US will find it hard to realize strategic stability with Russia, experts said after two defense ministers’ phone talk
Published: Aug 12, 2021 10:42 PM
Illustration: Chen Xia/Global Times

Illustration: Chen Xia/Global Times

 After US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin spoke by phone with Russian Minister of Defense Sergei Shoigu ahead of the latter’s visit to China, experts said the US is trying to stabilize its relationship with Russia to shift its focus to the Asia-Pacific, especially China, but it will be difficult to realize.

The call was made on Wednesday and its purpose was to express support for transparency and risk-reduction efforts following the July 28 resumption of the US-Russia Strategic Stability Dialogue in Geneva, Switzerland, according to a readout released on the website of the US Department of Defense. 

In a follow-up press conference from the Pentagon, Press Secretary John Kirby was asked about the call but refused to release more details. 

Russia’s defense ministry said that the two sides held strategic stability consultations and discussed global and regional security issues over the phone, according to Reuters.

Neither side said they answered the phone “following an invitation.” Ma Yongbao, an expert on Russian studies and a senior research fellow at the Global Governance Institution think tank, believed the call is one of a series of moves following Putin and Biden’s meeting on June 16 in Geneva. On July 28, the two sides held a vice foreign minister level dialogue. 

Li Haidong, a professor at the Institute of International Relations at China Foreign Affairs University, told the Global Times on Thursday that the US and Russia’s brief announcements reflect their different understanding of the call. The US stressed the importance of transparency and reducing risks while Russia focused on strategic stability, showing an apparent divergence. 

“The US hopes to reach a kind of strategic stability with Russia based on its own advantage through transparency and reducing risks. But Russia wants to reach a strategic stability based on equality. So it is very difficult for them to reach real strategic trust,” Li explained. 

Ma told the Global Times on Thursday that for the US and Russia, strategic stability means that they can continue communication over strategic arms reduction, which could possibly also include issues of normal weapons and missile defense. Some other experts also said that the key content of the phone call probably dealt with nuclear weapons reduction and the stability in Europe, with the focus on conflicts between the US and Russia. 

At the Wednesday press conference, Kirby was asked whether Austin is also waiting to engage with his Chinese counterpart. He answered that there has been no discussion at Austin’s level with a counterpart in China, and he had no discussion to announce, anticipate or read out. 

It is inevitable that the dialogue between the US and Russian defense ministers would engage China in terms of strategic level, some experts noted.

Ma said that the US and Russia want to improve their ties through communications over strategic stability, and this naturally would have a certain impact on global strategic stability, which is what Russia is looking forward to. But the distance between China, Russia and the US would not be equal, and this is what the US wants.

Li said that, on the whole, the US wants to stabilize ties with Russia to shift focus to the Asia-Pacific region, especially on China. But this goes against their moves in Europe to marginalize Russia. In other words, it will be hard for the US to realize its intention of stabilizing Russia.    

Shoigu will visit China and meet Chinese State Councilor and Defense Minister Wei Fenghe, and will reportedly attend the closing ceremony of the Zapad/Interaction-2021 exercise on Friday. It was the second meeting between the two defense ministers in 20 days.

The exercise, which is being held in the Qingtongxia Joint Tactical Training Base in Northwest China's Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region, showcases the new high level of the comprehensive strategic partnership in a new era between China and Russia. 

During the exercise, the Russian military for the first time used China’s main weapons, and a chain of command especially for China and Russia was used, which is the second highest standard of military cooperation between countries after a military alliance.   

Chinese experts said that the exercise also takes the changing situation in Afghanistan into consideration, noting that the US' irresponsible troop withdrawal from Afghanistan has left a burden on neighboring countries. As major powers, China and Russia need to play their roles, jointly safeguard regional peace and stability, and prevent the development of terrorist forces in the region.

According to Li Haidong, China and Russia are demonstrating their high level of strategic trust through the joint exercise, and the strategic trust between China and Russia is far higher than that between the US and Russia. 

The US wants to reach strategic stability with Russia, but in practice they continue to marginalize Russia and China to ensure their own advantages, which leaves a large space for China and Russia to cooperate, Li said.   

Chinese observers have speculated on whether Shoigu will criticize the US during his visit to China.

At the 9th Beijing Xiangshan Forum held in October, 2019, Shoigu criticized the US for withdrawing from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, noting that the real reason the US unilaterally withdrew is because it plans to curb the power of China and Russia.

On July 28, Shoigu said at the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) Meeting of Defense Ministers held in Dushanbe in Tajikistan that the US is coercing some Southeast Asian countries into setting up organizations identical to NATO, thus creating long-lasting hotbeds of tension within the SCO area of responsibility.