Foreign Policy Research Institute A Nation Must Think Before it Acts America’s Great-Power Challenge: Managing Russia’s Decline and China’s Rise
America’s Great-Power Challenge: Managing Russia’s Decline and China’s Rise

America’s Great-Power Challenge: Managing Russia’s Decline and China’s Rise

Bottom Line

  • Geopolitics today is characterized by an evolving multipolar great-power competition between China, Russia, and the United States. The zero-sum nature of bipolar Cold War competition logic does not apply so relative losses in power by Russia could help the relative power position of China, and harm long-term American strategic interests, unless carefully managed in Washington.
  • Washington should learn from past multi-state great-power competitions. Great Britain’s approach to Imperial Russia and Imperial Germany in the early 20th century is especially instructive.
  • Like London in 1905, Washington today must stay attentive to the balance of power between itself and China as it manages Moscow’s relative power decline from the military debacle in Ukraine. The United States should defend its interests in Eastern Europe without so undermining Russia that a new period of instability spreads across Eurasia or that China aggrandizes strategically significant relative power gains from Moscow’s infirmity.

Russia is in strategic trouble. Vladimir Putin’s war of choice in Ukraine has weakened Russia’s global posture and eroded the carefully honed image of great-power prowess Putin cultivated for two decades. But Russia’s loss of relative power is not necessarily America’s gain. Modern geopolitics has returned to the framework of past multipolar, great-power competitions, the last of which was contested prior to World War II. American policymakers must help manage Moscow’s strategic malpractice in a manner that does not harm Washington’s prospects for success in the long-term Sino-American rivalry.

Courageous and competent Ukrainian resistance fortified by external assistance has exposed Putin’s weak strategic hand and eroded Russian relative power standing vis-à-vis China and the United States. Washington must continue to help Ukraine prevail against norm-busting Russian aggression and deter the potential for Russian-initiated nuclear weapon usage. At the same time, American leaders should guard against two other ugly potential outcomes that would damage its strategic interests: a rapid Russian collapse or China’s capture of key Russian power resources, technologies, or land-access rights in exchange for propping up the Putin regime. In this context, there are key lessons for the United States today from Britain’s behavior toward Imperial Russia and Imperial Germany in the early 20th century.

Multipolar Great-Power Competition versus Bipolar Superpower Competition

Geopolitics today is characterized by an evolving multipolar great-power competition. The United States, China, and Russia are rivals for global influence. This geostrategic reality has been with us since at least the early 2010s, although only formally acknowledged by Washington in the 2017 National Security Strategy. The Biden administration accepted great-power competition as the dominant geostrategic condition both in its 2021 Interim National Security Strategic Guidance (INSSG) and in the release of its 2022 National Security Strategy, in which it referred to the three-way, great-power interplay as “strategic competition.”

While the norm in modern history, jousting between three or more rivalrous great powers is a new geostrategic circumstance for the American foreign policy psyche. From 1992 through about 2014, geopolitics was dominated by only one unrivaled great power, the United States. The period between 1947 to 1991 featured a bipolar great-power rivalry between two unmatched superpowers: the United States and the Soviet Union. Both were abnormal situations, and the norm of multipolar great-power competition is with us again today.

A significant feature of the bipolar Cold War rivalry was that any gain by one side in its stature or influence was a relative loss for the other. This certitude in relative gains and losses conditioned policymakers in America and the Soviet Union to view their Cold War competition as a zero-sum game and a reasonably stable one. For example, Washington could find satisfaction in the failure of Moscow’s occupation of Afghanistan and when Egypt flipped from Soviet alignment to the American side of the Cold War standoff in the Middle East. So too, Moscow could revel in the relative loss of power and influence suffered after the America withdrawal in South Vietnam or when the Iranian revolution expelled America’s strategic presence there. The size and resilience of these bipolar great-powers meant that neither feared a rival descent into chaotic instability or political collapse from the marginal power losses suffered from peripheral strategic embarrassments. The relative power game was zero-sum for there were no other great powers to convert an American or Soviet loss of power into gains of their own.

Cold War zero-sum certainties are not present in modern great-power competition. Instead, today’s multi-state, great-power calculations harken back to those between the multiple great-power rivals of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. During that era, seven or eight great powers vigorously competed for relative power and global stature. The British Empire was then what the United States is today, the dominant but increasingly challenged great power. Great Britain sought to sustain a global framework of economic, diplomatic, and military locations and activities underpinning London’s century of global dominance against more than one powerful state rival.

Managing the Decline of a Major Great-Power Rival: 1905

By 1900, London had competed vigorously with Imperial Russia in a “great game” for power and influence around the globe for almost a century, including bouts of limited direct armed conflict in Eurasia and Central Asia. But when Russia suffered a crushing military defeat in May 1905 at the hands of the Japanese navy in the Tsushima Straits, British policymakers thought twice about trying to topple the Romanov government. 

London had the chance to go for the Russian strategic jugular after the Japanese sent the Russian fleet to the bottom of the northeast Pacific. A popular revolutionary uprising by millions of Russians then embroiled the government of Nicholas II. Anti-Russian revolutionaries like Lenin and Trotsky frequented Britain often from 1902 until 1907, plotting for action against the Russian elite and looking for support for their brand of organized communist revolt. 

But by 1905, Britain’s King George V and his government saw Imperial Germany as the most dangerous great-power threat to the British global order. London correctly assessed that Tsar Nicholas II’s strategic blunder dramatically reduced Imperial Russia’s threat to Great Britain’s global strategic posture in the Far East and South Asia. Conversely, Imperial Germany’s growing geostrategic adventurism was a new threat to the British Empire’s strategic ascendance in critical venues like the Middle East, near the Suez Canal, and in Southern Africa. The Kaiser’s accelerating naval buildup threatened to provide Imperial Germany with the capacity to make good on this global challenge. Imperial Germany now was London’s main rival with both the intent to reshape international order to its favor and increasingly the power to achieve it. Chaotic instability from a thoroughly defeated and collapsed Russia benefitted German relative power more than Great Britain. British strategy needed Russia to remain a battered but intact European land power rival to Berlin’s east as a check on growing German colonial and naval ambitions.

In addition, Britain agreed with a wary America that total Russian collapse could leave a power vacuum across northern East Asia that Tokyo would rapidly fill, threatening long-term, Anglo-American strategic interests. London thus sustained its 1902 military treaty with Japan, supported President Teddy Roosevelt’s mediation of a Russo-Japanese peace treaty at Portsmouth in late 1905, and in 1907 joined France in a Triple Entente strategic alignment with Russia and against Imperial Germany. 

These strategic maneuvers did not prevent great-power war in 1914 or assure the survival of a brittle Russian political imperium beyond 1917, but they enhanced relative British power vis-à-vis Germany enough to force Berlin to re-calculate the risks of a future two-front war for another decade. Ultimately, these maneuvers also tied-down critical German forces from 1914–1917 along the Russian front to Germany’s east, preventing their use against Great Britain, France, and their allies in the west just long enough so that American military intervention sealed German defeat in 1918. London’s 1905 strategic choices disappointed its Far Eastern ally, Japan, and frustrated British parliamentary leaders who viewed Russia as the main enemy of the empire for more than a century. But the choices properly aligned with the evolving geostrategic framework of multi-state, great-power competition present then as it is again today.

Managing the Decline of a Major Great-Power Rival: 2022

In 2022, Putin’s invasion of Ukraine and obvious wastage of Russian military and economic power from that blunder does not necessarily benefit America’s great-power strategic interests, nor does it convey certain advantage to China. Choices made in Washington now will help determine the long-term geostrategic impact. Thinking as London in 1905, like a great-power in a multipolar rivalrous competition, Washington must act to limit the prospects of chaotic instability in Russia or a power windfall for China from Russian weakness. For, as written in the 2022 US National Security Strategy, “While Russia is recklessly flouting the basic laws of the international order today … as in Ukraine … China is the only country with both intent to reshape international order … and increasingly [the] power to achieve [it].”

A precipitous decline in Russian power and government cohesion risks chaotic instability across Eurasia that would be hard to contain and foist responsibilities for chaos management upon the United States and Western partners that China would not willingly accept. It is not hard to imagine Chechnya, Dagestan, or other restive Russian regions taking advantage of a humiliated Russian military or abdicated Russian government to declare autonomy or initiate civil war to wrest regional power. Civil war would increase the risks from the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction into irresponsible hands imperiling both the United States and China. Instability and armed conflict along Russia’s periphery also seem likely. Russia has stabilized tumultuous regions in the South Caucasus and Central Asia, including the restive region of the Ferghana Valley where Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan confront each other. Already over the past three months, armed conflict between Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan flared and the status of the Armenia-Azerbaijan cease-fire looks increasingly imperiled from receding Russian diplomatic power and military engagement. American diplomats and third-party interlocutors must consider ways to inhibit expansion of these ugly possibilities.

The United States and its partners should make it clear that the territorial integrity and basic sovereignty of greater Russia is in the international interest. Although Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky has recently walked back a bit on his earlier declared refusal to negotiate peace terms until Putin is gone, the Russian leader still may require exile before Russia and Ukraine can broker a just peace given righteous Ukrainian indignation over Putin’s choices of unjust war and callous targeting of non-combatants. But as efforts by Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Emmanuel Macron, or others to find a just peace—and perhaps move Putin aside—are pursued in future months, stability across Russia should not be put at risk. The Biden administration must continue to state publicly that it is the Putin war-making leadership that is the enemy, not the Russian people or the Russian state itself. Any eventual peace deal between Ukraine and Russia must make provision for a strong enough Russian state that chaotic instability does not erupt there or across Eurasia.

This emphasis on short-term Russian political stability is understandably unappealing for those who prefer Moscow face swift justice and accountability for its brazen aggression. As with the post-1905 Russian Romanov government, a realist approach today will acknowledge that there is no viable way for outside influence to maneuver into place a long-term, resilient, and responsible government in Moscow. The best possible outcome for geostrategic competition at this point is to seek short-term political stability with Russian political realists who won’t necessarily be liberal. In an era of rivalrous great-power competition, relative power calculations matter most to long-term success between the major players. Thus, a chastened but intact Russia over the short-term is a better outcome for US relative power status vis-à-vis China than a thoroughly defeated and fragmented one.

In this context, Ukraine might find itself akin to Japan in late 1905 regarding its war aims. Kyiv eventually may need to accept a peace deal that attains key aims short of absolute justice without humiliating of the Russian people. Part of such a deal might assure Kyiv’s recovery of all its territory in the east, including the full Donbas, but simultaneously establish some sort of an interim compromise status for Crimea where it becomes an internationally administered, demilitarized protectorate for some extended period. Kyiv, Washington, and Western partners also might need to agree that there can be no expansive war reparation demands from Russia if it is to remain a stable, autonomous entity.

An enfeebled Russia increasingly beholden to China is another strategic outcome that would harm relative American power in its long-term great-power rivalry with Beijing. Putin and Xi proclaimed their geopolitical alignment with a “no limits” friendship in February 2022, suggesting that China has the inside track to enhancing its relative power from Russia’s decline. So as Putin turns increasingly toward China to stave-off economic collapse, diplomatic isolation, and military implosion, there are many potential pathways for Beijing to exploit Russian power resources that disadvantage long-term American power interests. Among the most threatening of these pathways is one where China turns much of Russia’s Far East into a vassal region. Post-Cold War Russia has been fearful of this possibility as China’s demographic and economic advantages continue to encroach on the Sino-Russian border. 

Moscow’s instinct to push-back against aggressive Chinese encroachment in its Far East will be tested if Putin must give assets of value to China in exchange for sustained support. China might secure direct rights to fossil fuels and rare mineral repositories across Russia’s east.  Beijing might extract Russian concessions for exclusive Chinese access to Russian deep-water ports like those in Vladivostok and the control of economic zones there and inland. China also could require Russia to give it increasing rights and access to the Arctic region—an area where Beijing covets access and Russia has been jealously guarding its exclusive positions. Chinese access to Russian Arctic waterways and shores would give Beijing a real boost in proximity to critical fuels and minerals, to aerial and maritime access by North America, and even provide Beijing with very important new nodes to expand ground-based space and missile defense systems.

Should China capitalize on its economic and regional demographic advantages in the Far East and the Arctic with a weakened and isolated Moscow, Russia’s power loss from Ukraine could favor China in its long-term contest with the United States. American competitiveness would be seriously harmed.

Some analysts argue that Washington cannot hope to drive a wedge between Russia and China. That argument merits scrutiny. “Driving a wedge” is very different from “not driving the two together.” The former requires compelling a Russian choice to go against its long-term strategic interests; the latter aims to reinforce the natural desire for a great power like Russia to avoid long-term subordination by another, like China. Recent history suggests that the latter approach is feasible. Russia and China share short-term antagonism toward the United States, but Moscow remains sensitive to subtle but evident signaling from Beijing that it views Moscow as a future junior partner in a “Pax Sinica.”. As one China analyst of the Sino-Russian relationship observed early in 2022, “Without shared visions, goals, and approaches, China and Russia will align against a common enemy. Yet it will split, in a destructive way, when that delicate equilibrium is disrupted by any structural change.” The United States can reinforce natural Russian geostrategic wariness by reminding Moscow of its vulnerability to Chinese exploitation while showing prudence and justly resolving Moscow’s political-military mess-making in eastern Europe. 

American policymakers can work now to mitigate these short-term risks from the Russo-Ukrainian war for its long-term competition with China. The Biden administration must think more like London dealing with Russia in 1905 and less like Washington dealing with the Soviet Union in 1979. The United States should commence backchannel diplomacy on the margins of already ongoing formal US-Russian communications channels with potential Putin successors, assuring these Russian political actors that a just peace deal with Ukraine can save Russia from complete chaos or the indignity of ceding its Far East to Beijing. Russians must understand that like Great Britain in 1905 with Russia and Japan, Ukraine’s Western partners will insist on maximum advantage for Ukraine in restoring Kyiv’s sovereign territory and autonomous status but will not confront today’s Russia, or a post-Putin Russia, with the humiliating subversion of territory or coercion of resources that may be extracted by Beijing.

History Rhymes with Reason

History does not repeat, but it frequently rhymes when a reasoned template is carefully applied. Washington policymakers should soberly consider the relevant continuities and key historical lessons from multi-state great-power rivalries prior to World War I. Among these lessons is the one where Great Britain in 1905 properly calculated its long-term power needs against a more dangerous threat from Imperial Germany and thus managed Russian power decline so that Berlin did not gain short-term relative strategic advantage.

This lesson should encourage Washington today to work with Kyiv and coalition partners to balance the consequences demanded of Russia for its transgressions in Ukraine with temperance that manages Moscow’s decline to limit the risk of chaotic instability across Eurasia and minimize Chinese relative power gains. Success in long-term Great Power competition with China requires that Washington address the strategic implications of Russian power decline with a calculus befitting of today’s multipolar geostrategic environment.  

The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and do not necessarily reflect the position of the Foreign Policy Research Institute, a non-partisan organization that seeks to publish well-argued, policy-oriented articles on American foreign policy and national security priorities. 

The assessments and conclusions in this analysis are those of the author alone and do not necessarily represent those of National Defense University, the Department of Defense, or the US government.

Image: State Department