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Andrey Kortunov

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

Recently, the RAND Corporation, an authoritative Washington-based think tank, has frequently regaled its readers with original and exceedingly relevant analytical materials. One of its reports published several months ago spurred a lively discussion in the American expert community; I believe it is also of certain interest for the thinking Russian reader. The essence of this curious 24-page-long paper is already obvious from its title: “Russia is a Rogue, Not a Peer; China is a Peer, Not a Rogue.”

The report insists that Russia and China should not be considered as equally significant competitors using similar strategies in their confrontation with Washington. While Moscow should be rigorously and comprehensively “contained” using deterrence policies like those of the U.S. toward the USSR during the Cold War, the U.S. will have to adjust to China’s growing power, and that includes possible concessions and compromises.

This is how the report pictures the desirable results of “containing” Russia: “The objectives of these various military, economic, and informational efforts should not be just to deter Russian aggression and limit its influence but also to steer Moscow toward an off-ramp encouraging it to abandon its destructive behaviour and resume the democratic and economic reforms begun after the Cold War”. In other words, the report talks about changing the political regime in Moscow.

There can be different reactions to the RAND Corporation’s report. It could be dismissed as another manifestation of “Russophobia” and the current degradation of the U.S. foreign political discourse. One could dispute its forecasts and extrapolations concerning the Russian or American economy. One could start a discussion on what defines a “rogue state” and which countries can be classified as such in today’s world. One could focus on looking for factual imprecisions and errors scattered throughout the report.

It should, nonetheless, be kept in mind that many of the views of Russia and its foreign policy reflected in this report are widespread in Washington today. These views are bipartisan and they affect the stance of Washington’s officials concerning specific foreign political issues. Suppressing the natural urge to engage in harsh polemics with the report and studying its text again sine ira et studio (without ire and partiality), let’s make a few conclusions.

  1. Large-scale plans for Russia-U.S. cooperation will have to be set aside for the time being, until such time when the sentiments of the U.S. establishment change.
  2. In the “Russia – U.S. – China” triangle, China holds a priority position. Beijing is the one that will make decisions on how to balance the points of the triangle, what concessions China should make in its relations with the U.S., and to what degree it should support the Kremlin in its confrontation with the White House.
  3. The U.S. strategy of comprehensively “containing” Russia will not likely succeed if it is not supported by Washington’s friends and allies throughout the world. This is where Moscow apparently has the principal open options for its tactical counter-play.

Recently, the RAND Corporation, an authoritative Washington-based think tank, has frequently regaled its readers with original and exceedingly relevant analytical materials. One of its reports published several months ago spurred a lively discussion in the American expert community; I believe it is also of certain interest for the thinking Russian reader. The essence of this curious 24-page-long paper is already obvious from its title: “Russia is a Rogue, Not a Peer; China is a Peer, Not a Rogue.”[1]

The Rand Corporation took its inspiration from the U.S. National Security Strategy published in late 2017. In this Strategy, Russia and China, along with Iran and North Korea and with international terrorists, are described as the main threats to the U.S. In particular, the Strategy notes that Moscow and Beijing “challenge American power, influence, and interests, attempting to erode American security and prosperity. They are determined to make economies less free and less fair, to grow their militaries, and to control information and data to repress their societies and expand their influence” [2].

It goes on to say, “Today, they are fielding military capabilities designed to deny America access in times of crisis and to contest our ability to operate freely in critical commercial zones during peacetime. In short, they are contesting our geopolitical advantages and trying to change the international order in their favour” [3].

The RAND Corporation’s report does not call into question these general statements of the White House. The report merely insists that Russia and China should not be considered as equally significant competitors using similar strategies in their confrontation with Washington. While Moscow should be rigorously and comprehensively “contained” using deterrence policies like those of the U.S. toward the USSR during the Cold War, the U.S. will have to adjust to China’s growing power, and that includes possible concessions and compromises.

To prove their conclusions, the authors compare both the dynamics of Russia’s and China’s socioeconomic development for the next two decades and the specifics of the two countries’ foreign political tactics. They believe that in the next twenty years, Russia will develop at a slower pace than the U.S. and its population will shrink rapidly, while China will still significantly outpace the U.S. in its economic growth, and China’s population is more likely to stabilize than to shrink. The growth dynamics of Russia’s military spending will also be lower than that of China, and if in 2040 Moscow is still superior to Beijing in terms of its nuclear missiles, it will be solely due to China’s conscious self-restrictions and not because it is unable to rapidly increase its potential in the area.

Despite the inevitable increase in the economic and technological gap between Russia and the U.S., it is Russia and not China that will remain the most serious threat to U.S. security in the nearest future. Russia’s leadership is ready to take high military risks and is inclined to adventurism, whereas China’s leaders prefer the cautious tactics of expanding the country’s global influence while attempting to minimize possible collateral risks. Time is on the side of Beijing, but not on the side of Moscow, and the leaders of both countries can clearly see this. Hence the differences in their foreign political tactics and in the set of instruments both countries use on the international stage.

Additionally, the report notes that Russia’s military is immediately pressed up against the U.S. NATO allies in Europe, while none of the U.S. allies in Asia shares a land border with China. Russia’s military has been involved in armed hostilities in recent years significantly more often than China’s. On the whole, the risks of the U.S. becoming involved in a direct armed conflict with Russia are higher than the risks of a U.S. military conflict with China.

Hence Washington should currently concentrate primarily on “containing” Russia, without forgetting long-term competition with China. Specifically, “deterrence” should have the following components:

  • Maximum restriction of Russia’s continual revenue from selling its energy sources on the global market; for this purpose, the U.S. should rapidly step up exports of its own oil and gas to secure its role as the regulator of global energy prices; at the same time, Washington should stimulate the global economy’s transition to renewable and alternative power sources;
  • Tightening trade, economic, financial, technological, and other sanctions against Moscow; the U.S. should expand these sanctions to other sectors of Russia’s economy and make these sanctions as universal as possible, removing any ways of bypassing the sanctions for allies and neutral actors to the greatest possible extent;
  • Active influence on Russia’s domestic political processes as a response to Moscow’s “meddling” in elections in the U.S. and in European countries; Washington should influence individual target audiences within Russian society and influence attitude to Russia in other countries.

This is how the report pictures the desirable results of “containing” Russia: “The objectives of these various military, economic, and informational efforts should not be just to deter Russian aggression and limit its influence but also to steer Moscow toward an off-ramp encouraging it to abandon its destructive behaviour and resume the democratic and economic reforms begun after the Cold War” [4]. In other words, the report talks about changing the political regime in Moscow.

The authors believe that this strategy will would work for China. If the U.S. can for a time apply the “deterrence” principles to China in military affairs (and that would involve constantly increasing “deterrence” expenses), it is too late to engage in the economic “deterrence” of Beijing, at least in Asia Pacific. Thus far, the U.S. has general technological superiority over China, but this superiority is rapidly shrinking. While Russia is in a state of long-term and irreversible decline, China is in a state of an equally long-term rise that the U.S. is unable to stop.

On the other hand, China, unlike Russia, is extremely interested in preserving the current global financial economic system that ensures the rapid growth of China’s economy. Many features of Beijing’s foreign economic strategy cause the U.S. concerns and prompt objections both from the U.S. and from its allies, yet they do not generate immediate challenges and security threats comparable to those of Russia. Therefore, the U.S. strategy towards China should be different. It could include the following focuses:

  • Maintaining a strategic balance between the U.S. and China in East and Southeast Asia while relying on Washington’s Asian allies; at the same time, Washington should seek any opportunities to defuse tensions with Beijing proceeding from the premise that the balance of power in Asia will inevitably shift in favour of China;
  • Active work to improve international trade and investment regimes in order to gradually involve China in these regimes; at the same time, the U.S. should develop and implement large-scale programmes in hi-tech areas of its economy to prevent China from gaining technological superiority in the future;
  • Using various forms of rewarding China for its “constructive behaviour”; for instance, the U.S. could join the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, join the Belt and Road initiative on specific terms, cooperate in programmes to provide aid to third countries, etc.

While the principal goal of the U.S. regarding Moscow is to force it to abandon its reckless and dangerous behaviour on the global stage that puts Russia among other “rogue states”, the main goal concerning Beijing is to involve it in creating and developing such a global economic and political order that would make it possible to reduce the costs of the inevitable U.S.–China rivalry for both parties. Given all the differences between the two proposed strategies, the report stresses that their success largely hinges on Washington’s ability to rally the maximum possible number of its allies and partners around these strategies.

There can be different reactions to the RAND Corporation’s report. It can be dismissed as another manifestation of “Russophobia” and the current degradation of the U.S. foreign political discourse. One could dispute its forecasts and extrapolations concerning the Russian or American economy. One could start a discussion on what defines a “rogue state” and which countries can be classified as such in today’s world. One could focus on looking for factual imprecisions and errors scattered throughout the report.

It should, nonetheless, be kept in mind that the many views of Russia and its foreign policy as reflected in this report are widespread in Washington today. These views are bipartisan and they affect the stance of Washington’s officials concerning specific foreign political issues. Suppressing the natural urge to engage in harsh polemics with the report and studying its text again sine ira et studio (without ire and partiality), let’s make a few conclusions.

First, if the U.S. goal with respect to Russia is ultimately taking Russia back to the 1990s, while such a return is not likely in the foreseeable future, any positive interaction between the two countries will be at best reduced to tactical, ad hoc points (Syria, Yemen, and North Korea). Large-scale plans for Russia–U.S. cooperation will have to be set aside for the time being, until such time when the sentiments of the U.S. establishment change.

Second, in the “Russia – U.S. – China” triangle, China holds a priority position. Beijing is the one that will make decisions on how to balance the points of the triangle, what concessions China should make in its relations with the U.S., and to what degree it should support the Kremlin in its confrontation with the White House. China has more aces up its sleeve allowing it to bargain with the U.S. than Russia does, and, therefore, China’s diplomacy will have more room for manoeuvre than its Russian counterpart. Although the prospect of a U.S.–China strategic partnership appears unlikely, Beijing will hardly miss out on the existing opportunities to achieve agreements with Washington on specific issues.

Third, the U.S. strategy of comprehensively “containing” Russia will be unlikely to succeed if it is not supported by Washington’s friends and allies throughout the world. This is where Moscow apparently has the principal open options for its tactical counter-play, especially since the high-handed and impulsive policies of the current administration already have and continue to cause significant and lasting damage to “Western unity”.

As for a strategic counter-play, it would be possible in one case only: if Russia moves to a new level of its socioeconomic development, radically increases its human capital, stops the shrinking of its weight in the global economy, and avoids being pushed into the rear-guard of the coming global technical revolution. That is, everything depends on Russia’s readiness to achieve the quality breakthrough which has been the subject of so much talk at so many levels and which, like the faraway horizon, constantly recedes into the distance as we approach it.

1. Traditionally, the English term “rogue state” is translated into Russian as a “pariah state,” but it can also be interpreted as a “hooligan state,” a “reckless state,” or even as an “extremist state”. The term “peer” primarily entails equal power: a “peer state” can be interpreted as an equal partner and as an equal adversary, rival, or competitor.

4. White House, National Security Strategy of the United States. Washington, DC, December 2017, p. 2.

3. Ibid., p. 27.

4. James Dobbins, Howard J. Shatz, Ali Wyne…, p. 10.


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Poll conducted

  1. Korean Peninsula Crisis Has no Military Solution. How Can It Be Solved?
    Demilitarization of the region based on Russia-China "Dual Freeze" proposal  
     36 (35%)
    Restoring multilateral negotiation process without any preliminary conditions  
     27 (26%)
    While the situation benefits Kim Jong-un's and Trump's domestic agenda, there will be no solution  
     22 (21%)
    Armed conflict still cannot be avoided  
     12 (12%)
    Stonger deterrence on behalf of the U.S. through modernization of military infrastructure in the region  
     4 (4%)
    Toughening economic sanctions against North Korea  
     2 (2%)
 
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