Military participants from Russia compete in the man-portable anti-aircraft missiles contest as part of the 2021 International Army Games on August 24, 2021, in China.

Military participants from Russia compete in the man-portable anti-aircraft missiles contest as part of the 2021 International Army Games on August 24, 2021, in China. China News Service via Getty Images / Wang Xiaojun

How Russia's War in Ukraine will Accelerate U.S.-China Competition

Moscow’s disastrous adventurism will leave it a junior player in a conflict between authoritarianism and democracy.

Most discussions of “great power competition” have mentioned the three great powers themselves: the United States, China, and Russia. But the pitiful performance of Russia’s Potemkin military during its unprovoked invasion of Ukraine has revealed Moscow as little more than a second-rate power. The demotion of one great power is more than semantics; it presages an accelerated competition between the remaining two.

While Russia possesses nuclear weapons, vast energy reserves, and a seat on the UN Security Council, Western-led sanctions are strangling its economy and Russian leader Vladimir Putin’s actions have cemented Russia’s status as a global pariah. The isolation Russia is facing within the international financial system leaves Moscow with few options and is certain to deepen its dependency on China. All this is likely to accelerate a trend that was already in progress: this shift toward a bipolar world, with the United States competing with China, each representing a starkly different model of world order. 

Russia’s dependence on China is only likely to grow, making it similar in some ways to North Korea, with Moscow forced to accept its role as junior partner to Beijing. Other countries in this orbit include Iran, Syria, Venezuela, Myanmar, and Belarus—a rogue’s gallery of nations that will gravitate toward China, aligning against the U.S.-led West. Putin’s depraved war has put the Kremlin in a separate category, one that deliberately targets civilians, with evidence of war crimes in every Ukrainian city across the country. Russia’s continued disinformation and blatant lying in multilateral fora like the United Nations is beyond the pale, even for Moscow. 

For all of Russia’s adventurism under Putin, which previously included attempts to spread influence in sub-Saharan Africa and the Middle East, the weakness of its military has been exposed. Barely two weeks into the war, Moscow has been forced to rely on conscripts, mercenaries from the Wagner Group, and even ragtag Syrian militia members loyal to the brutal dictator Bashar al-Assad. There is growing concern that, like Assad, Putin may also resort to using chemical weapons against civilian populations. 

Meanwhile, the invasion has reinvigorated NATO like no event since the 9/11 attacks. The alliance had been under various types of strain in recent years, from Donald Trump’s muttering about deadbeat allies to Emmanuel Macron’s vision of an EU-powered defense structure to Turkey’s decision to buy Russian missiles. But now Germany has pledged to spend an additional 100 billion Euros on defense; France and the United Kingdom have assumed a more vocal role; and even the alliance members on the more authoritarian end of the scale—Hungary, Turkey, and Poland—are (mostly) supporting Ukraine. And Finland and Sweden are once again debating the merits of seeking an invitation to join NATO.

But continued progress is far from inevitable. Countries like India, which still rely heavily on Russia for arms, acquiring as much as 60 percent of its military hardware from Moscow. In January, India abstained from a U.N. vote discussing the Russian threat to Ukraine. And recent reporting suggests that India is going to find a workaround to purchase Russian oil. So even though India, one of the most vocal supporters of non-alignment during the Cold War, has joined new configurations like the Quad, it is no fait accompli that New Delhi will fall lockstep with Western foreign policy objectives, even in cases as seemingly black and white as Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. 

The United States is also reassessing some of its current relationships, in light of the aggressive efforts to cut off Russian energy supplies. U.S. officials traveled to Venezuela recently to talk with strongman Nicolas Maduro about increasing oil exports to alleviate pressure on global markets. Similarly, there have apparently been conversations within the Biden administration about reaching out to Saudi Arabia, a swing producer and longstanding U.S. ally that has been kept at arm’s length due to the role that Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman played in ordering the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi. 

While many of the analogies of a new Cold War between the U.S. and China may be overwrought and somewhat hackneyed, in terms of the structure of the international system, there are obvious commonalities that are impossible to ignore. The U.S.-led alignment will primarily be democracies, but will also include non-democracies, including allies in the Middle East and Africa. So-called “middle countries,” those nations like Turkey and Indonesia that are neither great powers nor weak states, will be courted closely by Washington and Beijing. Some countries will be caught in the crossfire, but economic benefits and longstanding diplomatic arrangements, as well as a pledge from Beijing to ignore human rights violations in the name of “sovereignty” will attract fence sitters to the Chinese pole. 

By attempting to recreate the glory of the former Soviet Union, Putin has precipitated Russia’s downfall, amplifying the Kremlin’s weaknesses and leading nation-states and multinational corporations to marginalize Moscow. China is Russia’s only legitimate lifeline, a role Beijing seems keen to play, eager to trade economic and military assistance for suzerainty in the authoritarian bloc. The implications for geopolitical realignment are significant. 

Putin pursued war in Ukraine because he got greedy. After several prior Russian incursions—in Georgia in 2008, in Crimea in 2014, in Syria in 2015—Moscow escaped relatively unscathed. The net result was emboldening Putin to seek further conquests to recreate “Russky Mir,” or “Russian World,” in an attempt to expand Russia’s near abroad. 

Putin gambled, assumed huge risk, and seems certain to lose. In the process, not only did Putin fail to achieve his goal, but in the end he hastened Russia’s demise and all but assured that Moscow is subsumed under Beijing’s hegemony, forming the backbone of a growing authoritarian pole in the international system, as the U.S. and the West seek to capitalize upon the momentum generated by the fighting spirit demonstrated by Ukraine and its brave citizens as they fight for Western values and the “new birth of freedom.”

Colin P. Clarke, Ph.D., is the Director of Research at The Soufan Group and a Senior Research Fellow at The Soufan Center.