The Russo-Chinese Alliance: Does It Stop With Information Warfare?
Russia sent a plane full of medical supplies to the U.S., even though the Coronavirus (COVID-19) is running wild throughout the entire country. It did so for two reasons, to show gratitude for President Trump's apparent desire to rescue Russia, Saudi Arabia, and most importantly, U.S. energy producers out of the insane energy war triggered last month by Riyadh and Moscow. But Moscow also emulated China's astute moves to send aid to Italy and Spain and claim all the publicity and benefits while the U.S. appears both inept and callous towards its allies’ suffering. While China ran with the Russian idea that the U.S. military is responsible for the virus, disseminating that idea globally, Moscow imitated China’s practice of bearing gifts while blasting the U.S., as a declining, heartless, and incompetent pretender to global leadership. And they both disseminated the vicious lie that the virus originated in a U.S. military lab.
These facts tell us three critical things about contemporary world politics. First, they show us how the Sino-Russian alliance actually functions. Each side emulates tropes and tactics that apparently worked for the other and then added their own distinctive flavor to an apparently coordinated attack upon the U.S. and a jointly executed influence operation to show the world their generosity in contrast to our selfishness and incompetence. We should not be surprised that these states act in concerted fashion even without a formal alliance document. After all, Vladimir Putin said in October 2019 that they enjoy a multi-dimensional alliance and their experts have found that the present arrangement confers all the benefits of an alliance without any of its responsibilities.
The second thing these linked influence operations tell us is that despite billions invested in information and cyber warfare, the Trump Administration, if not the U.S. government, remains insufficiently aware of the importance of presenting America’s narrative. Third, this sequence of events and disinterest in telling America’s story tells us just how much the Administration’s disdain for NATO and the EU is undermining America’s reputation and influence abroad. When that disdain is combined with graphic and telling displays of leadership's failure to take seriously multiple warnings of the threat of a pandemic and prepare for it, the results are devastating to U.S. standing and influence abroad, not least in Europe.
Indeed, this disregard for the power of information warfare and disseminating the story of America abroad join with the Administration’s insular disregard for our allies. Anyone searching the web for accounts of U.S. aid to Italy in the current crisis will find only stories about Russian and Chinese aid or how the EU abandoned Italy. And this is the case even though most of what Russia and China sent to Italy and most of what China sent to Spain and the Netherlands was useless. But despite those facts about the uselessness of this aid that was sent with great fanfare, the absence of any countervailing American support led European and American media to print the legend, not the facts.
The urgency of fighting this virus does not and should not detract from the fact that world politics is continuing and relating to the Coronavirus crisis. Neither does it permit us simply to surrender the field and/or the match to our enemies because this administration refuses to grasp the importance of information warfare. After all, we really cannot expect better from an administration whose leadership still willfully rejects the incontrovertible facts of sustained, continuing, and large-scale Russian interference in the 2016, 2018, and 2020 elections. Neither should we forget that China has already massively intervened in Taiwan’s 2018 election and Australia’s elections. Moreover, the Administration found Chinese interference in our 2018 elections. So, there is every reason to expect that it will do even more in this year’s elections.
Moreover, we must understand that Russia and China believe they are at war with the U.S., whom they believe is in steady decline. These attacks are occurring not just because this is what they do but because they are planned probes or what the Russians call intelligence through combat (Razvedka boem). If there is no reply or a weak and unavailing response, they will be repeated and amplified and expanded over and over until and unless they meet resistance. Information warfare is thus a cheap, long-lasting, and constant surrogate for kinetic operations where people get wounded, maimed, and killed. To the degree that this administration continues its neglect of this dimension of warfare, Russia and China will expand their operations here to foment even more political and social polarization and abroad to accelerate the dissolution of the Transatlantic Alliance that this Administration is inexplicably abetting. Thus, the Coronavirus is not the only threat we face, and when and if this pandemic ends, the Russo-Chinese alliance will still be there and spoiling to exploit that situation just as it is now exploiting the pandemic and our disjointed responses to it.
Stephen J. Blank, Ph.D., is Senior Fellow at FPRI’s Eurasia Program. He has published over 900 articles and monographs on Soviet/Russian, U.S., Asian, and European military and foreign policies, testified frequently before Congress on Russia, China, and Central Asia, consulted for the Central Intelligence Agency, major think tanks and foundations, chaired major international conferences in the U.S. and in Florence; Prague; and London, and has been a commentator on foreign affairs in the media in the U.S. and abroad. He has also advised major corporations on investing in Russia and is a consultant for the Gerson Lehrmann Group. He has published or edited 15 books, most recently Russo-Chinese Energy Relations: Politics in Command (London: Global Markets Briefing, 2006). He has also published Natural Allies? Regional Security in Asia and Prospects for Indo-American Strategic Cooperation (Carlisle, PA: Strategic Studies Institute, U.S. Army War College, 2005). He is currently completing a book entitled Light From the East: Russia’s Quest for Great Power Status in Asia to be published in 2014 by Ashgate. Dr. Blank is also the author of The Sorcerer as Apprentice: Stalin’s Commissariat of Nationalities (Greenwood, 1994); and the co-editor of The Soviet Military and the Future (Greenwood, 1992).