Central Asia Could Be the Key to Driving a Wedge Between Russia and China


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by Ian Morris

'Immortal Regiment' marches through Moscow for Victory Day
‘Immortal Regiment’ marches through Moscow for Victory Day

Russian President Vladimir Putin (C) holds a portrait of his father during the Immortal Regiment, a rally where people carrying portraits of their relatives-veterans of WWII, after the Victory Day Parade at Red Square, May 9, 2022, in Moscow, Russia. Credit – Sefa Karacan-Anadolu Agency

“War is the realm of chance,” said Carl von Clausewitz, who knew more about the matter than most of us. “No other human activity is so continuously or universally bound up with it.” Even with Russia’s offensive in Ukraine bogging down to the point that a Pentagon official can call it “anemic” and Vladimir Putin’s Victory Day speech on May 9 passing off with no new threats of escalation, trying to look ahead beyond the war’s end seems like a fool’s errand—except that it is what strategists have to do. They must squint toward distant horizons while options are still open, rather than waiting till alternatives have been foreclosed and then scrambling to deal with whatever is left. The reality is that, almost regardless of what happens in Ukraine over the next few weeks, the United States can do something about the biggest strategic question of the war—which is whether the fighting will push Russia and China together into a great-power bloc dominating Eurasia, or whether it will pull them apart, reducing either’s ability to undermine the American global order.

Geography has made Russia and China revisionists. The map looks very different from Moscow than from Beijing, but strategists in both places see one big thing about it: that it needs to be redrawn.

Russia’s geography—landlocked on the plains of central Eurasia, with few natural defenses—has not really changed since 1547, when the 16-year-old Ivan the Terrible made himself tsar. However, what this geography means has changed dramatically. In Ivan’s day, the main threats came from the east, where the Mongols remained a potent force even three centuries after Genghis Khan. Ivan and his successors therefore pushed Russia’s borders east- and southeastward, creating strategic depth. Russian settlers crossed the Urals in 1598 and gazed on the Pacific in 1639.

By then, with Mongol power broken, the threats came chiefly from the west. Polish armies took Moscow in 1610; Swedes besieged St Petersburg in 1705 and marched deep into Ukraine in 1709; Napoleon burned Moscow in 1812; Germany pushed Russia into revolution in 1917, sparking civil wars and foreign interventions that almost broke the country apart, and threatened Moscow again in 1941. No wonder Russians fear Europe.

But Russia saw off all these threats, constantly adding strategic depth on its European flank. It occupied Crimea in 1783, Paris in 1814, and advanced to the Elbe in 1945. This “pivot to the west,” as Peter the Great called it in the 1690s, remade Russia’s geography, turning the country decisively toward Europe, supplying stronger borders, and relegating Asia to a supporting role. It also ended Russia’s isolation by gaining access to the Atlantic via the Baltic, Black, and Mediterranean Seas. Through the 19th-century, spies, diplomats, and explorers even played what Rudyard Kipling called a deadly “Great Game” against Britain, stretching Russian tentacles through Central Asia and Afghanistan toward the warm waters of the Indian Ocean.

When Vladimir Putin said in 2005 that the Soviet Union’s collapse was “the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the 20th century,” what he meant was that losing its East European and Central Asian vassals undid all these efforts to solve Russia’s geopolitical problems. Russia was reduced to being a revisionist power, with only two options left after 1991.

One was to accept American primacy and join the Western-dominated global system. This was not unthinkable: Germany, Japan, and Britain all went this way after 1945, with generally good results. As late as 2000, Putin still talked of maybe joining NATO. However, Russia would have joined the new world order as a third-rate power, lagging behind not only the U.S. but also the E.U., Japan, China, and even India. But whether because NATO acted too aggressively, or Russian leaders were backward-looking, or for deeper, darker reasons, this was the path not taken. Russia instead became an adversary. Seeking to regain strategic depth, it undermined or attacked post-Soviet republics in Eastern Europe, Caucasus, and Central Asia, and sought ice-free ports in war-torn Syria (and, thanks to a different tragedy, in the increasingly ice-free Arctic Circle).

Ivan the Terrible, Peter and Catherine the Great, and Stalin would instantly have understood Putin’s policy. He is responsible for killing 50,000 people and wounding at least 100,000 more since taking over the Chechen War began in 1999—but the painful truth is that until February 2022, his strategy seemed to be working.

China’s route to revisionism was similar and yet different. On and off for over 2,000 years, rulers based around the Yellow River built up strategic depth of their own by fighting Mongols, Turks, and other nomads on the steppes and pushing inland to the mountains of Xinjiang, Yunnan, and Tibet. They dominated the trade of the western Pacific and created one of the world’s great civilizations. But European industrial and military might abruptly swept all these achievements away in the 1840s. In the ensuing “Century of Humiliation,” civil war and western rapacity came close to dismembering China.

Since 1949, China has been relentlessly revisionist. On Stalin’s prompting, it fought the Americans in Korea between 1950 and 1953; then, breaking with the Soviets, it went to war with them in 1969 and reached out to the US in 1972. In the 1980s, it swapped its antagonism toward Western markets for what its strategists called “Peaceful Development.” Accepting a subordinate place in American-dominated global markets, it expanded its economy eight-fold between 1981 and 2008—only to turn increasingly antagonistic after that year’s financial crisis. The same strategists had who welcomed the West in the 1990s now argued that China must either break the “Island Chains,” a string of American allies running from Japan to Singapore, or outflank them with the Belt and Road Initiative, linking China to ports in the Mediterranean and Indian Ocean by building new infrastructure across Central Asia.

The two great revisionists, says Putin, are “good friends who hold largely the same views on addressing the world’s problems.” Both want to see the U.S. pushed back into the western hemisphere, leaving China dominant in Asia and Russia able to bully the European Union and Britain.

Russian and Chinese capacities complement each other. China has the world’s biggest economy; Russia, its biggest nuclear arsenal. China has money but needs fossil fuels; Russia has fossil fuels but needs money. Together, the two might be able to build a “de-dollarized” financial system immune to western sanctions; and each validates the other’s authoritarianism, much as fascist dictators did in the 1930s.

But most of all, what links them is geography. In his famous essay “The geographical pivot of history,” the British geographer Halford Mackinder predicted back in 1904 that, after four centuries in which naval powers like Spain, France, and Britain had dominated the globe, a new era was dawning. In it, he said, the balance of power would pivot around Asia’s heartland—basically, the “stans,” from Kazakhstan in the north through Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, Turkmenistan, Tajikistan, and Afghanistan, to Pakistan in the south.

Mackinder’s prophecy has still not come true, but nowhere is he read as avidly as in Moscow and Beijing. Russia and China are perfectly placed to dominate Mackinder’s geographical pivot—but on how to do this, the two great revisionists’ views and interests diverge. To Russia, the stans are potential vassals who will restore its Soviet Empire; to China, they are potential collaborators who will host its Belt and Road Initiative.

The conflict in perspectives was on clear display at a conference I attended in Kazakhstan in 2018. With Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev looking on, pro-Russian and pro-Chinese delegates exchanged barbs about the region’s future—until an American journalist dared to question Chinese motives, whereupon everyone combined against him.

I learned three lessons in Kazakhstan’s capital. The first was that China and Russia are at odds over almost every major issue in the region; the second, that American diplomacy in the geographical pivot has been lackluster, lagging far behind not only Chinese and Russian but also European efforts. The third lesson, however, was that the U.S. therefore has everything to gain and little to lose by reviving the 19th-century “Great Game,” but this time pitting Russia against China rather than Britain.

The other major player in the old Great Game, India, also has a role in the new version. Delhi and Beijing have been arguing over their border in the Himalayas since 1954. They fought over it in 1962, and in 2020 violence flared up again, leaving more than 40 dead on the disputed line. Delhi and Moscow, by contrast, have been close since 1955, and India’s armed forces have consistently bought Russian-made weapons. Russia started selling its excellent S-400 air defense system to both China and India in the 2010s, only to find that unsustainable when the two purchasers resumed fighting in the Himalayas in 2020. Moscow promptly suspended deliveries to Beijing. With the right encouragement from the US, India has the potential to act as the Great Spoiler in Sino-Russian attempts to negotiate a truce in their Great Game.

In February, Putin and Xi Jinping probably both expected Ukraine to fall quickly, accelerating their challenge to the US by securing Russia’s western flank, discrediting the pusillanimous western democracies, and legitimizing the use of force to subdue “breakaway provinces” (Taiwan as much as Ukraine). Instead, two months of killing have exposed Russia’s military shortcomings, strengthened the western alliance, and stiffened American resolve so much that Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin says that he intends to see “Russia weakened to the point where it can’t do things like invade Ukraine.”

This string of setbacks can only be pushing Russia toward China, but must also have Xi wondering whether Putin is the sort of friend he wants on the eve of his bid for a third term as Communist Party Secretary. Even at the North Pole, Putin has become a liability. China announced a “Polar Silk Road” in 2018, forging new maritime connections with Europe as the ice melts, but its efforts are now stymied because the Arctic Council, the region’s main governance body, is refusing to deal with Russia. China continues to avoid condemning Russia at the U.N. or calling Putin’s invasion a war, but it does seem to be getting cold feet about its authoritarian friend. The Beijing-backed Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank has frozen lending to Russia and Belarus and the energy giant Sinopec has withdrawn its $500 million investment from a Russian gas chemical plant and from efforts to market Russian gas in China.

Historians like making analogies between China’s challenge to the U.S. in the early 21st-century and Germany’s to Britain in the early 20th, but we might also want to consider the similarities between contemporary Russia and the pre-World War I Austro-Hungarian Empire. Like Russia and China in 2022, Germany and Austria in 1914 shared strategic interests and formed a geographical bloc—but again like Russia and China, they did not want quite the same things. Historians often suggest that the reason Germany got sucked into a world war was that it foolishly issued Austria a “blank check” for a war against Serbia, even though Germany had little to gain in the Balkans. Germany soon found itself “shackled to a corpse,” whose dead weight helped drag it down to ultimate defeat. China’s leaders today could be forgiven for seeing Russia the same way.

No one knows what will happen on Ukraine’s battlefields over the next few weeks, but we do know what the U.S. should be doing over the next few months and years. In the short run, the West must do enough to prevent Ukraine’s collapse while not doing so much that the war escalates. But we must also keep our eye on the long run and the larger picture. The best way to punish Putin for the violence he has unleashed is by inflaming conflicts of interest that will drive his government and Xi’s apart. Mackinder may have been right that Central Asia is the geographical pivot of history.

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