By trying to defend everything, it risks defending nothing
Russia’s war in Ukraine may finish with no clear winner, but there is another country who will benefit: China. Indeed, Russia is now more dependent than ever on China’s patronage, and ties between the two countries have been deepening for some time.
A Eurasian axis — more a collaborative non-aggression pact than an alliance — has been forming for years, based on a shared determination to roll back western preponderance. It features increased economic ties, military exercises, and large-scale military technology transfers, from Su-35 combat aircraft and S-400 air defence systems to a joint early warning system project. Now that Russia has been isolated from most of the western world, this relationship has become more lopsided in China’s favour, with Xi Jinping quietly increasing the purchase of raw materials like oil, gas, and coal at a discount.
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Some emphasise that Russia is a diminished, Potemkin power. As in the past, though, Russia may survive stagnation, even if only as a large version of North Korea that generates periodic crises. China’s alignment with Russia may harm its reputation, but not much outside the West and U.S. treaty allies. Thus far, other major regional states — India, South Africa, and U.S. partners in the Gulf — have hedged, refusing to treat Ukraine as a defining struggle for world order, and helping Russia to prevent its economic collapse. The West is not the world, and projecting power is no longer dependent on its approval.
Russia’s reduced status will also leave China less fearful of its mainland border. With more local stability in lands where their interests overlap, this will enable both countries to redeploy combat power to the main theatres of contestation where they can apply pressure simultaneously on Nato’s eastern flank and the Indo-Pacific.
As for Taiwan, balancing Russia in Ukraine does not straightforwardly deter China’s adventurism across the Strait. As well as diverting military power, sanctions on Russian trade also deplete the sanctioning states. In turn, that makes it harder economically to repeat the effort elsewhere in the short to medium term. Were China to move on Taiwan soon, European states would be reluctant to wage economic warfare against Beijing at the same time as Moscow. Western states cannot blockade and Lend-Lease all the time.
China will gain especially if Washington continues to misinterpret the war in Ukraine as a lesson in the need to spread its power across Europe and Asia. The war in Ukraine is splitting U.S. strategic attention: note America’s vast “Lend-Lease” aid to Ukraine, increased military presence in Europe, and the rewriting of its National Security Strategy with a partial rebalance to Europe. Neither can we rule out further distraction, for instance if Iran’s accelerating nuclear programme triggers another crisis in the Middle East.
Rather than rank its adversaries, burden shift to allies and concentrate its power, Washington is falling prey to strategic indiscipline. Defending everything, it risks defending nothing. Joe Biden needs to engage in a course correction — and he needs to do so now.