« Russia and China are ‘aligned but not allied' »


Bruno Tertrais, Deputy Director of the Foundation for Strategic Research, April 30, 2022.

A political scientist by training, specializing in geopolitical and strategic analysis, Bruno Tertrais has notably published with Odile Jacob The demographic shock (2020) and with Delphine Papin The Atlas of Borders (The Arena, 2021)

Does the war in Ukraine crystallize a new division of the world and of Europe into antagonistic blocks?

Yes and no. It consolidates two institutions on the Western side: NATO [Organisation du traité de l’Atlantique Nord] with its enlargement to include Sweden and Finland, which are abandoning their policy of neutrality and non-alignment, and the European Union, which is asserting itself as a geopolitical actor, including with the entry of Denmark into the defense policy common.

In the East, the situation is more complex. There is a strengthening of relations between Moscow and Minsk, and a virtual fusion of their defense systems. And the consolidation of the Sino-Russian axis through the joint communiqué of Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping in February, just before the attack on Ukraine. But this is not a Molotov-Ribbentrop 2.0 pact. [pacte germano-soviétique de non-agression entre l’Allemagne nazie et l’URSS]. Russia and China are « aligned but not allied », to reverse a phrase that France uses to describe its relations with America. The two leaders denounce Western policy in unison but do not wish to make a commitment to mutual defense. They compete in Central Asia.

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These consolidations may bring to mind the situation of the 1950s, but in reverse. The turning point is today caused by a serious crisis in Europe whereas, at the time, it took place in Asia, with the Korean war. Even if the situation around Taiwan is reminiscent of the crises of 1955 and 1958… Another major difference: today, unlike the 1950s, China is the dominant partner in the Moscow-Beijing couple.

What also limits the analogy is the asymmetry between a Western bloc in the broad sense, a perennial and expanding system of alliances, and, in the East, a Collective Security Treaty Organization [OTSC] that Russia wanted to be the counterpart of NATO but which has only six members, and a China which has only one ally, North Korea.

Let us also remember that, unlike the 1950s, America does not have a policy of “refoulement” despite what the paranoid Chinese and Russian regimes think, convinced that Washington is trying to “change their regimes”…

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Aren’t these blocs also more mobile than during the Cold War?

This is another reason for my reservations about the parallel. Vladimir Putin seemed to want to transform the CSTO into a new Warsaw Pact by bringing it to Kazakhstan in early 2022, but this organization is showing signs of cracking. On September 12, Yerevan called on Russia to implement its commitment to defend Armenia, but Moscow refused to do so.

In the Indo-Pacific, the Quad [dialogue quadrilatéral pour la sécurité, partenariat informel entre les Etats-Unis, l’Inde, le Japon et l’Australie] is not a military alliance and India does not want to side with Washington. On our continent, Erdogan’s Turkey seems mutatis mutandis wanting to behave, within NATO, like the France of General de Gaulle, by marking its difference vis-à-vis Moscow…

An 'Achtung Russia' poster at the entrance to the Ukrainian army general staff in the town of Avdiivka, Donbass, Ukraine, April 28, 2021.
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There is also Iran, which is getting closer and closer to this Euro-Asian entity around Russia and China but is keen on its independence. This set is characterized by a negative, anti-Western agenda. They are basically “families” more than “blocks”. And who compete in the rest of the world, this famous “Global South”. A dubious semantic construction reminiscent of the “Third World” of the Cold War…

Are we in a situation comparable to 1914 by the interplay of alliances?

Since the emergence of China, the question has arisen as to whether the beginning of the 21ste century in Asia will be comparable at the beginning of the XXe in Europe. The comparison with 1914 is an interesting subject, but I remain reserved for several reasons. Firstly because historians have questioned the idea that the spiral of alliances was a major cause of the outbreak of the First World War. Then because the alliances of the XXIe century are not those of the XXe. Not only because of the asymmetry of the system already underlined – America has forty formal allies, Russia five and China one –, but also because the defense commitments are less rigid than they seem. were at the time.

Finally, because there are rappel strings which did not exist at the beginning of the previous century. Western leaders have a greater awareness of the horrors of war. We are not The Sleepwalkers from 1914 [Christopher Clark, Flammarion, 2013]. And there is nuclear deterrence. It certainly increases the risk of indirect confrontation, but limits that of a frontal shock. Its rules continue to operate in Europe. It is sheltered behind its nuclear shield that Russia intervenes in Ukraine, but it is protected by its own deterrence that the West helps kyiv.

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What could change this dynamic of emerging blocs?

We can imagine a “Cuba moment” or a “Kissinger moment”. The first would be a major crisis leading to a purification of alliances. It was de Gaulle who, during the Cuban crisis in 1962, displayed unfailing solidarity with Washington. It was George W. Bush who, after the September 11 attacks, summoned his allies to be « with [eux] or against [eux] « . The second would be a diplomatic maneuver consisting in neutralizing a member of the opposing bloc, as the American Secretary of State had done in 1972 with the recognition of Communist China.

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In the West, people sometimes dream of snatching Russia from China’s embrace… This is mistaking the context. A reverse Kissingerian maneuver is not possible today. At the time, Beijing had an interest in loosening the Soviet grip, but now Moscow has nothing to gain by moving away from China. I don’t see what we could propose to Russia to encourage it to reverse the course of the policy deliberately pursued by Vladimir Putin for a decade, that of a “Eurasian” orientation. And his defeat in Ukraine will further accentuate it. Russia is leaving Europe…

The highlights of the Caen forum

The fifth edition of the Normandy World Forum for Peace, of which The world is a partner, takes place on September 23 and 24 at the Abbaye aux Dames, in Caen, on the theme “Down with the walls! These confinements that make wars. It will be devoted in particular to the war in Ukraine and its challenges. Among the highlights of the forum, let us note the debates “Europe, the return of the blocs? (on the 23rd, 4:30 p.m. to 6 p.m.), with Sabine Dullin, Nicole Gnesotto and Michael Duclosmoderated by Mark Semojournalist at World ; « Vladimir Putin and the post-Soviet space » (23rd, 2-3.30 p.m.), with Tatiana Kastoueva-Jean ; “International institutions: from reprobation to action? (on the 23rd, 4:30 p.m. to 6 p.m.), with in particular Francois Rivasseau, Fabienne Keller and the Ukrainian Ambassador to France, Vadym Omelchenko.

The other crises have not been forgotten, and in the first place Taiwan (23rd, 2 p.m. to 3:30 p.m.), with the participation of Francois Wuhead of the Taipei representative office in France, and Antoine Bondaz, researcher at the Foundation for Strategic Research. Algeria will be at the heart of a meeting with the ex-ambassador in Algiers, Xavier Driencourt (on the 24th, 2:30 p.m. to 4 p.m.). A focus will also be devoted to the Uighurs (on the 23rd, 4:30 p.m. to 6 p.m.), with Jean-Claude Samouiller, President of Amnesty International France.

Information and reservations: Normandiepourlapaix.fr

Dossier produced as part of a partnership with the Normandy World Peace Forum.

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