Can Russia sustain an economic war better than China?

by George Friedman

What geopolitical analyst George Friedman writes about the strategic problems of Russia and China

The war in Ukraine, now about 6 months old, is strategically important for a variety of reasons. If Russia defeats Ukraine and takes control of the country, its forces will be on the borders of Eastern Europe. A Russian presence on Europe's border would transform the balance of power in the Atlantic and inevitably force the United States to deploy forces in defense of Europe.

What Russia's intentions were at the beginning of the invasion matters little. Intentions change and strategy does not have to be optimistic. So what is at stake in the war in Ukraine is the possible resurrection of the Cold War, with all the risks involved. From the American point of view, involving Russia through Ukrainian troops is much less risky than another Cold War.

The Cold War did not lead to a full-scale war, but only to the fear of war. Western fears of Soviet intentions outweighed Soviet capabilities. Their fear, in turn, kept NATO together, much to the chagrin of Moscow's leaders. None of their worst fears happened, and therefore the collapse of the Soviet Union had more to do with internal rot than with external threat. It is not clear that any future Cold War would unfold as the last, but one thing is likely: given the existence of nuclear weapons, the front line of a new Cold War would remain static, and the status quo on each side would remain intact so NGOs as neither side has fragmented. That would be costly and dangerous, since history must not repeat itself. But ukraine's collapse would pose threats that could be contained, however costly and dangerous. The global pattern would remain intact.

China's vulnerabilities, and its attempts to overcome them, are potentially more dangerous. As with Russia, the central issue is geography. For Russia, the problem is that the Ukrainian border is less than 300 miles from Moscow, and Russia has survived many invasions only by virtue of Moscow's distance from the invaders – distance that closed the collapse of the Soviet Union. Russia's obsession with Ukraine is aimed at correcting the problem. China's geographical problem is that it has become an export power, and as such depends on its access to the Pacific Ocean and adjacent waters. The United States sees China's free access to the Pacific as a potential threat to its strategic depth, which has been critical for the United States since the end of World War II. Chinese access to the Pacific is blocked by a number of island states – Japan, Taiwan, the Philippines and Indonesia, indirectly supported by neighboring powers such as Australia, India and Vietnam. Not everyone is an American ally, but everyone has common interests against China's naval expansion. China wants to defend its strategic depth by conquering and controlling it. The United States wants to defend its strategic depth by defending it.

The geographical dimension is aggravated by an economic dimension. China's economy depends on exports, and the United States is its biggest customer. Beijing also needs continued U.S. investment, as its financial system is under intense pressure.

Russia is trying to reclaim strategic depth, and it entered it knowing full well the financial consequences it would create. In other words, it endured financial damage in exchange for strategic security. So far, it has not gained strategic security and has absorbed significant financial damage by meeting some of its own to Europe.

China is looking for a strategic solution while avoiding the economic damage that further expansion is likely to invite. His main opponent on both sides would be the United States. So China is probing the United States, trying to understand its potential answers. The response to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi's visit pushed the limits of an invasion of Taiwan. What China has learned about the US military is unclear, but it has learned that the triggering of American economic actions goes beyond the Chinese demonstration.

America's goal in Ukraine, therefore, is to deny Russia the strategic depth it wants to limit the Russian threat to Europe. With China, its goal is to maintain American strategic depth to prevent China from threatening the United States or gaining global reach.

The issues are similar in principle, but what is at stake for the United States are not. For Washington, the Chinese question is much more important than the Russian question. A Russian victory in Ukraine would redraw unofficial borders and increase risks. A Chinese success would create a more global power that challenges the United States and its allies around the world.

The consequences of war are always significant. U.S. involvement adds economic costs to the equation. So far Russia has absorbed the costs. China may not be able to, considering that its economy is currently vulnerable. But nations live on economy and survive on security. In this sense, it would seem that Russia is less interested in negotiations than China.

Chinese President Xi Jinping and U.S. President Joe Biden meet in mid-November, at a conference in Indonesia or Thailand. If the meeting takes place, it will be the first after the May teleconference. Only informal and back-channel talks are taking place between the United States and Russia. China has a stable economy now more than it needs command of the seas. Russia seems able to survive what has been dealt with economically, but it has not broken the back of Ukrainian forces. China is closer to an economic crisis than Russia, and therefore is not willing to risk war with the United States. He will speak, if he is not satisfied. Russia's economic and military situation is murky in the long run. The US is dealing with China and Russia at a fairly low price and can handle both right now. Russia and China must try to increase costs for the United States but cannot afford to increase their own.

It's a dizzying but not uncommon equation. China must reach an agreement with the United States. Russia doesn't have that need. The United States is flexible.