Despite all of the hand wringing in the United States about Russia's soft invasion and annexation of Crimea and its intimidation of eastern Ukraine, President Barack Obama's tour of East Asia demonstrates why U.S.-Russian relations probably will avoid plummeting into a new Cold War.
Although President Obama insisted during his trip to four East Asian countries worried about China's rapid rise (while not visiting China) that, "We're not interested in containing China," some experts nevertheless were correctly calling it the "containment tour." Obama visited Japan, South Korea, the Philippines, and Malaysia -- the first three being nations that the United States has pledged to defend and the last being a nation that would like U.S. support in its territorial dispute with China in the South China Sea. Similarly, the Philippines and Japan would also like American support in their territorial disputes with China in the South and East China Seas, respectively. The U.S. has pledged to defend South Korea against North Korea, a major Chinese ally. In addition to past strengthening of U.S. Cold War-era alliances in East Asia, Obama, on this trip, is bringing back American military use of Philippine military bases, from which Filipinos ejected the United States in 1992 after the Cold War ended.
But what does all this have to do with Russia? Foreign policy realists make a good case that most countries, whether democratic or autocratic, behave similarly on the global stage. The United States fears a rising China, and thus Obama's "pivot" to Asia has renewed and revitalized America's East Asian alliances that were originally directed against the Soviet Union. Russia has long border with China and also fears its rise, especially because Siberia is resource rich and sparsely populated and may thus be vulnerable to penetration by a populous China.
And despite more than 40 years of Cold War with the Soviet Union and recently strained relations with Vladimir Putin's Russia, believe it or not, for the last two hundred years, the country in the world that the United States has shared the most strategic interests with is Russia. According to Michael Lind, in the book The American Way of Strategy: U.S. Foreign Policy and the American Way of Life, American strategists always have counted on Russia to oppose the rise of potentially hegemonic powers in Europe and East Asia.
For example, communism came to the Soviet Union in 1917 and the United States has been suspicious of Russia ever since (this suspicion has lingered even after the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991), yet during two world wars, the United States teamed up with the Soviets to stop Germany and in the second one, to some extent, Imperial Japan.
In the future, to contain a rapidly rising China, the United States would need Russia again -- and Russia would need the United States. That's why Russia's behavior in Crimea and eastern Ukraine, despite its unacceptability, will probably be forgotten rather quickly in Washington. That is not to say that future U.S.-Russian relations will be without incident; Putin's autocratic ways grate on the democratic United States, but he is certainly only a shadow of the once principal U.S. ally Joseph Stalin in human rights abuses. However, history shows the United States can forgive much if it believes its security or vital interests are at stake -- for example, America's long-time Saudi Arabian ally has one of the worst human rights on the planet, but it is also awash in the perceived strategic commodity of oil.
Of course, a larger question is whether the United States and Russia need to contain China at all, but they probably will band together to do so anyway -- as they have in the past to contain other rising powers. U.S. containment was perceived to have "worked" in toppling the Soviet Union, and it probably had some effect. However, the policy was also expensive, both in terms of U.S. soldiers' lives and trillions from the U.S. Treasury. A smarter policy might have been to realize that a communist empire, probably even more so than other more economically efficient empires, simply would have collapsed from financial overextension in bailing out and administering economic basket cases such as Korea in the 1950s, Vietnam in the 1960s and 1970s, Nicaragua, Cuba, Angola, etc. Letting the Soviet Union have these non-strategic countries would have, if anything, hastened its demise.
And China has not yet been as aggressive as the Soviet Union. Having lost its communist ideology and having a stake in the stability of an international system that allows it to make big bucks, a good chance exists that it will not end up as a destabilizing force like the Soviet Union. Such economic integration with the world does not guarantee that war will not occur, but it certainly provides a peace lobby in each of any two potential belligerents. At any rate, premature U.S.-Russian containment of China could result in a self-fulfilling prophecy.