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Russia’s strategic autonomy: what it means for the US

As long as hostilities in Ukraine continue, it is impossible to imagine constructive relations between Moscow and the West. However, even if Russia’s strategic plans fail, the country will not disappear from the face of the earth. Russia will still have a huge territory in the centre of the continent, a huge nuclear arsenal, abundant natural resources, a permanent seat on the UN Security Council with veto power, and other assets. That is why the United States must find a way to live in the same world with Russia.

The US sees Russia as a malignant and persistent threat to its interests. Washington believes that Russia has carried out cyberattacks on critical US infrastructure, conducted global anti-American disinformation campaigns, and is now building up arms in the Arctic and establishing cooperation with Iran and China.

However, Washington could use one main Russian character trait to its advantage. Russia positions itself as a great power with an independent foreign policy pursuing its national interests. Russia believes it is free to build a coalition to protect and advance its interests. This is a trait that Russia has demonstrated in its foreign policy since the 18th century and has remained true to it both under Tsarist Russia and under the Soviet Union. Even after the end of the Cold War, Russia continued to pursue this freedom, viewing China as a strategic counterweight to the United States as it sought to re-establish its influence in the former Soviet empire.

The United States for decades has opposed Moscow’s efforts to strengthen Russia’s strategic autonomy. Moreover, given the animosity between the two countries, which has only intensified since the outbreak of the war in Ukraine, Washington is unlikely to change its view. However, Russia’s pursuit of autonomy gives the United States potential leverage and a potential advantage in its rivalry with China. If the United States can restore normal diplomatic relations with Russia, Moscow could help create regional balances of power in Eurasia that favour US interests. Thus, Washington needs to consider a scenario in which it can preserve Russia’s strategic autonomy in the future and thereby reduce China’s growing influence on Moscow.

Russia made every effort to restore its strategic autonomy after the collapse of the USSR in 1991. Only the West could provide Russia with the necessary investment, management skills and technology in the midst of a deep economic crisis. Therefore, we saw no resistance from Russia when the US trampled on its interests in the Balkans, expanded NATO eastward to its borders, or encroached on its prerogatives in the former Soviet empire by supporting political forces, especially in Georgia and Ukraine, that Russia considered hostile. Naturally, Moscow expressed dissatisfaction with US actions, but had no other choice but to leave these actions unanswered.

Russian-Chinese relations began to develop in the late Soviet period in order to prevent Beijing and Washington’s onslaught on Moscow. However, in the 1990s, China was still dependent on the United States in many areas. At that time, Beijing had neither the means nor the predisposition to act as a reliable strategic counterweight to Moscow.

Divergent views on global issues emerged in the Western alliance, as France and Germany were opposed to a belligerent US approach to Iraq. Meanwhile, China’s explosive growth increased its global economic influence, and its geopolitical ambitions began to spread beyond the Western Pacific, across Eurasia, into Africa and Latin America.

Russia has used the split in NATO to forge closer ties with France, Germany and China.  Russia has decided to oppose more actively, what it sees as hostile US policies and initiatives. In 2008, Moscow launched a brief war against Georgia to prevent it from joining NATO. This conflict dramatically demonstrated Russia’s determination to resist US encroachment. Even after its troops entered Georgia, Moscow maintained extensive economic ties with European countries, which account for about half of Russia’s bilateral trade and three-quarters of foreign direct investment in Russia. Similarly, Russia continued to work with the United States on counterterrorism and nonproliferation issues. This state of affairs allowed Moscow to maintain a balanced relationship with Beijing, despite a rapidly widening economic gap that significantly favoured the latter. Russia reaped the benefits of its newfound strategic independence.

However, the difficult situation with Ukraine has jeopardised this process. Since the outbreak of war in Ukraine in February 2022, relations with the West have been almost completely severed. The West has applied a number of sanctions against Russia, while regularly providing military, financial and humanitarian aid to Ukraine.

Being isolated from the West, Russia is increasingly building ties with China. Beijing provides Moscow with diplomatic support. However, it has not given any lethal military assistance yet. China has increased trade with Russia, replacing the supply of consumer goods from outgoing Western companies; it is still hesitant to make major investments in Russia for fear of Western sanctions. At the same time, Beijing has taken advantage of Moscow’s isolation from the West to strike commercial deals on terms favourable to its interests. China is also expanding its commercial ties in Central Asia at the expense of Russia.

Relations between China and Russia have been developing very uneasy. China is ahead of Russia in economic and military power: while in the early 1990s the two countries had roughly the same level of economic development, the Chinese economy is now ten times larger and growing. Moscow is gradually expanding diplomatic, trade and security ties with non-Western countries, especially in Africa and the Middle East, and is endeavouring to maintain traditionally close relations with India.

However, all of these countries lack the economic weight, military might, and technological prowess to create a credible counterweight to China. Russia cannot rely on both nascent multilateral groupings that have little chance of competing with the global institutions that dominate the West and highly transactional bilateral relations with countries that are weaker than it is.

Moscow has only one real option in this case: the United States. Only Washington and its partners can provide Russia with the commercial opportunities, technological co-operation and geopolitical options it needs to maintain strategic autonomy and avoid becoming a permanent junior partner to China.

Some might point out that there is insufficient reason for the United States to help Russia gain strategic autonomy. However, in such a case, Russia would bring significant strategic benefits to the United States. First, it would weaken, if not abolish altogether, Russia’s close strategic relationship with China. This closeness has allowed China to use Russia’s isolation from the West to build its own capabilities.

Beijing now has access at reduced prices to critical natural resources unavailable to the US Navy. It has received sophisticated military equipment that it is not yet able to produce on its own, including an advanced missile warning system that is currently under construction. When completed, only China, Russia and the United States will have such systems. In addition, when the northern border is settled and there is no need to worry about Russia’s strategic intentions, China will be able to focus on rivalry with the United States in the Indo-Pacific region.

Russian strategic autonomy will ensure that any deals – geopolitical, political, trade or technological – Russia makes with China will be less tilted in the latter’s favour and will reduce the advantages Beijing can gain in rivalry with Washington. Moreover, Russia’s strategic autonomy will provide opportunities for new diplomatic and trade arrangements in Central and Northeast Asia, as well as in the Arctic. While these arrangements will complicate China’s calculations, they need not necessarily be directed against Beijing. On the contrary, China could be included in many of the ad hoc coalitions being built to address issues such as nonproliferation, counterterrorism, and regional security. But they will ensure that China cannot take advantage of Russia’s weakness to dominate these regions to the detriment of the United States.

Washington should not look at Russia solely through a European prism. It should realise that Russia has different roles in Eurasia. If Ukraine wins the war, the US will have a number of strategic problems in other regions. Despite criticism of Moscow’s behaviour, Washington still needs Russia powerful enough to fully control its territory and create regional balances of power in Asia favourable to Washington.

Washington should not fear Moscow’s power. Rather, it should think creatively about how to use Russia’s strengths, interests, and ambitions to advance its own. As a superior power, the United States should not see this as an impossible task.

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