The Future of the Big Triangle
Publisher's Column
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Sergei Karaganov

Doctor of History, is Dean of the Faculty of World Economy and International Affairs of the National Research University–Higher School of Economics (NRU–HSE), and Honorary Chairman of the Council on Foreign and Defense Policy, Russia.

I am usually bold enough to make forecasts, but this time I am not confident about the future. Added to the myriads of controversial problems and trends, which have already been predicted, is the “black swan”―the coronavirus epidemic.

This is a grave problem for many countries, especially Italy. But from a historical point of view, this is a relatively common epidemic. If it can seriously affect global development, it can do so for two reasons. It seems that the ruling elites of many countries are using it to cover up their past failures or justify their inability to cope with the challenges they face. The top ones include pollution and climate change, rapid impoverishment of the middle class, the rise of social inequality, and finally, the exhaustion of the current model of capitalism designed to stimulate ever-growing consumption. Attempts to cover and justify have raised the issue of coronavirus to the square, and the modern media have raised it to the third power.

So, the epidemic can, indeed, have truly historical consequences, but no one knows what exactly they will be like.

And yet I have accepted a request from the editor-in-chief of the Limes magazine to make a forecast and assess the development of relations in the triangle of great powers―Russia, China, and the United States―from the Russian point of view. I will take the risk.

For the purpose of convenience, I will go by the scenario I consider the most likely one. The main trends of recent years―partial economic deglobalization, the renationalization of world politics and economy, growing rivalry between the U.S. and China, the weakening of the EU and multilateral institutions in general―will be exacerbated by the deep global economic crisis currently underway. Everything will be as today, but worse.

The only bright spot in this forecast is the possible partial removal of parasitic warts from the body of modern societies and economies―deflation of financial and informational bubbles that increasingly often served as a substitute for the real economy and life. The family, faith, self-realization, above all, through service to society and the country are likely to regain their central place. The professions of engineer, doctor, policeman, and people who make something real will once again become most important. In fact, these values have never ceased to exist in the non-Western world.


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The triangle of leading powers is a virtual construct because of the U.S.’s unwillingness to cooperate with anyone in hope to make a last stand for its waning hegemony. The triangle is falling apart into three pairs of relationships.

Russian-American relations have never been so hostile since the 1950s. The U.S. was annoyed by Russia’s refusal to follow in the footsteps of American leadership and by the very fact of its revival. In addition, having restored its strategic power, Russia has apparently deprived the United States and the West as a whole of its military superiority―the foundation of its five-hundred-year dominance in politics, economy, and culture, which allowed it to syphon off the gross world product for its own benefit. Russia, just like the Soviet Union before, tried most of all to ensure its own security, but incidentally, and unintentionally, became the cause of this historic transformation.

The United States embarked on a path of confrontation in the early 2010s. When in 2014 Russia stopped the expansion of Western alliances by reincorporating Crimea and supporting rebellious Donbass, the confrontation became manifest. Obama hoped to destroy Russia and “tear its economy to pieces.” Trump’s team planned to exert strong pressure on Russia in order to tear it away from China. But both strategies produced the opposite results. Although sanctions slowed down its economic development, Russia did not give in, consolidated internally, and deepened cooperation with China.

But along the way, the American elite sold itself the idea―completely false as is now obvious to everyone―that Russia massively interfered in the U.S. election and supported Trump. This propaganda has become an important factor in the American domestic political struggle. In this situation, one can hardly expect the relations to normalize any time soon, even though Moscow is trying to mend things. It does not need the current level of hostility.

In fact, it is simply dangerous. Coupled with the deteriorating situation in the military-technical sphere―more and more destabilizing weapons appear in the world, the remaining arms limitation regimes are being torn down, and the intellectual level and responsibility of elites in a number of countries are degrading―this hostility increases the likelihood of an unintended war and its escalation to the level of global nuclear catastrophe. Moscow’s current policy towards the United States rests on three pillars: attempts to reduce the level of confrontation; strong, even preemptive, military deterrence, including the creation of weapons that make the West’s hopes to regain strategic superiority prohibitively expensive; and intensified economic, political, and military relations with the non-Western world, further promotion of multipolarity. Almost no one in Moscow any longer expects relations with the United States to improve in the coming years. Given internal divisions in the United States, it looks like an extremely unreliable partner.

Russia continues efforts towards relative normalization of relations with Europe, but there is a lot of skepticism about that, too. The European Union is too inefficient and becomes increasingly engrossed in problems created by its own slow disintegration. Europeans remain heavily dependent on the United States, much to their own disadvantage. Finally, it has become clear that modern Western democracies cannot exist without an enemy. In the past it was communism and the Soviet Union. When they were gone, the Western elites celebrated their victory but soon saw that their societies were getting out of control (“populists”) and the usual relations (Atlanticism) were falling apart. So they started inventing the enemy, choosing, as usual, Russia which “undermines democracy,” that is, destroys the established order. But it is crumbling on its own due to internal contradictions, and Moscow has nothing to do with that. Particularly ludicrous are accusations that Russia is posing a military threat. And this despite the fact that Russia has significantly reduced its armed forces and its defense spending is much smaller than that of NATO’s European countries alone.

Increased confrontation by the West gave a powerful boost to Russia’s eastward pivot. It began in the second half of the 2000s largely as an economic project designed to tap the potential of the rising Asian markets, move away from excessive dependence on Western markets, and develop eastern territories that looked like a dangerous vacuum next to rising China.

But as Western pressure increased, the “pivot to the East” began to take on geopolitical contours. Although still incomplete, the pivot has led to qualitative changes: the volume of trade with Asia has matched that with Europe that once prevailed.

Russia has created  a new quality of relations with China, the likely number one superpower of the future. They were friendly, now they have become semi-allied, “independent” whenever necessary, “but never against each other.” China has become a growing external source of capital, technologies and markets for Russia and its products, primarily oil and gas, raw materials, and increasing agricultural produce. But most importantly, Russia has secured its eastern borders and is even helping China create a missile early warning system which strengthens the security of both countries and enhances strategic deterrence capabilities against the U.S. This allows China to rely on Russia’s strategic power in countering U.S. pressure. Russia, in turn, can rely on China’s economic might. When the confrontation with the West was at its highest, Beijing, as far as is known, offered almost unlimited lending, but Moscow decided to go under its own steam. The two countries have agreed not to compete with each other in Central Asia.

But elements of competition are there. Despite Beijing’s very tactful policy, Russia remains concerned about its excessive power, especially due to its increasingly offensive, though not aggressive, policies with regard to smaller and dependent countries.

The rapprochement is beneficial for both countries now and will be so in the years to come. Russia’s pivot to the East and its rapport with China have qualitatively shifted the balance of power in relations with the West in Moscow’s favor. Russia has turned from an apprentice ready to pay for the training and admission to the club, which it was or seemed to be 10-15 years ago, into a balancer and a central Eurasian power; it is “coming back home” geopolitically and ideologically. Being mainly European culturally, Russia is largely Asian politically and socially. Without over-centralization, strong authoritarian power and Siberia with its endless wealth, the country would not be what it is today and what defines its genetic code as a great power. Although there are colossal differences in culture, Russia and China have a lot of common in history. Until the 15th century, both were conquered parts of the Mongol Empire, the largest the world has ever known. The only difference is that China assimilated the Mongols, whereas Russia pushed them out, but absorbed many Asian features during the two and a half centuries of their rule. During the outgoing five-hundred-year leadership of Europe and the West, “Asianness” was considered a sign of backwardness. But now it seems to become a competitive advantage both in terms of the ability to concentrate resources for harsh competition, and in terms of combating new challenges, particularly, the coronavirus. Technologically, Asia has gone far ahead, too.

The U.S.-Chinese rivalry is likely to continue or maybe even intensify. Contrary to the recommendations of its last strategic thinkers―Henry Kissinger and the late Zbigniew Brzezinski―the American elite has opted for an almost all-round confrontation with China, in fact, a new Cold War. Its only hope is to use the positions retained from the previous economic system for a “last stand.” But it is probably too late. The balance of power in the world has changed dramatically. It has become much more flexible, partly due to the fact that Russia has stripped the West of its ability to dictate its will and impose its interests by force. Now fewer countries will be willing to follow U.S. policies.

If the U.S.-China rivalry intensifies further, Russia will not “ditch” China, but will look, and is already looking, for ways to expand the room for maneuver, trying to improve relations with some of the European countries and get closer with key Asian countries such as India, Japan, South Korea, Vietnam, Turkey, Iran, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and ASEAN states.

I do not think that there is a serious risk for Russia to end up in strategic dependence on China. No dependence on any external center is acceptable for Russia with its sacred striving for sovereignty. It cannot be anyone’s “younger brother.”

When the West tried to turn it into one, it met with a firm rebuff. China is aware of this experience just as it is aware of the fact that Russia has knocked out or defeated all who sought world or regional hegemony―the heirs of Genghis Khan, Charles XII, Napoleon, and Hitler.

Russia is self-sufficient militarily and politically. But it needs foreign markets and partners for economic, technological, and digital development. And it will seek and find them.

Unfortunately, the third pillar of the future world order, the third technological platform has never materialized. It would have been created if Europe, intoxicated by euphoria and afflicted by strategic dementia in the 1990s, had not rejected the idea of building a common space with Russia. But Russia is still eager to start a new round of rapprochement with Europe, taking into account the new balance of power and new realities, but this time within the framework of the Eurasian strategy.

Two soft supercenters will emerge. One is America plus: Anglo-Saxons and part of Europeans. With hesitation and anguish, the U.S. will have to abandon the role of global superpower, disadvantageous in a new world where it can no longer dictate its conditions.

The future of the Chinese “center” is not obvious. If China follows the millennial tradition of the Middle Kingdom and tries to turn its partners into vassals, Russia, India, Turkey, Iran, Japan, Vietnam, and many others will balk. In this case, China will remain just a powerful state with a network of dependent countries in Asia, Africa, and Latin America.

Moscow is offering another option: creating the Greater Eurasia partnership,  which was officially supported by Beijing, as a system of equal economic, political, cultural, civilizational ties, and integration groups, where China would be the first among equals. This partnership in one form or another will include a significant part of the western tip of Eurasia―Europe. It is already obvious that under such a scenario, its northern and western parts will gravitate more towards the American center, while the south and the center will lean towards the Eurasian project.

Russia will be able to be useful in both cases either as a balancer between two potential hegemons and a guarantor of a new non-alignment, or as one of the active creators of the new partnership, turning from the outskirts of Europe and Asia into Northern Eurasia, one of its key centers.


This article was originally written for publication in Limes magazine

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