Russia’s coat of arms features a double-headed eagle — a fierce bird of prey that simultaneously looks West and East. Ukrainians lampoon this freakish raptor as “the Chernobyl chicken.”
Irreverence aside, the reality is that Russia is a Pacific power. The Trans-Siberian Railway starts in Moscow and ends at the Sea of Japan. The terminus is at the Czarist-era port of Vladivostok — Russian for “Lord of the East.”
Along the way to the Pacific, Russia shares a 2,615-mile land border with China, second in length only to the U.S.-Canada border. To keep their backs covered, Russia and China have achieved under President Vladimir Putin a level of cooperation that sometimes looks like an alliance.
Today, the degree of this cooperation is subject of world debate. In the west, Russia threatens Ukraine. In the east, China threatens Taiwan. Could the two nations time their attacks to present Washington with a two-front war?
“The vastness of Eurasia is becoming bracketed by belligerence,” Carl Bildt, a former foreign minister of Sweden, warned last week in his essay “The Drums of War in Taiwan and Ukraine.” “Like China with its designs on Taiwan, Russia has been preparing and equipping its military for the specific purpose of invading and conquering Ukraine before any outside force can disrupt the occupation.”
The unity of the two nations was illustrated in October when the navies of Russia and China conducted their first joint maneuvers in the Western Pacific. They steamed through the Tsugaru Strait, the international waters that separate Japan’s main island and its northern island of Hokkaido.
This naval activity comes as the U.S. has lost its eyes and ears in Vladivostok. Since 1992, the U.S. consulate has occupied a hillside building with a clear view of Russia’s Pacific Fleet rocking at anchor on Golden Horn Bay. Due to the tit-for-tat expulsions of diplomats by Russia and the U.S., the consulate now is listed as on “suspended status.”
China’s blue water navy of 550 surface ships and submarines is 10 times the size of Russia’s Pacific Fleet, an assemblage of largely Soviet leftovers. Russia’s attendance in a mission against Taiwan would be largely to give Beijing the fig leaf of multilateralism. If Taiwan’s new submarines started sinking Chinese ships, the Russians might decide it is time to check their waters for North Korean lobster poachers.
In the west, China has no military assets. On the political front, it has failed to give Russia support in its campaign against Ukraine. China has not recognized Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea, Ukraine’s peninsula in the Black Sea. In September, Russia invited China to send troops to participate in its massive Zapad (West) military exercises in Belarus. Beijing sent only observers.
In Ukraine, China quietly displaced Russia two years ago as Ukraine’s largest trading partner. A major importer of corn and wheat from Ukraine, China is investing in Black Sea ports — and the cement roads to guarantee the grain trucks get to the docks. Through September, China’s imports of food from Ukraine were up 36 percent year over year, hitting $3 billion.
This year, Ukraine, the legendary bread basket of Europe, recorded its largest grain harvests in history. Corn and wheat harvests surged by 30 percent for a combined total of 73 million tons. With the United Nations’ Food and Agricultural Office reporting that world food prices are at their highest levels in a decade, China has no interest in joining or supporting a Russian blockade of Ukraine’s Black Sea ports.
Both countries know that military actions — in east or west — would provoke negative reactions from alliances, real and informal.
“Taiwan isn’t really that lonely,” an expert in Taiwan tells Reuters about the island nation’s secret submarine-building program. Noting that components have been sourced from Australia, Britain, Canada, India, Spain and South Korea, the expert said: “Given all the export permits we managed to get, we know that many countries are helping.”
There is also pride and optics. In 1996, when I went on my first reporting trip to the Russian Far East, Russia was the dominant economy of the pair. Now, the (unfair) caricature is that Russians in the border city of Blagoveshchensk stand outside their log cabins and gawk across the Amur River at the high-rise buildings of China’s border city of Heihe. Unfair or not, the optics in Moscow are that Russia would be the junior partner of any joint action with China.
On Thursday, the Atlantic Council held a Zoom webinar on the topic: “Will Russia invade Ukraine again?” A questioner asked John Herbst, a former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine, if Russia and China would coordinate attacks on Ukraine and Taiwan. Herbst, a director at the Council’s Eurasia Center, reviewed the relationship between the two neighbors and concluded: “There will be no coordination.”