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"You should see my nuclear stockpile." Photo: Mikhail Svetlov/Getty Images

While Washington prepares for new cold wars, America’s two major rivals are warming up to one another.

Driving the news: Today alone, the Trump administration laid out an Africa strategy that is tied almost entirely to blocking Chinese and Russian influence, and President Trump used the word “China” 20 times in a relatively brief Fox News interview. U.S. foreign policy is increasingly defined by confrontation and competition with China and with Russia. But what about the third leg of that “great power” triangle?

I sat down yesterday with Alexander Gabuev, a China expert at Carnegie Russia, who told me the two giants are moving closer together — in part as a response to an increasingly confrontational Washington.

  • Gabuev says there are "three elements of geopolitical tinder that allow Russia and China to swipe right every time" — the need for security on their 2,000-mile border, the complementary natures of their economies and the similarities in their authoritarian approaches.
  • Those elements provide the foundation for a relationship that is growing deeper and is characterized by the phrase, "not necessarily for each other, but never against each other."

The long-standing issues of tension — like competition for influence in Central Asia or China's copycat approach to Russian military technology — have largely been put aside, Gabuev says.

  • On military tech, he says, the Kremlin has decided that "China will get there in 5 or 10 years on their own, so we either sell it to them now or lose out." Likewise, they’re resigning themselves to the reality of China being a dominant economic player in their backyard.

What it looks like ...

  • In September, China took part for the first time in Russia’s Eastern Economic Forum (EEF) and its massive Vostok war games.
  • Xi Jinping and Vladimir Putin emphasized their cooperation and mutual respect at EEF, going so far as to don aprons and make pancakes. China’s ambassador to Russia, Li Hui, said, “At present, China-Russia relations are at their best in history.”
  • Putin and Xi met again at the G20 on Nov. 30, though their conversation was overshadowed by Trump’s high-stakes dinner with Xi and last-minute cancellation of his Putin meeting.

What we're witnessing is not a true alliance, but a partnership defined by pragmatism. Russia may resent becoming the junior partner in its relationship with a rising power, for example, but it also appreciates the economic and diplomatic cover it gets from China as it faces Western rebukes and sanctions.

The bottom line: I asked Gabuev if there's an existential fear of a China-led world in Moscow, as there is in Washington. He said Russian officials tend to view the U.S.-led world order as "finished," but don't believe China will simply replace America, in part because Europe and Japan won't get in line behind Beijing.

  • In the meantime, Moscow sees U.S.-China competition working to its advantage. If Russia can keep its seat at the table as a second-tier power with a big nuclear stockpile, it can ultimately live with a Chinese superpower.

Go deeper

11 mins ago - World

Scoop: Ukraine tells senators post-invasion sanctions are no help

Zelensky. Photo: Johanna Geron/POOL/AFP via Getty Images

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky told U.S. senators visiting Kyiv this week that waiting to impose sanctions on Russia until after an invasion is of no use to Ukraine, according to four sources familiar with the discussions.

Why it matters: The Senate is currently working on a major sanctions package to deter Russia from attacking Ukraine. Democrats and Republicans are united in their support for Ukraine, but divided over whether it would be more effective to sanction Russia now to signal resolve, or hold up the threat of future sanctions to demonstrate the high costs of an invasion.

Starbucks drops worker vaccine or test requirement after SCOTUS ruling

Photo: Jakub Porzycki/NurPhoto via Getty Images

Starbucks has dropped plans to require that U.S. workers get the COVID vaccine or submit to weekly testing, the company announced Tuesday in a memo to employees.

Why it matters: The company's decision comes in response to the Supreme Court's ruling last week to block the Biden administration's COVID-19 vaccine-or-test requirement for large employers.

4 hours ago - World

Netanyahu plea talks enter crunch time

Netanyahu (right) meets with his lawyer ahead of a court hearing last February. Photo: Reuven Casto/Pool/AFP via Getty

Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel's opposition leader and former prime minister, is negotiating a possible plea deal over the corruption charges against him, but Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit appears to be toughening his terms.

Why it matters: Mandelblit leaves office on Jan. 31. Negotiations could continue beyond that point, but the next attorney general may be less interested in quickly reaching a deal.