China is obscuring Russia’s ambitions
America’s increasing focus on China’s subversive activities can distract attention from a more immediate Russian threat. Kremlin officials view Washington’s growing preoccupation with China as a valuable opportunity to undermine Western cohesion and pursue their own goals in restoring a European empire. Ukraine and Belarus may well be President Vladimir Putin’s next strategic targets.
Although both Russia and China are expansionist powers that challenge U.S. and European interests, their current impact is not equivalent. While China is developing into the primary long-term threat, Russia presents the most pressing short-term danger to trans-Atlantic security. China’s territorial and maritime claims are largely confined to the Far East, but Russia’s assertions directly affect America’s NATO allies and partners.
With the world’s second-largest economy, China’s strategy in Europe and Eurasia is based primarily on economic penetration to promote political compliance. This is encapsulated in the Belt and Road Initiative to construct land and sea corridors linking China with Europe. European states become trapped in Chinese debt and susceptible to political manipulation. This can preclude a common EU policy toward China; mute criticisms of Beijing’s attack on Hong Kong, Xinjiang, and Tibet; and widen disputes between Washington and European allies that are increasingly dependent on Chinese investments.
In contrast to China’s longer-term approach, Russia is a revisionist aggressor actively subverting the trans-Atlantic alliance. With Russia’s economy and population in decline, officials in Moscow may calculate that time is working against them and take greater risks to achieve their objectives. Facing severe contractions in the Russian economy, Putin can try to contain domestic unrest by engaging in another imperial escapade. He has several targets to choose from, but Ukraine remains the most vital for restoring a Russian sphere in the heart of Europe.
Moscow already occupies Ukraine’s Crimea and parts of the industrial Donbas, but it has failed to break Kiev’s military and political resistance. Under the cover of a humanitarian operation to provide water to drought-stricken Crimea, Russian forces are positioned to seize key tracts of Ukraine’s southern coastline. This would enable Moscow to block Ukraine’s access to the Black Sea and further strangle the country’s economy. Such a move would also directly threaten NATO ally Romania as well as Black Sea commercial shipping routes and energy platforms.
Putin seeks to create a legacy as the “gatherer of all Russian lands.” Both Ukraine and Belarus are viewed in Moscow as artificial states whose independence should be quelled by Russia. Hence, Putin may also exploit growing unrest in Belarus and its contentious elections on Aug. 9 to pose as the national liberator from the autocratic rule of Alexander Lukashenko and absorb the country as a new “federal territory.”
To distract attention from such plans, the Kremlin encourages conflict between Beijing and Washington by supporting China’s economic agenda, disinformation campaigns, and cyberattacks against the U.S. The verbal war between Washington and Beijing over COVID-19 is a bonanza for the Kremlin, as it takes American eyes off Russia’s attempts to influence the U.S. elections and its plans for further territorial conquests. And Moscow’s support for China’s acquisition of Europe’s shipping and road infrastructure, despite American opposition, can be advantageous. In the event of a conflict with Russia, China’s involvement can delay or disable NATO’s military mobility.
The anti-Western partnership between Russia and China fortifies the Kremlin’s threatening posture, allows Beijing to expand its influence operations, and disperses American attention and capabilities. China can also have a negative impact on transatlantic security by manufacturing threats in the Far East that will encourage the U.S. to beef up its military presence and neglect other brewing crises. The planned withdrawal of 10,000 U.S. troops from Europe and their possible relocation to East Asia indicates that Washington may not realize the looming threat from Moscow.
NATO is unprepared for the instability that will be unleashed by a new Russian attack on Ukraine or Belarus. The U.S. administration, regardless of the November election results, will need to devise a strategy that can simultaneously contain China’s long-term ambitions and deter Russia’s more imminent aggression. Otherwise, both key American adversaries will intensify their cooperation to divide and dismantle the West.
Janusz Bugajski is a Senior Fellow at the Center for European Policy Analysis in Washington. His recent book, co-authored with Margarita Assenova, is titled Eurasian Disunion: Russia’s Vulnerable Flanks.
(c) Washington Examiner