Professor Robert Kaufman: The China-Russia pact echoes the Nazi-Soviet pact

Professor Robert Kaufman: The China-Russia pact echoes the Nazi-Soviet pact

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As the Russia-Ukraine war wages on, we asked Professor Robert Kaufman of Pepperdine University’s School of Public Policy for his in-depth views. Kaufman specializes in American foreign policy, national security and international relations. He has written several books on these subjects. 

What follows is a Q&A that has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity. We strongly encourage you to watch the accompanying video so you may hear Kaufman in his own words.

Q: What is the significance of the Feb. 4th, 2022, pact that Russian President Vladimir Putin and Chinese President Xi Jinping signed before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine?

A: On Feb. 4, Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping, announced that China and Russia had signed an extensive security pact – 5,000 words, very detailed – with each side pledging to the other that they would support mutual efforts to supplant the United States as the world’s primary power and make the world safe for the survival of Russian and Chinese tyranny. 

This is a hugely significant development, and it signals that we are at a major negative inflection point in international relations that is a long time in coming. For years, with honorable exceptions, there’s been a wide consensus operating on the delusion that Russia is a partner for peace, and China seeks to become part of our system … This pact should be a warning call that this is not the case and that the free world, and the United States in particular, will have to take seriously the imperative of vigilance across the board, dealing with this threat.

We’ve already seen manifestations of it already. China is enabling Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, blunting the effects of sanctions. And Putin, likewise, has embraced China’s implacable determination to subjugate Taiwan. This is in many ways a 21st century version of a dangerous gangster pact known as the Nazi-Soviet Pact, consummated between two rogue regimes in August of 1939.


Q: The Feb. 4 pact describes the Russia-China partnership as having “no limits” and with no “forbidden” areas of cooperation. What does this mean?

A: It means that we can expect the Russians and the Chinese, as long as these dictators remain in power, to cooperate in multiple spheres: economic, military and political. 

Many wishful thinkers have argued that, ultimately, China and Russia are not natural partners but rivals given their geography and history … In the short term, these dictators are united against the United States because Xi Jinping sees the American power and values as the principle obstacle of dominating the Indo-Pacific, and then dominating the world as a hegemonic power with a regime that makes it safe for the continuation of Chinese tyranny.

Likewise, Putin sees the United States as the prime obstacle to preventing his enunciated goal of reconstituting some version of the Russian empire and Russian hegemony across east Central Europe. 

Even if China and Russia are going to fall out in the long term, in the short term, we have to treat this threat as a monolith because their immediate interest is to weaken American power globally. And we have to act accordingly, rather than indulge in the wishful thinking that got us into this predicament in the first place.

Q: Did America misread Russia and China’s desire for global supremacy?

A: Yes. When we do an anatomy of why the Biden administration was not prepared for Putin to invade Ukraine … you have to go back and look at the propensity of elites — particularly on the progressive side but not exclusively — to rationalize, contextualize and try to explain away what Putin said. 

Speaking to his legislature in public, in 2005, Putin said the greatest tragedy of the 20th century was the demise of the evil empire of the Soviet Union. We didn’t take that seriously. 

Likewise, in 2007, in Munich, Putin laid out a long list of grievances and was very explicit in his objective, not only to restore Russian hegemony in east Central Europe, but to eviscerate NATO, and to decouple NATO from the United States. He said this plain as day. His actions corresponded to the rhetoric, and we ignored it. 


President Biden, reviving former President Obama’s reset with Russia – I call it Obama 2.0 – did everything he could to encourage Putin that the United States didn’t take this threat seriously. 

First, Biden initially was going to cut the defense budget and his recent decision to increase it, really only by 1.5% when you take inflation into account, is inadequate. Putin took notice of that.

Then Biden rushed to resign the arms control agreement that Former President Trump wisely abrogated with Russia—an arms control agreement that Sen. Mitt Romney called, rightly, one of the worst and most disadvantageous in American history. Biden’s move reinforced Putin’s propensity to think that moving into Ukraine was a risk-free proposition.

Thanks to Trump, whatever his liabilities, his presidency ended with the United States as an energy superpower. It meant we no longer had to depend on petroleum or energy from rogue regimes. We were also in the position to offer our wobbly allies, like the Germans, an alternative to the dangerous dependence on Russian energy.

Instead, Biden abandoned energy independence, shut down pipelines, restricted explorations and gave the green light to the Nord Stream 2 pipeline between Germany and Russia. And now, instead of having energy independence and hurting Russia, Iran, Venezuela and rogue regimes, we are now giving them a lifeline by paying confiscatory amounts of money to fill their bankrupt coffers, which undermines our current effort to assist in Ukraine. 

The same goes likewise for China. Chinese Document Number Nine identifies freedom in the United States, in particular, as an existential threat … This points to the Chinese regime viewing hegemony as their ultimate goal.

Witness China’s 20-year relentless military buildup while the Obama administration dangerously built down. We barely began to recover under Trump, and Biden has resorted on defense spending to Obama 2.0 again. 

A, if we took what these regimes said seriously, rather than narcissistically assume they thought as we did … none of this should have been a surprise, and we should have been prepared for Ukraine. And, B, we should be preparing for China’s implacable determination to subvert Taiwan’s independence, which would be a moral and geopolitical disaster for us if they get away with it.

In many ways, the lesson that we should take away from what has happened in Ukraine is something that I take from Demosthenes, the great Greek orator, who warned about the danger of appeasing Philip of Macedon. Demosthenes was ostracized for telling his people what they needed to know, but didn’t want to hear. And finally, when the appeasement failed, they brought him back and asked his advice. Demosthenes’ first piece of advice was: Don’t do what you’re doing now.

Q: Is China or Russia the greatest threat to the United States of America?

A: Russia is a significant threat. But China is the main threat the way during World War II Japan was a significant threat, but Nazi Germany was the prime danger because of the power it wielded in the world’s major geopolitical center. …

Our outrage about Ukraine, which is justified, shouldn’t obscure the fact that Russia is in many ways a basket case. They are, to paraphrase former Sen. John McCain, Upper Volta with a gas station and nuclear weapons. The GDP of the NATO Alliance exceeds Russia’s by more than a factor of 10. Putin’s been playing a weak hand very skillfully, and we haven’t called his bluff. 

China’s a different story. They are a near-peer competitor, economically, politically and militarily.

Some people have argued, “Well, if China’s the danger, we can relax with Russia,” or “we can relax with Iran.” Wrong. We have to give priority to China, but this threat to freedom is interrelated the way the dictators of the 1930s – Mussolini, Tojo and the greatest of the danger, Hitler – cooperated loosely to undermine the West when the West radiated weakness, when Britain and France brought appeasement to its apotheosis in the 1930s, and when the United States remained complacently isolationist until it was nearly too late.

Q: What was the United States’ response to the Russia-China pact?

A: The United States needs to do several things in response to this pact. President Biden got it wrong during the campaign of 2020 when he called Russia our greatest danger. That’s wrong. China is. So, we can’t let Ukraine overshadow the gathering danger of China.

Secondly, we need to increase defense spending substantially … For the next fiscal year, Biden has proposed a defense increase of 4.5%, but … inflation is running higher so what Biden has proposed is really a defense cut. 


We haven’t had sufficient weapons to supply the Ukrainians. NATO has too few first line aircraft. And if we hope to deter China from subverting Taiwan’s independence, we should be arming Taiwan to the teeth right now, rather than react the way the Biden administration has with Ukraine.

The Chinese are going to take measure of how we handle this … You can mark the intensification of this global challenge almost to the moment that Biden pulled out of Afghanistan, ignominiously undermining American credibility with our allies and enemies. This was similar to Obama’s Syrian cave-in after issuing his infamous red line, emboldening Putin to take Crimea and also emboldening China to intensify its brazen aggressive behavior in the East and South China seas in the immediate aftermath of Obama’s capitulation.

Weakness breeds aggression. Strength deters it. This is not complicated.

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