President Biden could bring about dramatic changes in the global arena by aligning the United States with Russia against China. In this scenario, Russia would have an opportunity to join with Western civilization, ending a millennium-long schism.
The Russia-Ukraine crisis and the current US-Russia dialogue on this issue may present an opportunity to reset relations between the two countries and dramatically change the global distribution of power. Perhaps Biden should aim for détente with Russia and enlist Russian President Vladimir Putin to push back against China, America’s true international challenge.
In some respects, Biden is an old hand at world politics. He focused on foreign relations as a US senator, serving twice as chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee (2001-03 and 2007-09). As vice president, he was active in foreign affairs during the Obama administration and played a key role in shaping US policy in Iraq.
It must be clear to Biden that the US-China rivalry is the defining foreign policy feature of the age. China’s rise and its aggression against democratic Taiwan will consume much American energy. It would seem advisable to resolve the US-Russia dispute over Eastern Europe, allowing Washington to focus on its primary challenge. Surely, a thaw in relations is preferable to a confrontation over Ukraine.
Biden could surprise observers with grand “Kissingerian diplomacy” without possessing the former secretary of state’s intellectual baggage. An attempt to break Russia away from China would be similar to Richard Nixon’s trip to China in 1972, which pulled China away from Russia and eventually helped pave the way to US victory in the Cold War. Such a move would create a radical shift in the balance of power and could considerably enhance America’s leverage in international affairs.
America’s post-Cold War stance regarding Russia has been problematic. In the 1990s, there was an opportunity to bring Russia into Western security architecture. A Russia characterized by a resurgent Christianity and a desire to modernize and integrate into the global economy might have led to integration with the West, or, at least, lowered tensions and acquired a valued ally. But the expansion of NATO and the European Union eastward ignored historical Russian sensibilities and heightened the threat perception of Russian leaders who had lost the Cold War. Moreover, NATO military exercises in countries bordering Russia — understandable as they are — increased the threat perception in Moscow.
Western attempts to politically influence Ukraine, so close to the Russian heartland, and the subsequent imposition of economic sanctions on Russia for its moves in Crimea and Ukraine have helped to push Russia away. Western pressure on Russia also may have led to the partial China-Russia entente. The Chinese demographic threat in Siberia and the struggle over Central Asia were put aside to form an anti-American front.
Biden could try a different course: defy standard political correctness by recognizing Crimea as Russian territory and lifting sanctions against Russia. It would be difficult to swallow, but the West could accept the “Finlandization” of Ukraine to allay Russia’s fears. Moscow tolerated a democratic Finland in the Russian security orbit during the Cold War.
Moreover, this strategy holds potential for Russia’s integration into the West. After all, Russia is culturally part of Western civilization in many ways. Russian literature, music, ballet, and Christian heritage are natural links.
Moscow likely would welcome détente with Washington over its embrace of Beijing. The alignment with China preserves a junior role for Russia in the emerging international system. In contrast, switching sides could signal Russian centrality and prowess in global affairs.
Biden can benefit immensely from an alliance with Russia to counter China’s totalitarian and expansionist impulses. In December, Biden signed a defense budget authorizing $768.2 billion in spending, pushing to modernize the military amid intensifying competition with China. The bill includes $7.1 billion for the Pacific Deterrence Initiative and a statement of congressional support for the defense of Taiwan, measures evidently intended to counteract China’s influence in the region.
Significantly, Biden invited Taiwan to the Summit for Democracy in early December. He declared that America has “a commitment” to defend Taiwan in October, and has stated that the island is “independent.” Each time, administration officials hurried to clarify that there has been no change in US policy, creating ambiguity, but the US appears to be inching toward offering Taiwan a military umbrella. Japan already has moved in this direction.
Biden could enlist the support of European allies, particularly in Germany, for a rapprochement with Russia. Many Europeans prefer that the US bear most of their defense burden, while being careful not to antagonize Russia.
Biden would need visible benefits to market any grand deal with Russia to Congress and the American people. Moreover, it remains to be seen whether he can overcome anti-Russian sentiment in his own party, the defense establishment, and Congress.
The big question, of course, is whether there would be a Russian quid pro quo for a shift in US policy. Would Russia be ready to end its de facto alliance with China? Would Moscow be prepared to give up its cozy relations with Iran’s radical regime to become a US ally in the fight against nuclear proliferation and militant Islam? Would Putin settle for a smaller Syria ruled by President Bashar al-Assad without Iranian and Hezbollah influence?
And would Russia be flexible enough to end its territorial conflict with Japan over the Kuril Islands to buttress the anti-China realignment? Would Putin take a historic gamble and align with the West, as did Peter the Great?
No clear answers to these questions are available, but a reversal of US policy toward Russia might be worth investigating. If America is interested in maintaining its global dominance, it will be partly a result of its ability to rally old friends and former foes alike.