy does not surrender, he must be annihilated”). That is, being a competitor beats being an enemy.

Joe Biden was not original in his attempt to fit the USA’s two opponents into two different categories. The U.S. has attempted to set Moscow and Beijing against each other since the mid-20th century. Ingenious Henry Kissinger did best when, in order to counter the Soviet Union, he undertook a broad normalisation of relations with Communist China at a significant political cost. Kissinger’s tactics were quite logical: entering into a partnership with the weaker opponent in order to isolate the stronger one. Fifty years ago, these tactics generally proved successful, or at least appeared to be. Kissinger could not foresee that Beijing would, among other things, use America’s support to transform itself some fifty years later into Washington’s leading competitor.

Just like Donald Trump saw time and again throughout the four years of his presidency that “it was impossible to tear Russia away from China," Joe Biden will time and again see that China cannot be "torn away" from Russia. Moscow needs Beijing regardless of the current state of and prospects for China-U.S. relations. China's leadership will be happy to act as an arbiter or "balancer" between Moscow and Washington, since Beijing has also carefully studied Kissinger's legacy. Yet, as Beijing follows Kissinger’s precepts, it will never actively support the U.S. in its desire to corner Russia.

Third, paradoxical as it may sound, Moscow’s more modest role in the global economy, technologies and finance means that, compared to China, it is better able to withstand American pressure. The Trump Administration has virtually exhausted its potential resources for putting pressure on Russia without entailing major risks for the American or global economy or for global and regional stability. No matter how Russia is viewed, Russia is not North Korea, Venezuela, or even Iran. Taking anti-Russian sanctions to a radically new, higher level would mean launching developments with unpredictable but highly dangerous consequences for the U.S. and the entire world. As far as we can see, such adventurism is not typical of an experienced and cautious man like Joe Biden. Additionally, relations with Russia are not the main problem his administration will face.

Consequently, Biden’s harsh anti-Russian campaign rhetoric should not be taken literally. We are unlikely to see a consistent and purposeful “anti-Kissinger” either in the White House or in the State Department. In the near future, Russia-U.S. relations are unlikely either to radically improve or radically deteriorate. The possibilities for their deterioration appear limited, while the prospects for any marked improvement remain vague.

America’s foreign political discourse has long featured Russia and China as the principal geopolitical threats to the U.S. Often, no distinction is drawn between these states, they are listed together, followed by Iran, North Korea, Syria, Venezuela and other sources of worry and concern for Washington. The strategic “double deterrent” paradigm is generally the same for Moscow and Beijing.

Nonetheless, sophisticated politicians and experts do attempt to paint a more complex picture focusing on both the similarities and the differences between America’s two strategic opponents. A short while ago, presidential candidate Joe Biden also said that Russia is currently the USA’s principal threat, while China is America's key competitor.

There is a subtle distinction here. So what exactly is the difference between a competitor and an enemy? A competitor generally plays by the rules, yet is also willing to break these rules if the occasion arises. An enemy, on the other hand, knows no rules. A competitor attempts to push you out of the market or to take over your favourable geopolitical standing. An enemy attempts to destroy your institutions and values. You can try to achieve an amicable agreement with the former through mutual concessions and compromises. The latter has to be fought to the bitter end (in the words of Maxim Gorky, “if an enemy does not surrender, he must be annihilated”). That is, being a competitor beats being an enemy.

Joe Biden was not original in his attempt to fit the USA’s two opponents into two different categories. The U.S. has attempted to set Moscow and Beijing against each other since the mid-20th century. Ingenious Henry Kissinger did best when, in order to counter the Soviet Union, he undertook a broad normalisation of relations with Communist China at a significant political cost. Kissinger’s tactics were quite logical: entering into a partnership with the weaker opponent in order to isolate the stronger one. Fifty years ago, these tactics generally proved successful, or at least appeared to be. Kissinger could not foresee that Beijing would, among other things, use America’s support to transform itself some fifty years later into Washington’s leading competitor.

Had Biden been Kissinger’s diligent pupil, he would most likely have called China, not Russia, the “biggest threat” to the U.S. since Beijing has far outstripped Moscow in all aspects of its national power, with the exception of the strategic military dimension. In some ways, Trump attempted to apply Kissinger’s experience, although his proclaimed intention to achieve a rapprochement with Russia by drawing Vladimir Putin on to the “right side of history” did not translate into any specific steps during the four years of his presidency. Joe Biden apparently wants to become an "anti-Kissinger," that is, he wants to achieve an “amicable deal” with the stronger Beijing and “put the squeeze” on the weaker Moscow.

The reasons for such a departure from Henry Kissinger’s geopolitical precepts are debatable. Maybe Joe Biden wishes to present himself in the starkest possible contrast with Donald Trump, who did not conceal his liking at least for the Russian leader, if not for Russia in general. Maybe Biden is, indeed, warier of Vladimir Putin's determined and often unpredictable actions than of Xi Jinping's cautious foreign political steps, which are easy to calculate. Nor can we rule out the possible influence of the American politician’s personal and emotionally tinged perceptions of the Russian and Chinese leaders.

Turning Kissinger’s geopolitical scheme on its head is certain to find a host of supporters and advocates among the political establishment in Washington. For them, Russia makes a far more convenient “opponent” than China. America would have to pay an exorbitant price for a full-fledged confrontation with China: a drop in their bilateral trade, which is very important for the U.S., severance of established global technological chains, a rapid increase in military spending, etc. The U.S.-Russia confrontation will cost much less given that there is very little economic and technological mutual dependence between the two states and Moscow is far less prepared to engage in costly military competition with America.

The “ancestral memory” of the American political establishment should not be underestimated either. This establishment was largely formed during the stage of the “Cold War when the ‘good’ China was opposed to the ‘bad’ Soviet Union,” and this obtains for Joe Biden himself. Even now, the overwhelming majority of American experts on Russia have a highly negative attitude toward Moscow, while most American experts on China tend to like or at least understand “the Middle Empire." The Russian and Chinese diasporas in the U.S. also differ radically: while Chinese immigrants to the U.S. mostly lobby for normalisation of relations between the two states, most Russian and Russian-speaking immigrants cannot be said to strive for the same.

When assessing Joe Biden’s intention to set Moscow against Beijing, one cannot help recalling Leo Tolstoy’s words about the Russian writer Leonid Andreyev: he "tries to frighten me, but I am not afraid." Joe Biden is unlikely to become a successful “anti-Kissinger.” First, it is no longer possible to achieve an “amicable deal” with China. The U.S.-China contradictions have already gone too far. An “amicable deal” requires the White House to be willing to reconsider its fundamental ideas about the place the U.S. holds in the system of international relations. The U.S. will have to abandon its claim to any global American hegemony similar to that of the 20th century, and, certainly, neither Biden nor his entourage are willing to do that. If a revolution in America’s self-perception and its perception of the world ever starts, this will not be before 2024 and, until that time, Washington-Beijing relations will remain complicated and tense.

Second, just like Donald Trump saw time and again throughout the four years of his presidency that “it was impossible to tear Russia away from China," Joe Biden will time and again see that China cannot be "torn away" from Russia. Moscow needs Beijing regardless of the current state of and prospects for China-U.S. relations. China's leadership will be happy to act as an arbiter or "balancer" between Moscow and Washington, since Beijing has also carefully studied Kissinger's legacy. Yet, as Beijing follows Kissinger’s precepts, it will never actively support the U.S. in its desire to corner Russia.

Third, paradoxical as it may sound, Moscow’s more modest role in the global economy, technologies and finance means that, compared to China, it is better able to withstand American pressure. The Trump Administration has virtually exhausted its potential resources for putting pressure on Russia without entailing major risks for the American or global economy or for global and regional stability. No matter how Russia is viewed, Russia is not North Korea, Venezuela, or even Iran. Taking anti-Russian sanctions to a radically new, higher level would mean launching developments with unpredictable but highly dangerous consequences for the U.S. and the entire world. As far as we can see, such adventurism is not typical of an experienced and cautious man like Joe Biden. Additionally, relations with Russia are not the main problem his administration will face.

Consequently, Biden’s harsh anti-Russian campaign rhetoric should not be taken literally. We are unlikely to see a consistent and purposeful “anti-Kissinger” either in the White House or in the State Department. In the near future, Russia-U.S. relations are unlikely either to radically improve or radically deteriorate. The possibilities for their deterioration appear limited, while the prospects for any marked improvement remain vague.

First published in Le Courrier de Russie.


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Poll conducted

  1. In your opinion, what are the US long-term goals for Russia?
    U.S. wants to establish partnership relations with Russia on condition that it meets the U.S. requirements  
     33 (31%)
    U.S. wants to deter Russia’s military and political activity  
     30 (28%)
    U.S. wants to dissolve Russia  
     24 (22%)
    U.S. wants to establish alliance relations with Russia under the US conditions to rival China  
     21 (19%)
 
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