By Luis Durani
Russia under the leadership of Vladimir Putin has regained standing for his nation in the last decade. The combination of high energy prices and authoritarian leadership has allowed Russia to secure a stronger position on the global stage while boosting Putin’s popularity at home. Despite the US-Russo relationship reset early in the Obama administration, the two nations once again find themselves on opposing sides due to conflicting interests in the Middle East and Eastern Europe. Despite being at odds, the US and Russia will form an alliance, albeit nominal, in the next few decades due to two factors; regional dynamics in Siberia as well as the rise of Chinese regional hegemony.
The Chinese Invasion
Russia is the largest nation in the world, divided up into 11 time zones. While politically the Russian government divides the country into 85 federal administrative units, geographically Russia is bifurcated by the Ural Mountains, with one-quarter of Russia in Europe and three-quarters in Asia. European Russia is known for Moscow and St. Petersburg, while Asian Russia is known for the freezing prison tundra of Siberia. Due to its harsh climate, the Siberian region is sparsely populated. Yet what it lacks in people, it more than makes up for in natural resources. Beneath the veneer of subzero snow lays abundant resources of gold, diamonds, minerals, gas, and oil. Asian Russia is where European Russia derives its ability to project power.
The nearly 3,000-mile border between China and Russia was effectively closed for most of the Cold War due to China’s rapprochement with the US under Richard Nixon. After the fall of the Soviet Union, the border opened up and Sino-Russo exchanges took off. Ever since the opening of the border, the fear of a Chinese “invasion” of Siberia has been present in the minds of many Russians. Even though the border is accepted by both sides, there are certain elements within the Chinese government that do not recognize it. They believe it is a product of the Century of Humiliation where a great European power forced China to cede its territory due to its weakness at the time. The Russian-Chinese border was established by the Peking Convention in 1860, where a stronger Russia essentially demarcated a line on a map and obliged a weaker China to recognize it.
Aside from the conspiratorial apprehensions, the facts on the ground also dictate a similar pattern. While China’s burgeoning 1.4 billion people are occupying a relatively smaller land mass, Russia has a population of 140 million people. The numbers become even ominous around the border area of the Siberian region. The Russians have about 6 million people versus the almost 90 million Chinese. With the borders open since the end of the Cold War, there has been a large cultural and financial osmosis from the Chinese side to Siberia. The Chinese have flooded the area in investments, workers, trade and even marriages between citizens on both sides. With such exchanges, Beijing feels closer than Moscow; metaphorically and literally.
Recently, China decided to lease a large portion of Siberia from Russia in order to develop agriculture on the large swath of land. The land was leased for 49 years in exchange for annuities as well as regional investments. Many in Russia have decried the deal and point to the similarities between the US and Russia deal almost 150 years ago that became known as Seward’s Folly. The deal resulted in the US purchasing Alaska from Russia for mere cents per acre. While Russia has not sold but only leased the land, many in Russia believe this is one of the final steps before a full reclamation process by the Chinese. The territory contains what China so desperately seeks, energy sources as well as raw materials. With the land leased, the region is officially immersed in everything Chinese except the redrawing of the border. With the Chinese side of the border being so densely populated and the Russian side sparsely, a Chinese “invasion” looks almost inevitable. To justify such actions, China just might ironically employ the Putin Doctrine to “help” ethnic Chinese wherever they may be in the world if they are being oppressed by issuing passports for those in the region that are willing to accept it. Once they are donned Chinese citizens, the Chinese army can “move in” to defend them and secure the Siberian region as well. This tactic would be similar to the Russian justification in Abkhazia and South Ossetia or Crimea.
A Russo-US Rapprochement
Even though the premise seems far-fetched in today’s geopolitical context, nothing is impossible as history has shown. Today, Putin in a bid to outdo the US and the West has looked to China as an ally to rival what they view as the Western domination of global affairs. With the Russo-Chinese alliance being stronger than ever, the plausibility of such a scenario seems nonexistent. However with anything in politics, time changes all.
When the Soviet Union found a fellow comrade nation across its border with a similar communist disposition, the US saw a potential alliance that could have threatened it in the long run. But as Machiavelli pointed out, no nation wants a stronger neighbor than itself. Thus in 1972, Nixon traveled to China to null their alliance with the Soviets and bring the Chinese into the American sphere. In the end, the Chinese saw a greater benefit by allying themselves, albeit nominally, with the Americans who were an ocean away than a stronger neighbor across the border despite professing their commitment to the same ideology.
As China grows stronger, economically and militarily, and reaches the status of a regional hegemon, Russia will have two daunting apprehensions come to light; a stronger neighbor as well as a more populous one that can flood one of its very vital regions. In order to prevent such a disaster, the Russians will need to ally themselves with the US similar to what Mao’s China had done with Nixon. This eventual Russian-US rapprochement is not something out of a Tom Clancy novel or wildly unbelievable. Despite their antagonistic stances toward each other currently, the Russians and Americans will potentially become allies one day to help contain a growing China.
Luis Durani is currently employed in the oil and gas industry. He previously worked in the nuclear energy industry. He has a M.A. in international affairs with a focus on Chinese foreign policy and the South China Sea, MBA, M.S. in nuclear engineering, B.S. in mechanical engineering and B.A. in political science. He is also author of “Afghanistan: It’s No Nebraska – How to do Deal with a Tribal State” and “China and the South China Sea: The Emergence of the Huaqing Doctrine.”