The Thucydides Fallacy: Misdiagnosing Today’s Challenge to the International System

July 17, 2019
The Thucydides Fallacy: Misdiagnosing Today’s Challenge to the International System
Alexei Nikolsky, Sputnik, Kremlin Pool Photo via AP, File
The Thucydides Fallacy: Misdiagnosing Today’s Challenge to the International System
Alexei Nikolsky, Sputnik, Kremlin Pool Photo via AP, File
Story Stream
recent articles

Earlier this year, The Strategy Bridge asked university and professional military education students to participate in our third annual student writing contest by sending us their thoughts on strategy.

Now, we are pleased to present one of this year’s third-place essays by Katherine Kjellström Elgin from Princeton University.

With a renewed sense of great power conflict, many scholars and strategists are looking towards China as the greatest threat the United States must face, pivoting (if you will) towards Asia as it sets U.S. strategic priorities. Graham Allison’s Destined for War: Can America and China Escape Thucydides’s Trap? has become popular as a frame for the contemporary moment the United States may be facing.[1] Examining results of competition between ruling and rising powers, Allison cleverly structures his book in terms of the infamous Thucydides trap: that the “rise of Athens and the fear that this instilled in Sparta.” But his framework—and the one that so many others are using—is incomplete. His use of the analogy is useful for explaining his framework of analysis, but his analysis is fundamentally bilateral. In his story, where is Persia? Where is Macedon?[2]

The rise of China is not the only distinguishing structural factor for the strategic environment in which the United States finds itself. Many scholars will discuss the role of terrorism, increased globalization, and non-state actors in the current strategic environment. These are all important, but from a classical view of the structure of the international system, what the U.S. today is facing is not just a rising power, or even a bloc of powers: it is also facing a declining power—Russia.

Today, the U.S. finds itself in a more complicated international system—just not the one so many seem to be focusing on. From a purely structural perspective, the United States today faces both a rising and a declining power simultaneously and must manage both, for if it only focuses on the rising power, the declining power will likely play the role of spoiler and render the international system unstable. Furthermore, the rising and declining powers have a developing relationship—asking the U.S. to manage two friends, both opposed to hegemonic U.S. leadership, moving in different directions. Many analysts group Russia and China together as one axis, but understanding their differences is vital. We cannot treat them as the same. The contemporary moment is not just about a ruling and a rising power (or group of powers) as Destined for War tells it, but a ruling, a rising, and a declining power.

By introducing Russia as a declining power and dissecting the Sino-Russian relationship and its propensity not to act as a single unit, this essay illustrates the need to reframe our understanding of the current international system. Instead of a framework that thinks in terms of a United States defending its hegemony from a rising power in China or a bloc of China and Russia together, we need a framework that considers a ruling power (the United States) against both a rising (China) and a declining power (Russia).

The Wrong Diagnosis

One of the most prevalent schools of thought within international relations, neorealism, contends the international system is defined by anarchy and the distribution of capabilities. The first characteristic tells us the international system has no global policeman or central enforcing entity. Because of this, states act out of self-help, seeking their own interests. The second characteristic describes how the world system then organizes itself: around the distribution of capabilities. That is, the structure of the international system—loosely defined as the number of great powers or poles—is defined by relative levels of power.[3]

There has been recent debate about how many poles the system now has, and how many the world will have in the near future.[4] That discussion revolves around whether the United States will remain the hegemon—an overwhelming power—or if a power or a group of powers working together will balance American power.[5] This is fundamentally a bipolar framework, though, as it frames the debate as being about two sides of a see-saw. Policymakers and analysis describe the world as becoming more multipolar, and the structure is frequently described seen as a series of a rising powers around a power in relative decline, the United States.[6]

That image is false, though. Even if the United States is declining in its relative status, the rest of the major powers are not rising: Russia is declining. Still, many recent discussions posit a multipolar world, but do not really focus on Russia for itself, instead focusing on the rise of a Russia-China axis. Allison, too, seems to treat the two as one solid bloc.[7]

The problem with considering Russia and China a single balancing unit, though, is that even within the Sino-Russian relationship, Russia is declining. This creates unique imperatives. To focus on just a bilateral U.S.-China system or on a quasi-bilateral U.S.-China/Russia system is to misdiagnose the operating environment. Instead, the United States faces a strategic environment in which it encounters not only a rising power... but also a declining one.

Russian President Vladimir Putin, U.S. President Donald Trump, and PRC President Xi Jinping with other world leaders. (EPA)

Russia: A Power in Decline

Even as Russia has largely managed to recover from its post-Soviet collapse, it is declining across nearly every measure of power.[8] Russia has demonstrated its significant destabilizing power, with interventions in Ukraine, Syria, and Venezuela. The West continues to worry about its shows of force and interests in the Arctic, Central Asia, the Middle East, and elsewhere. But these actions may be a sign of weakness rather than strength, as it seeks to maintain its former status despite the fact that the trends of its national power are discouraging.

The Russian military has long been considered a national strength despite its underperforming economy, but it may be faltering. Of course, its possession of a large and modernized arsenal of nuclear weapons as well as other weapons systems and capabilities (including those demonstrated in Syria) make it a formidable military foe. However, the trendlines do not appear promising. In 2018, for the first time since 2006, Russia was not a top-five global defense spender.[9] Between 2013 and 2018, Russian military spending declined by 30%.[10] Military spending is not necessarily correlated with military efficacy, but it does provide a sense of a country’s dedication to its kinetic strength as well as the level and scope of its capabilities. Russia has been developing weapons systems believed to be formidable, but problems in development reveal weakness. Even with the development of the next generation of Su-57, which promised to rival U.S. fighters, Russia faltered, failing to gather enough money to put a substantial number into the field.[11] Russia has grand plans to modernize its forces, but these plans have recently been thrown into question as budget allocation reveals that Moscow recently devoted less than half of what it had anticipated on procurement.[12] And despite an increase in the number of divisions and brigades in its Armed Forces, Russian units appear to be undermanned.[13]

Shrinking domestic capabilities reinforce these military trends. A combination of an energy-reliant economy faced with low fossil fuel prices, rapidly aging infrastructure, corruption, and Western-imposed sanctions, the economy is stagnating, the Russian government’s revenues are dropping, the social welfare system is declining, and living standards are falling.[14] The population is also in crisis. The average life expectancy for a person born in Russia is 72, roughly a decade shorter than in most other developed countries.[15] 2018 was also the first year that the Russian population declined—and it may be losing talent. Rosstat, the Russian federal agency tracking demographics, reported that the percent of emigrants from Russia who possess advanced degrees has increased from 5 percent in 2012 to 22 percent in 2017—and those figures may be worse, since Rosstat only counts individuals who officially cancel their registration as Russians.[16] Some argue the society may be becoming increasingly factionalized, suggesting a political crisis may soon occur.[17]

Russia’s global reach in alliances and partners is also in decline.[18] The relationship with China, as we will consider below, is a powerful one, but remarkably asymmetrical. Relations with the U.S., even with the election of Donald Trump, who is softer on Russia than his predecessor, are confrontational. Furthermore, the relations between Russia and Europe seem unlikely to return to business as usual, as Europeans openly decry Russia, and several European states are developing military capabilities, plans, and relationship to shore up in case of a Russian military incursion. At the same time, several former Soviet states—upon which Russia used to be able to rely for status recognition—are distancing themselves. The Eurasian Economic Union (EEU), despite talk about pairing it with the Belt and Road Initiative, is essentially a non-geopolitical player. Ukraine’s split from Russia and the majority of the country’s feelings towards Moscow after the 2014 Crimean crisis are unlikely to recover. Belarus is exploring how far it can push Moscow and also considering other alignment options (including with China). In Central Asia, too, states are weary after witnessing Russian intervention in Ukraine, and are increasingly connected to China. None of Russia’s EEU or Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) partners officially recognize Moscow’s claim to Crimea.[19]

Of course, a country’s path is not deterministic. A realignment, a change in policy, or a change in leadership could help to adjust these trendlines. Under current circumstances, however, the likelihood seems small. Even if a readjustment could take place, it would likely take years for the economy to catch up and for Russia to be able to take on a new global role.[20]

China and Russia: Not the Same

One possible way for Russia to resist its decline and to boost its strength would be to join a robust partnership with another powerful country, and indeed it is important to recognize that China and Russia are increasingly working together. In 2011, the two countries recognized each other as “comprehensive strategic partners,” the highest level of relationship that China awards.[21] In June 2018, awarding Vladimir Putin the first “friendship medal,” Xi Jinping described the Russian president as his “best, most intimate friend.”[22]

China and Russia have signed more than 200 bilateral, inter-governmental treaties since the end of the Cold War, including the 2001 Treaty of Good-Neighborliness and Friendly Cooperation which can be read as a non-aggression and consultation pact.[23] They hold approximately 20-30 bilateral high-level security-related consultations a year, which averages to some type of federal-level, inter-military contact almost every two weeks.[24] In addition to technological cooperation, they have conducted joint military exercises, including the recent 2018 Vostok exercises which included a significant Chinese contingent.[25] They have also cooperated on the United Nations Security Council, signed energy deals, and concluded investment agreements.[26]

Russia and China collaborated in Vostok 2018 (Zuma Press)

Together, they appear to offer an alternative to the U.S.-led international order based on strong concepts of non-intervention and sovereignty (when it suits) and authoritarianism.[27] For example, in June 2016, they signed the “Joint Declaration on the Promotion of International Law.”[28] The document outlines Chinese and Russian positions on non-intervention, sovereignty, cyber, human rights, and international organizations—all trying to reinforce the role of national government and internal control.[29]

Moscow and Beijing are united by skepticism about U.S. hegemony and dissatisfaction with aspects of the current international order, though they have engaged with and benefited from the U.S.-led international order. [30] Moscow and Beijing share a view that the West is domineering and poses a threat to their interests.[31] Chinese and Russian separate and joint statements have continuously stressed their interest in creating an equitable multipolar order with a particular emphasis on inclusivity, sovereignty, independence, and non-interference.

However, it is possible to overstate their partnership and to treat Russia and China as belonging to a single, united bloc. Scholars and policy experts cannot agree on the characteristics, goals, or longevity of the Sino-Russian relationship. Some argue the relationship represents a de facto alliance, while others contend the ties are just an “axis of convenience.”[32] It is unclear whether or not the two countries actually share the same goals or agree on a common world vision.[33] Nor, as discussed, is it clear that both reject the U.S.-led international order in its entirety.[34] The strength of the cooperation is strongly debated.[35] Despite Russia’s relative weakness, many still talk about China and Russia acting in concert. Frequently, this is discussion about an authoritarian axis that may represent a more traditional band of states balancing against the United States.[36]

We should be hesitant to treat Russia and China as one unitary balancing bloc for two primary reasons. First, how do we know truly that they are balancing against the United States? [37] China in particular seems to benefit from the current U.S.-international system in many ways, and both Russia and China continue to cooperate with the United States on a number of issues. Second, how close are Beijing and Moscow truly? There are natural tensions within the relationship, and their cooperation thus far has not been that costly. Without costs associated with working together, the Sino-Russian relationship may be one more of convergence rather than cooperation and may be weaker than many suggest.[38]

More broadly, even if we were to accept that China and Russia are balancing together against the United States, treating them as one unitary bloc overlooks the complexities of national interests and behavior. China and Russia may both be challenging the U.S.-led international order and the United States (though in different ways and perhaps to different levels), but they are not the same, and they are not likely to always act in unison. Within their partnership, there are most certainly differences in trajectory—a rising power and a declining power are likely to have different intentions and policies towards the international order.

While both countries may be revisionist, the degree to which they are coordinating in this revisionism is uncertain. While Beijing and Moscow may both want to change aspects of the international order, it is not clear whether they have a shared, formulated vision of an alternative order.[39] Kaczmarski argues that Russia and China have different worldviews, while Wishnick claims that Chinese and Russian shared and differing identities explain the limits of the cooperation.[40] Krickovic argues Russia wants to completely change the order, while China only wants to push back against certain aspects, as it still benefits from the system. Thus, while they may work together to change some aspects of the system, we may see a rift between the two powers as a power transition approaches.[41]

Others argue that while China and Moscow may not share an exact vision of the international order, they do share a vision for how great powers should be able to behave in the international system. In this core convergence, deals amongst great powers are seen as the prime determinant of the system—and they can also determine when to break the rules.[42] The coordination, however, may become greater with the onset of a U.S.-China trade war, bringing China closer to openly challenging the U.S.[43]

China, as the rising power, can afford in many ways to play the long game. Power transition theory suggests the rising power will prefer to put off conflict until it is at its strongest; so long as its power potential seems to be growing, it will not try to challenge the hegemon.[44] Recent research suggests this is the case with China.[45]

China also receives numerous benefits from the current international order, and thus may not wish to overthrow it as quickly as Russia does. Under the current order, its economy has grown, and China has risen to become one of the top global players. It would like to see changes to the system to give it more say and to accommodate certain interests, but it recognizes that aspects of the international order have contributed to Chinese growth.[46] Russia, however, perceives few benefits from the international system.[47] As it rejects globalization and the U.S.-led order, some suggestions hold that Russia is turning into isolation or should do so.[48]

Furthermore, there are deep tensions in the relationship that may disrupt their cooperation. From the Russian side especially, there remains a sort of cultural gap. Cultural exchange between Russian and Chinese remains low, despite increases in trade. Both Chinese and Russian elites are largely oriented towards the West, not each other. Russian political and economic elites continue to see Russia as a part of Europe, while China is seen as a part of Asia, indicating a perception of cultural difference.[49]  There is also a dearth of area studies experts in either country to advise leaders on the other.[50] Furthermore, there is an often overplayed idea of a Russian fear of ethnic “China peril.”[51] Russia is also demonstratively protective of its near abroad, and as China becomes more involved in regions like Central Asia, the Arctic, and Eastern Europe (especially the Baltic states), we may see Russia begin to resist Chinese growth.[52]

Despite big rhetoric, trade and investment between the two countries is still surprisingly small. In 2016, China-Russia total trade reached $69 billion, which pales in comparison to the $520 billion in total trade China conducts with the U.S. and falls short of smaller countries like Thailand, Vietnam, and Malaysia—all of which are considered lesser partners than Russia.[53] China is the most important trading partner for Russia, but the reverse is not true. Investment has similarly been underwhelming, no matter the talk. Private Chinese firms do not trust Russian businesses and are unlikely to choose to support Russian endeavors without the push of the Chinese government.[54]

This economic disparity and other concerns contribute to a real Russian fear that it will become the junior partner in the relationship with China, just as it abhors being seen as a lesser partner in its relationship with the U.S. Russia has a tradition of valuing its status as a great power. [55]  If status (rather than capabilities) is what drives Russia, it will seek different types of relationships and behaviors within the international system—and with regards to China.

As China grows and as Russia recognizes the growing power disparity, Moscow may push back against its declining status and disrupt the relationship. This does not explain, however, why Moscow is working with China now—surely it too can read the tea leaves. One explanation is that there must be another, overwhelming reason for Russia’s cooperation with China: the United States. That is, so long as the United States is a uniting adversary and Russia prioritizes its status deficiency towards the United States, Russia is likely to cooperate with China.

None of this explains China’s choice to cooperate with Russia. Some scholars suggest China uses Russia to help shift aspects of the system without having to bear the costs of doing it themselves, essentially free-riding not only on the benefits of U.S. hegemony but also on Russia’s anti-hegemonic efforts.[56] Others suggest that China would like to help manage Russia’s decline. Others still view China as using Russia to help its infrastructure and influence goals—and think that accommodating Russia in the short-term will help keep Russia from playing spoiler to China’s goals, but in the long-term Russia will be so weak as to not pose a threat.[57]

Russia needs China more than China needs Russia, despite any claims that “without Russia, China would be left facing the United States and the West alone—the uncomfortable situation it found itself in at the end of the Cold War.”[58] China, of course, welcomes a partner in its quest to amend the international order. However, China could accomplish many of its goals with Russia. This creates a fundamental asymmetry in their relationship.

Why It Matters

If Russia is a declining power and China and Russia cannot be counted together as one axis, the international system is not as clearly black and white as a simple ruling/rising framework like Allison’s would suggest. Managing the decline of Russia while also worrying about the rise of China and the potential balancing forces that Russia and China together could provide is one of the most important questions the West faces today.

If Russia were just a declining power, it would be troublesome enough. International relations scholarship suggests that declining powers may start power transition wars, due to a mentality that they only lose the advantage if they wait while the rising power gains more power.[59] This research also relies on a framework similar to Allison’s ruling/rising framework—that is, assuming the rising power is a threat to the declining power. In Russia, however, we see a non-ruling declining power. There is a dearth of research on the role of non-hegemonic declining powers, but the same logic may apply: If the trend is towards less power, why assert your status later when you can do so now?

States in decline tend to behave dangerously. The U.S. not only needs to defend itself and the order it has created from a rising power that seeks to change it, but also a risk-acceptant Russia that is bent on maintaining its relevance. Dmitri Trenin, one of the most respected analysts of Russian foreign policy, writes, “Russia is one of the few countries in the world that instinctively refuses to submit to others’ hegemony, dominance, or leadership.”[60] As it continues to decline, these instincts are likely to kick in. The U.S. thus faces a tension with regards to Russia to resist Putin’s revisionism while also not isolating Russia completely and leading to more chaos.[61]

This potentially dangerous behavior out of Russia only gets worse if it not only feels it is in a status of decline with regards to global status, but also within the Sino-Russian relationship. Being treated as a member of an important anti-U.S. axis gives Russia a valuable status as a revisionist rising (or resurgent) power. But if it starts to feel it is playing second-fiddle to China, it may grow more desperate. And desperation can lead to unpredictable behavior.

Allison has said, “The preeminent geostrategic challenge of this era is not Islamic extremists or a resurgent Russia. It is the impact that China’s ascendance will have on the U.S.-led international order, which has provided unprecedented great-power peace and prosperity for the past 70 years.”[62] Yet, a desperate declining Russia could fundamentally impact the U.S.-led international order as well. It is already credited with helping to spread autocracy, disrupting democracy, and breaking norms of sovereignty.

Framing the conversation in terms of just rising states threatens to mischaracterize the threat the U.S. is facing. Russia is incredibly proud of its status as a great power. As it recognizes its declining status, it is likely to act out and disrupt the international system. To characterize the current to the international order as just one of a rising China is to fundamentally misdiagnose the structural issue.

Katherine Kjellström Elgin is a Ph.D. Candidate in Security Studies at Princeton University’s Woodrow Wilson School for Public & International Affairs. Her dissertation examines the contemporary Sino-Russian relationship. Other research interests include grand strategy, Scandinavian security policy, civil-military relations, and alliance management. Katherine speaks French, Russian, and Swedish.

This article appeared originally at Strategy Bridge.


[1] Graham Allison, Destined for War: Can America and China Escape Thucydides’s Trap? (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2017).

[2] I thank Doyle Hodges for his contribution to this framing.

[3] The concept of power is a highly contested concept that is beyond the scope of this paper. For a good analysis of the debate, see: David A. Baldwin, Power and International Relations: A Conceptual Approach (Princeton University Press, 2016),

[4] For examples of the debate, see: Charles Krauthammer, “The Unipolar Moment,” Foreign Affairs 70, no. 1 (1990),; Charles Krauthammer, “The Unipolar Moment Revisited,” The National Interest, no. 70 (2002): 5–18; Christopher Layne, “The Unipolar Illusion Revisited: The Coming End of the United States’ Unipolar Moment,” International Security 31, no. 2 (October 19, 2006): 7–41.

[5] Even with discussion about the end of the American ‘unipolar moment,’ most scholars have agreed that traditional balancing is not occurring, though some form of ‘soft balancing’ may be. Many describe Russia and China as revisionist powers who seek to change the status quo – and may try to balance the U.S. in the future, even if they are not currently. On a lack of hard balancing, see: Keir A. Lieber and Gerard Alexander, “Waiting for Balancing: Why the World Is Not Pushing Back,” International Security 30, no. 1 (September 27, 2005): 109–39; William C. Wohlforth, “Hegemonic Decline and Hegemonic War Revisited,” in Power, Order, and Change in World Politics, ed. G. John Ikenberry (Cambridge ; New York: Cambridge University Press, 2014); Richard Weitz, “Why Russia and China Have Not Formed an Anti-American Alliance,” Naval War College Review 56, no. 4 (2003),

For a debate on soft balancing, see: T. V. Paul, “Soft Balancing in the Age of U.S. Primacy,” International Security 30, no. 1 (2005): 46–71; Robert A. Pape, “Soft Balancing against the United States,” International Security 30, no. 1 (2005): 7–45; Stephen G. Brooks and William C. Wohlforth, “Hard Times for Soft Balancing,” International Security 30, no. 1 (2005): 72–108.

On revisionism, see: Walter Russell Mead, “The Return of Geopolitics: The Revenge of the Revisionist Powers,” Foreign Affairs 93, no. 3 (September 15, 2015),; Robert Kagan, “The United States Must Resist a Return to Spheres of Interest in the International System,” The Brookings Institution, Order from Chaos (blog), February 19, 2015,; Stephen Kotkin, “Russia’s Perpetual Geopolitics,” Foreign Affairs 95, no. 3 (June 2016),; Robert Kagan, “Backing Into World War III,” Foreign Policy, February 6, 2017,; Dan Blumenthal et al., Rise of the Revisionists: Russia, China, and Iran, ed. Gary J. Schmitt (District of Columbia: AEI Press, 2018).

[6] See, for example: John J. Mearsheimer, “Bound to Fail: The Rise and Fall of the Liberal International Order,” International Security 43, no. 4 (April 1, 2019): 7–50,; Barry R. Posen, “From Unipolarity to Multipolarity: Transition in Sight?,” in International Relations Theory and the Consequences of Unipolarity, ed. G. John Ikenberry, Michael Mastanduno, and William C. Wohlforth (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2011),

[7] Graham Allison, “China and Russia: A Strategic Alliance in the Making,” The National Interest, December 14, 2018,

[8] See: S. Enders Wimbush and Elizabeth M. Portale, eds., Russia in Decline (Washington, D.C.: The Jamestown Foundation, 2017).

[9] Holly Ellyatt, “Russia Drops out of Top 5 Global Military Spenders,” CNBC, April 29, 2019,

[10] Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, “Military Expenditure Database,” 2019,

[11] Alex Lockie, “Russia Admits Defeat on Its ‘stealth’ F-35 Killer by Canceling Mass Production of the Su-57 Fighter Jet,” Business Insider, accessed April 29, 2019,

[12] Stratfor, “Russia’s Defense Spending Reveals a Big Problem for Its Plans to Upgrade Its Military,” Business Insider, January 17, 2019,

[13] Paul Goble, “Russian Military Increasingly Consists of Seriously Undermanned Units,” Eurasia Daily Monitor 16, no. 2 (January 15, 2019),

[14] Chris Miller, “Can Putin Fix Russia’s Sputtering Economy?,” Foreign Affairs, March 13, 2019,

[15] Data Bank World Bank, “Life Expectancy at Birth, Total (Years),” accessed April 29, 2019,

[16] Stratfor, “Russia Takes on Its Demographic Decline,” March 27, 2019,

[17] Janusz Bugajski, “Managing Russia’s Dissolution,” The Hill, January 9, 2019,

[18] For more, see: Dmitri Trenin, “It’s Time to Rethink Russia’s Foreign Policy Strategy,” Carnegie Moscow Center, accessed April 29, 2019,

[19] Trenin.

[20] See, for example: David Holloway, “Russia and the Solecism of Power,” Text, Governance in an Emerging New World (Stanford, CA: Hoover Institution, October 2018),; Oliver Carroll, “Despite Growing Tensions and Cashflow Problems, Russia Is Unlikely to Change Course in 2019,” The Independent, January 15, 2019,; Stephen Fortescue, “Russia Is Weaker than It Looks,” The Interpreter, June 23, 2017,; Michael McFaul, “Russia as It Is,” Foreign Affairs, August 2018,

[21] China is not party to any ‘alliances’ as such. Instead, they have categories of “partnerships.” See: Peter Wood, “Updated: China’s Foreign Relations,” Peter Wood: Commentary on East Asian Security Issues & Foreign Policy, September 18, 2016,; Wenhui Bao, “China’s Diplomacy: How Many Kinds of Major and Minor Partner ‘Relations’ 夥伴關係 Does China Have?,” trans. David Cowhig, 高大伟 David Cowhig’s Translation Blog, April 7, 2017,; Zhang Feng, “China’s New Thinking on Alliances,” Survival 54, no. 5 (November 2012): 129–48,; Lyle J. Goldstein, “Does China Need Allies?,” The National Interest, March 31, 2016,

[22] “China’s Xi Awards ‘best Friend’ Putin Friendship Medal, Promises Support,” Reuters, June 8, 2018,

[23] Alexander Korolev, “On the Verge of an Alliance: Contemporary China-Russia Military Cooperation,” Asian Security, April 30, 2018,

[24] Korolev, 6.

[25] Katherine Kjellström Elgin, “Vostok 2018 Military Exercises - Greater Sino-Russian Cooperation,” ISDP Voices (Institute for Security and Development Policy) (blog), September 11, 2018,

[26] Peter Ferdinand, “The Positions of Russia and China at the UN Security Council in the Light of Recent Crises,” Briefing Paper (Brussels, Belgium: European Parliament, Directorate-General for External Policies of the Union, Policy Department, March 1, 2013).

[27] See: Samuel Charap, John Drennan, and Pierre Noël, “Russia and China: A New Model of Great-Power Relations,” Survival 59, no. 1 (January 2, 2017): 25–42,

[28] “The Declaration of the Russian Federation and the People’s Republic of China on the Promotion of International Law” (Beijing, China, June 25, 2016),

[29] Charap, Drennan, and Noël, “Russia and China.”

[30] For examples in Russia and China, respectively, see: Andrew Monaghan, “‘Calmly Critical’: Evolving Russian Views of US Hegemony,” Journal of Strategic Studies 29, no. 6 (December 1, 2006): 987–1013,; Andrew Erickson and Lyle Goldstein, “Hoping for the Best, Preparing for the Worst: China’s Response to US Hegemony,” Journal of Strategic Studies 29, no. 6 (December 1, 2006): 955–86,

[31] Gilbert Rozman, The Sino-Russian Challenge to the World Order: National Identities, Bilateral Relations, and East versus West in the 2010s, 1 edition (Washington, D.C: Stanford University Press, 2014).

[32] Bobo Lo, Axis of Convenience: Moscow, Beijing, and the New Geopolitics (Washington, D.C: Brookings Institution Press, 2008).

[33] Marcin Kaczmarski, “China and Russia in Global Governance: Long-Term Obstacles to Cooperation,” FIIA Briefing Paper (Helsinki, Finland: Finnish Institute of International Affairs, August 2018).

[34] For an interesting take on how China does not reject U.S. hegemony in total but uses Russia to help try to shape the international system to its benefit from a Russian scholar with a definite pro-Russia and pro-China tilt, see: Andrej Krickovic, “The Symbiotic China-Russia Partnership: Cautious Riser and Desperate Challenger,” The Chinese Journal of International Politics 10, no. 3 (September 1, 2017): 299–329,

[35] Some scholars emphasize the weaknesses of the relationship, while others recognize these challenges but believe that they are not insurmountable, and that the relationship is strong enough to endure them. To read more from those who believe the relationship is weak, see: Lo, Axis of Convenience; Bobo Lo, A Wary Embrace: What The China-Russia Relationship Means For The World, 1 edition, Lowy Institute Paper (Penguin, 2017); Richard Weitz, China-Russia Security Relations: Strategic Parallelism without Partnership or Passion? (Carlisle, PA: Strategic Studies Institute, 2008),; Richard Weitz, “Superpower Symbiosis: The Russia-China Axis,” World Affairs 175, no. 4 (2012): 71–78; Isabelle François, Clarissa Devigneau, and Alexander Karpenko, Author interview with Isabelle François, Clarissa Devigneau, and Alexander Karpenko, Strategic Analysis Capability for the NATO Secretary General and Chairman of the Military Committee, interview by Katherine Elgin, In Person, (June 11, 2018).

[36] Wiliam C. Martel, “An Authoritarian Axis Rising?,” The Diplomat, June 29, 2012,; Azar Gat, “The Return of Authoritarian Great Powers,” Foreign Affairs 86, no. 4 (August 2007),

[37] See footnote 5 for more resources on the scholarly debate about balancing.

[38] On the distinction between convergence/harmony and cooperation, see: Robert O. Keohane, After Hegemony: Cooperation and Discord in the World Political Economy (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1984).

[39] Alexander Lukin, China and Russia: The New Rapprochement, 1 edition (Cambridge, UK ; Medford, MA: Polity, 2018).

[40] Kaczmarski, “China and Russia in Global Governance: Long-Term Obstacles to Cooperation.” Elizabeth Wishnick, “In Search of the ‘Other’ in Asia: Russia–China Relations Revisited,” The Pacific Review 30, no. 1 (January 2, 2017): 114–32,

[41] Krickovic, “The Symbiotic China-Russia Partnership.”

[42] Charap, Drennan, and Noël, “Russia and China.”

[43] For example, see: Dave Majumdar, “Is America’s Greatest Fear Coming True? Is a Russia-China Alliance Forming?,” Text, The National Interest, April 4, 2018,

[44] Of course, the hegemon also has a say in when a conflict may start. A. F. K. Organski, World Politics. (New York: Knopf, 1958).

[45] Nadège Rolland, “A China–Russia Condominium over Eurasia,” Survival 61, no. 1 (January 2019),

[46] Michael J. Mazarr, Timothy R. Heath, and Astrid Stuth Cevallos, China and the International Order, Building a Sustainable International Order (Santa Monica, CA: Rand, 2018),

[47] On how Russia has attempted to shape its identity within the U.S.-led international order, see: Deborah Welch Larson and Alexei Shevchenko, “Status Seekers : Chinese and Russian Responses to U.S. Primacy,” International Security 34, no. 4 (2010): 63–95.

[48] Judy Dempsey, “Europe’s Failure to Understand Russia’s Decline” (Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, December 17, 2015),; Trenin, “It’s Time to Rethink Russia’s Foreign Policy Strategy.”

[49] Vasilii Mikheev, “Russia-China,” Russian Politics & Law 49, no. 6 (November 1, 2011): 74–93,

[50] Alexander Gabuev, “A ‘Soft Alliance’? Russia-China Relations After the Ukraine Crisis,” Policy Brief (London: European Council on Foreign Relations, February 10, 2015),

[51] See, for example: Alexander Lukin, The Bear Watches the Dragon: Russia’s Perceptions of China and the Evolution of Russian-Chinese Relations since the Eighteenth Century (Armonk, NY, USA: Routledge, 2002),; Mikheev, “Russia-China.”

[52] See Stronski and Ng for more on Central Asia and the Arctic. Unfortunately, there is not much yet available on Eastern Europe as it currently develops. Paul Stronski and Nicole Ng, “Cooperation and Competition: Russia and China in Central Asia, the Russian Far East, and the Arctic,” Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, accessed October 12, 2018,

[53] “World Integrated Trade Solution (‘WITS’)” (World Bank), accessed November 1, 2018,

[54] Charap, Drennan, and Noël, “Russia and China”; Ouyang Xiangying, “Presentation by Ouyang Xiangying (CASS) on China-Russia Relations at the Institute for Security & Development Policy” (October 26, 2018); Alexander Gabuev, “Future Approaches to China,” in Russian Futures: Horizon 2025, ed. Hiski Haukkala and Nicu Popescu, Reports (Paris, France: EU Institute for Security Studies, 2016).

[55] Andrej Krickovic, “Russia’s Challenge: A Declining Power’s Quest for Status,” PonarsEuarasia - Policy Memos, October 12, 2018,

[56] Krickovic, “The Symbiotic China-Russia Partnership.”

[57] Rolland, “A China–Russia Condominium over Eurasia.”

[58] Andrej Krickovic interview with Feng Shaolei in Shanghai in November 2014, as found in: Krickovic, “The Symbiotic China-Russia Partnership,” 301.

[59] See, especially: Robert Gilpin, War and Change in World Politics (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1981).

[60] Trenin, “It’s Time to Rethink Russia’s Foreign Policy Strategy.”

[61] Joseph S. Nye, “The Challenge of Russia’s Decline,” The Korea Times, April 19, 2015,; “Can We Manage a Declinine Russia?” (Hudson Institute, November 2011),

[62] Graham Allison, “The Thucydides Trap: Are the U.S. and China Headed for War?,” The Atlantic, September 24, 2015,

Show comments Hide Comments