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Russia all but destined to edge closer to China in 2020

Still on the outs with the US, Putin has no choice but to buddy up to Beijing

Russia and China have become increasingly wary of the U.S. and have stepped up military cooperation.   © Reuters

TOKYO -- Russian President Vladimir Putin was in a fiery mood during a meeting with senior officials of the Defense Ministry in Moscow on Dec. 24, reminding them of the contentious relations with the U.S. And because the defense budget was already stretched, he warned that neither theft nor negligence would be tolerated.

The president sounded like he was already sweating the new year after a run of good luck in 2019.

The withdrawal of the American military from Syria last year let Russia waltz in with its own troops. Lady luck again smiled on Russia as cracks in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization began to visibly emerge, mainly between the U.S. and its European partners.

So what exactly is in store for Russia this year?

For starters, Moscow will likely continue to play off countries in Europe against each other. It may already have an ally for this in French President Emmanuel Macron, who wants to be top dog on the continent and is willing to improve France's relations with Russia to this end.

In addition, Russia should have some success in strengthening economic ties across Europe while preventing countries from forming an outright anti-Russian bloc.

But as U.S.-led international sanctions against Russia continue to bite, Putin may try to prioritize better relations with Washington over those with his European partners. This may prove to be futile, however, as U.S. President Donald Trump is up for reelection this year and is unlikely to soften his hard-line stance against Russia lest he appear weak.

This will undoubtedly drive Russia even closer to China. Trade between the two countries topped $100 billion for the first time in 2018. And since both governments share similar anti-U.S. sentiments, they are bonding closer militarily.

Although this is not exactly what Putin wants, the international community must prepare for this eventuality. Following the termination last year of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty between the U.S. and Russia, which limited each country's arsenal of missiles, Washington announced a plan to deploy medium-range missiles in the Asia-Pacific region.

Although the move is ostensibly aimed at China, Putin said Russia would react like a "mirror" -- normal tit-for-tat policy in Moscow when it comes to maintaining missile parity.

The New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty -- the last remaining nuclear arms treaty between the adversaries -- is set to expire in February 2021. Although Russia wants it extended, the Trump administration is intent on trashing it, which has prompted Moscow to begin deploying new weapons like its hypersonic Avangard missile.

This is alarming. The landmark Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons will mark its 50th anniversary this year, but arms reduction is rapidly giving way to escalation.

Russian set aside $61.4 billion for its 2018 defense budget, barely 9% of the gargantuan U.S. outlay, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute. Despite this, Moscow shows no letup in the development of new weapons and deployment of troops to Syria.

Russian military-related accidents have been on the rise recently, perhaps a result of the strained budget, analysts say. This should push Putin, who repeatedly stresses that Russia will not participate in another arms race, to come to terms with the U.S.

But speculation is rife that the Russian president will have no choice but to forge closer military ties with China if he fails to find common ground with the U.S. This may be a forgone conclusion, as he has already voiced support for China building an early warning system for missiles.

Russia remains quietly suspicious of China because of past armed conflicts with its neighbor. The president has declared that Russia has no military alliance with China and no intention of forming one.

Beijing's biggest threats are its ground troops and short- and medium-range missile systems, says Vasily Kashin of the Russian Academy of Sciences. But Russia is not openly worried, even if China strengthens its navy and missile defense, he said.

Moscow and Beijing are cooperating more these days, in part to rattle the U.S. In December, for example, they presented a resolution to the United Nations Security Council to ease sanctions on North Korea.

Closer ties between China and Russia should also be a warning to Japan. "Negotiations for a peace treaty between Japan and Russia were partly aimed at preventing Beijing and Moscow from getting closer. But the reverse is occurring," said Yu Koizumi, assistant professor of the Research Center for Advanced Science and Technology at the University of Tokyo.

Now that chances of concluding the peace treaty are dimming, Japan should view Russia as a military threat, Koizumi said.

In the dystopian "Day of the Oprichnik," a novel by Vladimir Sorokin set in 2028 Russia, the monarchy has been restored and a wall constructed to fence off the country from the rest of the world. China is ruled by a celestial entity and its goods and culture are ubiquitous in the new Russia.

As events in the new year unfold, the Chinese aspects of Oprichnik could offer a prescient look at Russia in the upcoming years, a matter that should concern the rest of the world.

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