political revue


Year LXIII, 2021, Single Issue, Page 48






In the winter of 2013-14, the Ukrainian president refused to sign an Association Agreement with the EU, his government preferring, instead, to begin negotiating what was seen as a more attractive economic and financial agreement with Moscow. That decision opened up a split in the country between those in support of association with the EU and those in favour of an agreement with Russia. At that point, the rich Donbas region, which has a largely Russian ethnic population, declared its independence, with Russia’s full support. This marked the start of a war, never openly declared, between the regular Ukrainian army and the country’s separatist forces — a war that, over the past eight years, has killed over 14,000 people, mainly civilians, and led over 1,500,000 citizens to flee the region, around 900,000 making for Russia. Moscow’s subsequent decision, in 2014, to “take back” Crimea, absorbing it into the Russian Federation through a referendum, further exacerbated the tensions with Ukraine and the Western world. On that occasion, Russia was targeted by a series of economic and financial sanctions proposed by the US government (under Obama) and supported by the EU.

In January 2022, the crisis in Ukraine flared up again dramatically as a result of Russia’s determination to prevent Ukraine from joining NATO, with Moscow prepared to resort to whatever means necessary in order to achieve this end. Indeed, Russia considers it absolutely vital to oppose the enlargement of NATO to countries that were once allies or satellites of the USSR.[1] In recent years, the USA has invited the governments of Moldova and Georgia to apply for membership of NATO, while other nations, most recently Ukraine, have submitted requests directly. All these are nations that were formerly an integral part of the territory of the USSR. Moreover, it is worth remembering that Finland (a nation that has always declared itself neutral) is now also considering applying to the US government[2] to become a member. Were these countries indeed to become members of the alliance, Russia would find itself with NATO troops and bases situated right on its borders; in this scenario, it would no longer be able to count on the presence of the buffer states that have represented, since the end of WWII (or the Great Patriotic War to use the Russian, and previously Soviet, term), a boundary that, in Moscow’s thinking, must remain an insurmountable limit. In actual fact, this limit has already been violated, when Estonia and Latvia joined NATO in 2004, but back then, Putin was still defining the new order of his country; also, in the wake of more than a decade of deep internal crises, Russia was weak in terms of its foreign policy capabilities.

The years immediately following the collapse of the Soviet Union were the most agonising for Russia; during that period the need to define a new order based on a new internal balance of power took precedence over all other issues. It took more than a decade to redefine the borders of the new Russia after the breakup of the USSR, which had resulted in the birth of thirteen new independent republics whose borders needed to be established and among which the treasury of Soviet Union’s central bank, as well as its nuclear and traditional arsenals, had to be divided. This is a period that saw Russia, in the wake of secessionist struggles in Ossetia and Chechnya, also engaged in thwarting attempted coups and bloodily quelling new secessionist conflicts in the Caucasus. All these issues overlapped with the internal power struggle in Moscow that, after the departure of Gorbachev and Yeltsin’s rise and fall, finally culminated in the rise of Vladimir Putin.

By the outbreak of the Ukrainian crisis of 2013-14, Russia’s internal situation had stabilised. It now had a clearly defined power structure and Moscow was able to exercise its foreign policy with newfound authoritativeness. The Russian government’s response to the sanctions imposed by the West was to initiate increasingly close and binding agreements with China in the economic, energy and military fields, something that a few years earlier would have been quite unthinkable.

The international situation, too, had changed dramatically. Russia’s difficult years coincided with China’s evolution into a major economic power able to wield — then, and even more so today — huge political and military influence in vast regions of Asia and Africa. Furthermore, the West’s widespread practice of relocating industrial activities to China has, over time, given China the power to control the manufacture of entire product lines, used the world over. Thus, in addition to the military strength at its disposal, China can also leverage its considerable industrial strength; it can even go so far as to wage economic wars by reducing (or increasing, in line with its own interests) the sale and export of certain goods, in the automotive and IT sectors for example, on which European industry depends.

The Movement Towards a New Balance of Power: Russia and China as Foreign Policy Allies.

Political instability in the 1990s, resulting from the dissolution of the USSR, led China to set up, in 1996, the Shanghai Five, an organisation comprising, in addition to China, the Russian Federation and three young ex-Soviet republics with which China borders: Kazakhstan, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan. Its main objective was to foster cooperation in the economic, political and military fields in order to counter separatism and terrorism in Central Asia. Over the years, the organisation grew — in 2001 it was re-founded as the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) whose members also include Uzbekistan, India and Pakistan —, and today it also seeks to mediate in disputes between its members states.[3]

This organisation created a new and direct channel of communication between Beijing and Moscow. Mindful of Russia’s experiences, China’s main desire was to ensure territorial unity at its borders, in order to avoid the emergence of separatist pressures of various sources: political, ethnic or religious (in addition to historical in the case of Tibet).

These same years saw the Americans assuming a leadership role at world level, even though this often left them in real difficulty, given that they found themselves having to operate, militarily, from the Middle East to Africa, and even in Europe (in the former Yugoslavia). This is not the place to list the world’s various hot spots and crises in the years leading up to and immediately after the turn of the century; what should be noted, however, is that while the USA was trying to act on all the various fronts, in some cases with the Europeans in tow, Russia was in the process of achieving internal stability and China was growing as an economic power, securing membership of the WTO in 2001 and at the same time embarking on a major modernisation of its armed forces.

At this point, Putin’s Russia and China were ready to pursue, in concert, the objective of opposing the United States as the world’s only superpower. And in this general context, the European Union played a mere spectator role, at most lending passive support to American policies or to NATO military decisions.

The crisis in Ukraine had the effect of strengthening the agreement between Moscow and Beijing, which, without ever requiring a formal ad hoc treaty, has expanded into the military field over the years. China has guaranteed Russia help in all international fora, by supporting Russia’s arguments over Ukraine; echoing Russia, it has also recently argued that talk of NATO enlargement to Ukraine amounts to a provocation by the West that only creates new tensions. Such help has been readily reciprocated: Moscow for its part defends China’s right to control atolls in the waters of the South China Sea;[4] moreover — and this is seen as even more important by Beijing —, the Russian government supports China’s claim to sovereignty over Taiwan, and also agrees that China has the right to impose its laws on Hong Kong.

Beijing and Moscow’s common views and mutual support in the field of foreign policy have been more evident than ever in these first months of 2022, giving rise to a situation, characterised by acutely challenging fronts (Ukraine and Taiwan) and the presence of two major powers ready to support each other, that is creating grave problems for the Western world, the USA in particular. The United States’ difficulties, which had already emerged during the Obama presidency and became worse under Trump, are aggravated by the European Union’s inability to act. The EU is indeed a victim of its own weaknesses: it depends heavily on Russia for energy supplies and on China for high-tech industrial products. Furthermore, having no European power able to pursue a single foreign and defence policy, and no European energy and industrial policy, the EU has to face the fact that it is too weak and insubstantial to be a credible force.

This lack of substance puts the European Union in the position of having to support the political choices of the USA, albeit passively and often in a confused and contradictory way.[5]

The US and the EU thus find themselves struggling with their difficulties in the face of a Russia and China increasingly bound together by coinciding interests. If the EU, on the one hand, has proved unable to independently manage, at its own borders, the conflict that has been going on in Ukraine for the last nine years, having to rely on NATO for support, the United States, on the other, seems to be in increasing difficulty in the Pacific area, the South China Sea in particular. Whereas diplomatic channels are open in Europe, in an effort to prevent the Ukrainian crisis from degenerating into open warfare, in the Pacific area Beijing has issued a very specific and definite challenge: Taiwan must be back under Chinese sovereignty by 2050.[6]

Ever since the start of the Ukrainian crisis, Russia and China have been conducting joint military and naval exercises in waters around the world. The first was in 2015, in the Mediterranean, followed by others in the Baltic Sea, the Sea of Japan and the South China Sea (in this latter case, also involving marines to simulate an island conquest). Finally, in January this year, ships from the Russian and Chinese fleets were joined by Iranian ships off the Gulf of Oman,[7] giving rise to alarm in the entire Arab world, and beyond, given the possible implications of this military collaboration in the context of the already difficult Middle Eastern situation.

What is more, Russia is granting Chinese military and civil engineers use of its bases in the Arctic area with a view to the construction of common ports and the joint drilling of possible new oil or gas wells.[8] Forecasts suggest that by 2050, as an effect of the melting of sea ice, merchant ships sailing from the Pacific to Northern Europe will be able to use the Arctic shipping route for six months a year as opposed to the current three. This route will thus become increasingly strategic for commercial shipping, being less expensive and quicker than those that pass through the Panama Canal. For these two countries, having control of the Arctic region, and friendly ports along its coasts, will be of great strategic value, allowing them not only to exploit the area’s natural wealth, but also to control its traffic, commercial and otherwise.[9] This situation provides a further illustration of the ability of these two powers to develop long-term strategies. And their sharing of interests is a cause for great concern in the USA; after all, were the crises in Europe and in the Pacific to explode simultaneously, as the result of a clear agreement in this sense between Moscow and Beijing, America would not be able to manage the two fronts at the same time. In particular, even with the possible support of military aid under recent international agreements, namely the QUAD alliance of the USA, Japan, Australia and India, and the AUKUS one between the USA, the UK and Australia, a crisis in the Pacific, specifically in the waters of the South China Sea, would very likely see the USA roundly defeated.

Such an outcome, which would naturally entail the annexation of Taiwan to China, was even envisaged by the head of U.S. Strategic Command, speaking a US congressional hearing in April 2021.[10]

Taiwan can be considered the false conscience of the world: only 14 states recognise it as a sovereign state, while all the rest merely have commercial dealings with it.[11] This is the result of a veto imposed by Beijing, which will not engage in diplomatic relations with any state that refuses to recognise the People’s Republic of China as one and indivisible, and that Taiwan is just a rebel province. The world, fearful of the consequences of breaking off relations with China, lacks the courage to acknowledge Taiwan’s right to exist as an independent state. The United States, having decided, in 1972, in response to a request from the Chinese government, to accept the “one China” principle (Nixon was US president at the time), bears particular responsibility in this regard.

In Ukraine and along the coasts of Taiwan we are now witnessing continuous tests of strength by Russia and China, as they jointly attempt to test the reactions of the West and verify its ability to respond. There can be no other explanation for the continual joint naval exercises or the repeated violations of Taiwanese airspace by Chinese fighters.[12] The situation in the Pacific is further complicated by instability in the waters of the Yellow Sea and the Sea of Japan that, linked to repeated threats from North Korea, has prompted Japan, a close ally of the USA, to modify its constitutional charter to allow an increase in military spending and provision for the construction of aircraft carriers.[13] These are waters overseen by important Russian and Chinese military ports.


The collapse of the USSR left entire continents destabilised, and in the face of this global reality, the United States proved unable, by itself, to guarantee a new order that would ensure peace and stability. Some of the blame for this lies, very clearly, with Europe, which failed to initiate a different policy, a policy of proximity, towards the new Russia. Thus, the United States, with Europe’s acquiescence, continued to see Russia as a potential enemy needing to be opposed. In short, instead of grasping the nature of the new circumstances created by the collapse of the Soviet system, the West, by strengthening NATO’s presence in Eastern Europe, continued to work to undermine Russia. In this way, and also as a result of Europe’s expansion towards countries formerly in the Soviet orbit of influence, a great opportunity to foster new relations between the European Union and Russia was wasted. But, how could a European Union without a government and foreign policy of its own possibly have acted otherwise? The EU’s eastwards expansion reflected the fear of Russia harboured by countries that had long been subjugated by their powerful neighbour. For these countries, EU membership was a guarantee that they would get help in developing their economies and establishing their young democracies, while NATO membership gave them guarantees in terms of military security.

While this scenario was taking shape in Europe, in the Far East, China was emerging as a new power — economic initially, but now also military. All the contradictions and weaknesses of the EU in the economic sphere are reflected in the absence of a European industrial and energy policy. The relocation of many production activities to China has enabled the Chinese to use the economy as a fully fledged political tool, as the European Commission itself, underlining Europe’s dependence on China in strategic sectors, has admitted.[14] The European governments, which should be stung into action by awareness of their weakness, need to seek forward-looking solutions, so as not to have to witness, as we are doing, European industry struggling to procure both finished products and raw materials. In fact, were confirmation needed that international trade has shifted away from the Atlantic to the Pacific area, one need only consider that most raw materials currently go to China and the other countries of the Far East that, today, together constitute the industrial powerhouse of the world.

As the USA, Russia and China remind us every day, the real problem for today’s world, desperately in need of a balance able to overcome hegemonic ambitions, is the open confrontation between three major continental powers. Equally clear is the absence, or marginality, in this situation of a fourth continental player, as has been underlined by the European Commission itself, as well as by President Macron and Chancellor Scholz in recent public declarations. At this point, what remains to be done, as an ancient Latin saying goes, is turn words into deeds, by making the radical choices that will give the European Union the federal structure it needs in order to exercise its sovereignty.

The next few months will therefore be decisive, depending on the decisions that will be reached by the European Council on the basis of the proposals advanced by European citizens through the Conference on the Future of Europe. These proposals include clear ideas aimed at abolishing the right of veto, granting the EU fiscal and budgetary powers, and giving the European Parliament greater powers to define foreign policy objectives. All are vital issues for the future of the European Union and for ensuring greater balance in the management of the problems faced by the world as a whole. 

February 2022

Stefano Spoltore

[1] On the crisis in Ukraine and the politics of Putin, cf.: S. Spoltore, Ukraine Caught Between East and West, The Federalist, 56 (2014), p. 55,, and Id., La sfida della Russia, Il Federalista, 60 n. 1 (2018), p. 35,

[2] Requests to join NATO must be submitted to the government of the USA, which subsequently forwards them to the NATO in Brussels for approval by all the member states (this approval must be unanimous). On Finland’s possible accession to NATO cf.: A. Lombardi, La Finlandia sfida Putin: “Pronti a valutare l’adesione alla NATO”, La Repubblica, 2 January 2022.

[3] Cf. P. Pizzolo, Il Kazakistan, la Russia e il nuovo grande gioco in Asia centrale, Affari Internazionali, 14 January 2022,

[4] Cf. S. Spoltore, L’Oceano della discordia, Il Federalista, 57 n. 3 (2015), p. 204,

[5] D. Teurtrie, Gli europei fuori gioco, Le Monde diplomatique Il Manifesto, February 2022.

[6] Declaration by Xi Jinping, addressing the National People’s Congress, Agenzia AGI, 9 October 2021; L’ascia di Xi Jinping su Taiwan: la Cina realizzerà la riunificazione, chiunque cerchi di dividere il paese non farà una bella fine, La Stampa, 9 October 2021.

[7] Golfo Persico. Mosca si addestra con Teheran e Pechino nell’antipirateria,, 29 August 2021. Furthermore, last summer, the Chinese foreign minister Wang Yi visited Tehran and subsequently Ankara to make deals in the energy and military fields.

[8] E. Comelli, Patto Russia-Cina nel nome del gas: alle olimpiadi di Pechino nasce l’asse contro la NATO, Quotidiano Nazionale, 5 February 2022, The economic partnership agreed on the occasion of the opening of the Olympic Games in Beijing, in addition to renewing these countries’ alliance in the Arctic region, valid for 25 years, also saw the signing of a supply agreement that saw Russia undertaking to supply, over 10 years, 100 million tons of oil to China through Kazakhstan, where in January 2022, Russian troops intervened to restore order after popular protests threatened to topple the pro-Russian government.

[9] L. Rossi, Russia e Cina nell’Artico: una relazione ambigua, Affari Internazionali, October 2020,, and R. Tani, La Russia si mostra sempre più assertiva nel teatro artico, Panorama Difesa, n. 397, June 2020.

[10] Admiral Charles Richard, head of U.S. Strategic Command, answered questions in the course of the hearing. Cf.: E’ di nuovo tempo di “pensare all’impensabile”, Panorama Difesa, n. 414, January 2022,

[11] The countries that recognize Taiwan as a state are: Belize, Vatican City, Guatemala, Haiti, Honduras, Marshall Islands, Nauru, Palau, Paraguay, Saint Kitts and Nevis, Saint Lucia, Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, Eswatini and Tuvalu.

[12] Incursions by Chinese fighters numbered 380 in 2020, rising to over 600 in 2021.

[13] C. Martorello, Il rinnovato concetto di potere navale in Asia, Panorama Difesa, n. 400, October 2020, p. 54.

[14] J. Oertel, J. Tollmann, B. Tsang, Climate superpowers: how EU and China can compete and cooperate for a green future, Policy brief of the European Council on Foreign Relations, 3 December 2020,



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