Putin and Xi Working Together to Force Biden into a Two-Front Crisis He Can't Win

As crises mount over Ukraine and Taiwan, an unprecedented bond between Russian President Vladimir Putin and Chinese President Xi Jinping has allowed the United States' two top rivals to force President Joe Biden into a two-front crisis that could spread his administration too thin to respond adequately to either.

And should a shooting war erupt, there's little guarantee the U.S. would come out on top.

"I don't think the United States is prepared to go to war in Ukraine. I don't think the United States is prepared to go to war over Taiwan," Lyle Goldstein, an expert on China and Russia who served for 20 years as a research professor at the Naval War College up until October and now holds the position of director of Asia engagement at the Defense Priorities think tank, told Newsweek.

"I stand by both those points," he added. "So to do both, no, absolutely not."

Goldstein said it's rare to ever be completely prepared for a war but the Ukraine and Taiwan scenarios in particular "are maximally stressing as they involve high-intensity warfare in theaters that are extremely difficult against opponents that have that single measure of focus."

"Either one of them on their own would be highly stressing and I would argue, if we were to get involved, there's a good possibility that we might lose, certainly the initial engagements, but maybe even beyond that," he added.

The Pentagon has so far avoided weighing in directly on its ability to take on two major theaters at once.

Reached for comment on this question, a Pentagon spokesperson referred Newsweek to remarks made by Mara Karlin, who is performing the duties of Deputy Under Secretary of Defense for Policy, during a press conference last Monday discussing the results of the U.S. military's much-anticipated Global Posture Review.

Asked by a reporter if the review examined the U.S. military's ability to fight two major conflicts in two separate theaters, Karlin said that "the Global Posture Review does not look at that issue." As for her personal take, she deferred to the still upcoming results of another strategic undertaking, the National Defense Strategy Review.

"The force planning construct is always a fundamental piece of a National Defense Strategy Review," Karlin said. "What I would say right now is we still have the most capable military in the entire world."

And while few disagree that the U.S. is more powerful than China or Russia alone, a newfound unity among the two has proven strategically draining for Washington.

"I think Moscow and Beijing calculate that they can really keep us in a kind of maximum confusion, because the theaters are so distant from each other, and the forces involved are quite different," Goldstein said. "I do think they see a gain here in kind of pulling us in two directions at once."

China, Xi, Russia, Putin, Kremlin, talks, 2019
Russian President Vladimir Putin and Chinese President Xi Jinping shake hands after their talks at the Kremlin in Moscow on June 5, 2019. ALEXEY DRUZHININ/SPUTNIK/AFP/Getty Images

The winds for a perfect storm are howling in both Eastern Europe and the Asia-Pacific just as the Biden administration, not even a full year in office, is reeling from the effects of a chaotic withdrawal from a 20-year war in Afghanistan and a persistent pandemic that has exacerbated sharp political divides at home.

In Ukraine, President Volodymyr Zelenskyy has raised concerns over reports of a Russian military buildup along his country's eastern border, parts of which have already been declared breakaway republics by rebels aligned with Moscow.

Reached for comment by Newsweek, the Ukrainian embassy in Washington referred to comments by Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba in which he asserted that Russia "has deployed around 115,000 troops, tanks, artillery, electronic warfare systems, air and naval units along the Ukrainian borders and in the occupied Donbas and Crimea" with no acceptable explanation for the show of force.

He also said Kyiv had "received information about a new attempt to destabilize the situation in Ukraine," and accused Moscow of "intensifying disinformation accusing the Ukrainian leadership of plotting an offensive operation in Donbas."

"Ukraine's position stands crystal clear: we do not plan any military offensive in Donbas," Kuleba said. "We are committed to seeking diplomatic solutions to the conflict." Should "Moscow decide to launch a new wave of aggression," he warned, "Ukraine definitely will fight back."

"We are determined to defend our land," Kuleba said at the time. "Our country has become far more resilient and our army is incomparably stronger than it used to be in 2014. We have a wider international support today than ever before."

But Putin nonetheless sees a broader threat emerging from Ukraine's political shift borne out of a 2014 uprising. The Cold War-era, U.S.-led NATO military alliance has expanded from the West into Eastern Europe, bringing former Soviet republics into its fold, and Kyiv too has applied for membership.

"President Putin stressed earlier this is a matter of great concern for us, especially in terms of eastward expansion of NATO and deployment of the military infrastructure and troops of its member states in Ukraine," Alexander Kim, press secretary of the Russian embassy in Washington, told Newsweek. "Such actions tremendously deteriorate the situation in this country given the unresolved conflict in Donbass."

Addressing the accusations out of Washington and Kyiv, Kim emphasized that "Russia moves troops across its territory, and I don't think we need to consult with anyone on this issue."

The remarks follow Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov's warning that "ignorance of Russia's legal concerns, involvement of Ukraine in U.S. geopolitical games against the background of NATO forces deployment in the approximate vicinity of our borders would entail the most serious consequences and would force to resort to reciprocal measures in order to straighten out the military and strategic balance," following a meeting Thursday with his U.S. counterpart Antony Blinken.

That same day, Blinken told a gathering of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) that, during his talks with Lavrov, he "made very clear our deep concerns and our resolve to hold Russia responsible for its actions, including our commitment to work with European allies to impose severe costs and consequences on Russia if it takes further aggressive action against Ukraine."

The State Department did not immediately respond to Newsweek's request for comment. But U.S. officials have regularly depicted a battle between democracy and authoritarianism as a central theme of Biden's administration.

"This is a time when democracies are being challenged — some being challenged from within, others being challenged from without," Blinken said during his OSCE press conference. "And there is a contest between autocracies and democracies, and as President Biden has spoken to on numerous occasions, that is a fundamental contest of our time."

This motif has most clearly been laid out in the upcoming Summit for Democracy set to be hosted by Biden this Thursday and Friday. Ukraine's slated participation was met with criticism from Russia, but even more controversial was the U.S. invite to Taiwan, the self-ruling yet China-claimed island that Washington cut ties with in 1979 in favor of Beijing.

The U.S. has maintained informal relations with Taiwan that have expanded over the years, especially recently under former President Donald Trump and Biden. Xi has vowed to retake Taiwan by force if diplomatic efforts to reunify fail, and his People's Liberation Army has delivered this message in the form of an unprecedented rate of warplane sorties through the island's claimed Air Defense Identification Zone.

The number of Chinese ground forces stationed in the vicinity of the Taiwan Strait number some 416,000, nearly five times the number of Taiwan forces, according to the latest U.S. military report on the People's Liberation Army published last month.

And Moscow has increasingly reiterated and supported Beijing's position. Kim stated that "Russia's stance on Taiwan issue is consistent and embedded in several Russian-Chinese bilateral documents" such as the Treaty of Good-Neighborliness and Friendly Cooperation signed by China and Russia forged by the two powers in 2001. The pact enshrines that "Russia recognizes the government of the People's Republic of China as the sole legal government representing whole China. Taiwan is a constituent part of China."

"More broadly," Kim added, "we believe that all regional disputes should be resolved between involved parties in a calm way through dialogue with no external interference."

Further signs of the convergence of Russia and China can be found in their joint exercises, including recent patrols in the Pacific, and a mutual opposition to U.S. weapons systems being deployed in this region. A video also recently emerged purporting to show the Russian military moving Bastion coastal defense missile systems to the remote island of Matua, just off the coast of Russia-controlled islands claimed by U.S. ally Japan since the end of World War II, the last time the U.S. fought a major two-theater war.

In response to Russia's outward embrace of China's policies in the region, the Taipei Economic and Cultural Office in New York told Newsweek that "all members of the global community of democracies should stand together to resist authoritarian expansionism and threats to freedom and democracy, so as to safeguard the rules-based international order."

"Peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait is crucial to the security of the broader Indo-Pacific region," the de facto Taiwan consulate said. "We shall not take it for granted. If Taiwan falls, it will not be the end but rather the beginning, as it is simply the first domino in the CCP's quest for regional and global dominance."

Putin, however, doesn't appear shaken by the international rise of his neighbor, which has a long history of rivalry with Russia.

"People have been trying to spook me and intimidate me with China starting with the year 2000," Putin said during his talk at the Russia Calling! investment forum Monday. "Since then, those who tried to spook me, they got afraid themselves and they tried to change their policies towards China."

Rather than slow China's rise, Putin has helped to accelerate it over the course of his two-decade tenure as president or prime minister, boosting trade to record numbers and selling weapons and resources such as oil and gas. And since Xi came to power in 2013, Chinese investment in Russia has soared, with the paramount leader linking his global Belt and Road Initiative to his Moscow counterpart's own Eurasian Economic Union project.

Putin asserted that Russia "will expand our relations with China as we see fit," noting that "they can be even deeper, more substantive and benefit the people of China and the people of Russia."

Taiwan, Marines, train, night, flares
Taiwan's 99th Marine Brigade conducts nighttime training under the light of flares at the Baolishan training ground on April 14. "For a long period, the US and the West wantonly interfered in other country's domestic affairs by using democracy and human rights as an excuse," Chinese embassy spokesperson Liu Pengyu told Newsweek. Taiwan Ministry of National Defense

Last week, the Chinese and Russian ambassadors to the U.S., Qin Gang and Anatoly Antonov, published a joint op-ed in The National Interest defending the integrity of their national systems of governance and warning that the upcoming summit "will stoke ideological confrontation."

They see the U.S. as an interventionist party, and increasingly view boosting political, economic and military ties with one another as the best chance to rein in Washington's bid to remain the world's only superpower.

"The more unstable the world is, the more China and Russia need to advance our cooperation," Chinese embassy spokesperson Liu Pengyu told Newsweek. "For a long period, the US and the West wantonly interfered in other country's domestic affairs by using democracy and human rights as an excuse. Such moves created troubles in the world, and even became the source of instability and war."

He explained that the heightened relationship between Beijing and Moscow, touted by both as the best in their modern history, was designed not as another exclusive club but as a safeguard to enforce the principles of a world as they see it.

"China and Russia always stand together in close cooperation, firmly reject hegemony and bullying practice, and have become a pillar for world peace and stability," Liu added. "China and Russia do not seek a clique. We are committed to building a model of international relations featuring strategic mutual trust, mutually beneficial cooperation, people-to-people connectivity, fairness and justice, and making greater contributions to world peace and stability."

Liu's Russian counterpart, Kim, said he "would like to underline that we coordinate closely with the Chinese side on a broad range of regional and global issues, and this cooperation has become a significant stabilizing factor in international affairs because it is based on the international law and the UN Charter."

The two countries have also so far eschewed any formal alliance. Such a pact traditionally compels one country to defend the other if it came under military attack, much like NATO's Article 5.

Hu Bo, director of China's South China Sea Probing Initiative that monitors U.S. military movements in the region, especially near Taiwan, said that while China and Russia are not necessarily seeking this kind of partnership, their level of collaboration is security growing in response to U.S. actions, and there's no telling how far they could go together.

"According to statements from both sides, China and Russia are not allies, but their coordination on international security is definitely increasing," Hu told Newsweek. "This is largely because the U.S. takes on China and Russia as rivals and keeps provoking both parties. So far, relations between China and Russia are mostly back to back rather than side by side. Nevertheless, both sides are open to further upgrading their relationship."

Also highlighting the nuances of China and Russia's strategic partnership was Dmitri Trenin, director of the Carnegie Moscow Center. He said he saw no direct evidence that Putin and Xi were coordinating on Ukraine and Taiwan, but discussed the wider dynamics of their relationship.

"The Russian and Chinese defense establishments are certainly engaged in ever closer coordination, which they also publicize for the world's attention," Trenin told Newsweek. "This coordination, however, seems to be focused more on military-technical issues, such as interoperability, rather than on joint strategic/contingency planning as is the case, e.g., in NATO. Right now, Moscow is seeking to deter the US/NATO in/around Ukraine single-handedly; Taiwan is Beijing's sole responsibility."

Short of an alliance, which he noted "would be awkward and unwieldy in peacetime," he described the Sino-Russian arrangement as "an entente."

"This means a broad agreement on some basic issues such as the principles of the world order," Trenin said.

"In short, China and Russia will never be against each other, but neither will necessarily follow each other — a combination of reassurance and flexibility," he added. "This is a relationship between two great powers of different size, but both fiercely sovereign. There will always be some daylight between them."

The origins of this pact can be traced back to the 2001 Treaty of Good-Neighborliness and Friendly Cooperation to which Kim alluded. It was reached around the same time the two powers came together to form the Shanghai Cooperation Organization alongside the Central Asian states of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan. Since then, the coalition has come to include nuclear-armed South Asian rivals India and Pakistan. As of the leaders' meeting in September, Iran too is set to join the pack.

In the latest meeting of China and Russia's defense chiefs last month, both sides agreed to chart a "roadmap" for further military cooperation, and spoke specifically about the need to deter a perceived threat from the U.S.

The U.S., for its part, has augmented its alliance with NATO in Europe and Japan and South Korea in the Asia-Pacific by reinforcing other pacts such as the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue coalition that also includes Australia, India and Japan, and the AUKUS alliance alongside Australia and the United Kingdom. Neither move sits well with Beijing and Moscow, which warn in unison that such moves threaten to spark a new Cold War.

And this time the stakes for Washington are even higher.

US, Ukraine, joint, exercise, mortar, training
U.S. Marines with Weapons Company, 1st Battalion, 6th Marine Regiment, 2d Marine Division, fire an 81mm mortar in a live-fire range during Exercise Sea Breeze 21 held jointly with Ukraine alongside around 30 partnered nations in a nondisclosed location on July 5. Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov warned of the "most serious consequences" if U.S. and NATO forces got further involved in Ukraine. Corporal. Elijah J. Abernathy/U.S. Naval Forces Europe-Africa/U.S. Sixth Fleet/U.S. Marine Corps

"The United States is quite possibly facing the most dangerous threat to its existence in its history right now," David T. Pyne, a former U.S. Army combat arms and H.Q. staff officer who serves today as Deputy Director of National Operations at the congressionally recognized EMP Caucus on National and Homeland Security, told Newsweek.

Pyne described Putin and Xi as "essentially opportunists who have been working to build up their nuclear and conventional military forces and build new high-tech superweapons including advanced nuclear, hypersonic and super-EMP weapons, which the U.S. does not currently possess and has virtually no defense against."

And they've done so, he argued, at a time when the Pentagon was preoccupied pursuing a two-decade "War on Terror" across the Middle East and its periphery.

And, like Goldstein, he was pessimistic about the U.S. military's capacity today to fight two major theater wars at once.

"The U.S. would be very thinly stretched militarily if it chose to take on both the People's Republic of China and the Russian Federation at the same time," Pyne said, envisioning the potential for a combined assault in which Russia moved into Ukraine and China moved into Taiwan, with the added possibility of a North Korean attack on South Korea as well.

Such a sequence of events, he argued, "would be a nightmare scenario for the U.S., as we no longer maintain sufficient conventional military forces to fight and win two and a half major wars as we did during the Cold War with the Soviet Union, making it virtually impossible for the U.S. to effectively respond effectively to any one of these aggressions."

Even during the Cold War, U.S. response time proved uncertain when faced with overlapping crises. Nearly half a century ago, a war erupted on the border of China and India, a recently reactivated hotspot of aggressions, just as the Cuban Missile Crisis consumed the entirety of the U.S. and the Soviet Union's attention.

A point of potential de-escalation appears to be the upcoming Winter Olympic Games set to be hosted by Beijing in February. But the last time China hosted the Olympics, war broke out between Russia and Georgia, another Russian neighbor and aspiring NATO state. Hostilities erupted on August 7, 2008, on the eve of the opening ceremonies of the XXIX Summer Olympic Games in Beijing.

This juxtaposition of a global sporting event with a bloody conflict involving one of the world's great powers illustrates the complexities of international relations between friends and foes alike, and none more so than for a nation like the U.S. that has offered security promises across the globe.

Pyne said one solution would be a recalibration of Washington's commitments to "indefensible" and far-away flashpoint frontiers like Ukraine and Taiwan as part of a "peace offensive" paired with diplomacy that may serve to defuse tensions and provide the Pentagon with an opportunity to properly reorganize U.S. forces to defend the homeland and perhaps immediate allies.

The alternative, he warned, could be "the outbreak of a major war with Russia and China, which could provoke an existential threat against the U.S. homeland, which could end our nation and kill tens of millions of Americans."

China, Russia, Sibu, Zapad, Interaction, 2021, drills
The Chinese People's Liberation Army and Russian Armed Forces kick off the Sibu/Zapad-Interaction 2021 exercises held jointly in August at a combined arms tactical training base in Qingtongxia City, Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region, China. "The more unstable the world is, the more China and Russia need to advance our cooperation," China's embassy spokesperson told Newsweek, while his Russian counterpart said "we coordinate closely with the Chinese side on a broad range of regional and global issues and this cooperation has become a significant stabilizing factor in international affairs." Liu Fang/Chinese People's Liberation Army