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Alternative History: Would Russia in NATO and EU Be Game Changer in West’s Rivalry With China?

November 20, 2019
Simon Saradzhyan

This is a working draft and the author welcomes comments and suggestions.1

Thirty years ago this month the Berlin Wall fell, marking the symbolic end of the Cold War. As former Eastern bloc countries sought to join the club of Western democracies at the peak of America’s unipolar moment, it seemed to some that it was only a matter of time before Russia joined as well, amid proclamations of the end of history. This article is meant to explore what Russia’s accession to two of the Western world’s institutional pillars, NATO and the European Union, would have meant for the balance of power between the West and China. The author’s calculations of this power, which remain a work in progress, indicate that while Russia’s membership in the Western club would have further tilted the balance of power in favor of the collective West, it would not have been a game changer as long as the competition between the West and China remained peaceful.

Russia Could Have Gone West but Didn’t

It might be difficult for some to fathom today, but Russian and Western leaders were pondering whether Russia might accede to NATO, if not the EU, in the 1990s and even the early 2000s. The last Soviet leader, Mikhail Gorbachev, raised the possibility of Soviet membership in NATO three times in 1990, according to James Baker, then U.S. secretary of state. Later, not only did Boris Yeltsin announce that Russia’s membership in NATO was a “long-term political aim,” but Vladimir Putin asked Bill Clinton and Lord Robertson when NATO would invite Moscow into the alliance. A 1993 U.S. State Department document even set a deadline for Russia’s—and Ukraine’s—accession to the bloc (2005). In addition to Yeltsin, his foreign minister Andrei Kozyrev mused about Russia’s membership in the European Community, a precursor of the EU, while British premier John Major urged the EC in 1992 “to widen its imagination” and give membership to Russia. A decade later, such EU leaders as Italian premier Silvio Berlusconi were still calling for Russia to join the European Union while newly-installed President Putin asserted: “Of course, Russia is a very diverse country, but we are part of Western European culture.” “No matter where our people live, in the Far East or in the south, we are Europeans,” said Putin, who initially continued his predecessor’s policy of harmonizing Russia’s laws and regulations with the EU’s, while also pursuing a partnership with NATO in the early 2000s.2  

In addition to Russian leaders, some of the country’s policy influentials—including Sergei Karaganov, Timofey Bordachev and  Igor Yurgens3—also envisioned a Russia eventually integrated into NATO, as did some of their Western counterparts, such as Baker, who described Russia’s membership in NATO as a win-win for both Russia and the alliance. Other Western experts who believed in the 1990s that Russia could be integrated into the Western club included Graham Allison, Karl Kaiser, Daniel Yergin and Thane Gustafson.  

Eventually, however, waves of NATO expansion and “color revolutions” convinced the Russian leadership, rightly or wrongly, that the West, while eager to integrate post-Soviet neighbors located to Russia’s west and even south, was in no hurry to accept Moscow as an equal in its club. As a result of this conviction, Russia staged military interventions in Georgia in 2008 and Ukraine in 2014 to prevent these countries from advancing toward membership in NATO and the EU. Today the prospects for Russia’s membership in either group seem to be as dim as they were during the Cold War, with Russia estranged from what the Kremlin sees as a declining West and actively courting a rising China. This estrangement has prompted some top U.S. foreign policy analysts, such as Stephen Walt, to warn that America’s “ineffectual approach to Russia [is] cementing a growing strategic partnership between Moscow and Beijing.” Allison, too, has sounded the alarm about what he sees as a “strategic alliance in the making,” which he considers a threat to the U.S.

The relationship between China and Russia is, indeed, getting stronger by the hour. To ascertain that this is the case, one need look no further than Xi Jinping’s and Vladimir Putin’s official travel schedules. China was the first country Putin visited after being inaugurated for a third presidential term in May 2012; Xi returned the favor in 2013. The two have met almost 30 times in total as of June 2019 and show no sign of getting tired of seeing each other. Putin has referred to Xi as “my dear friend” and “my good long-time friend.” Xi is even more complimentary: “He is my best and bosom friend. I cherish dearly our deep friendship,” Xi said of Putin this summer. A recent poll conducted for China’s Global Times showed that one-third of Chinese viewed Russia as the number-one country influencing China, while polls conducted in Russia consistently show a clear majority having a favorable view of China. In addition to strengthening political ties, Russia and China have also been expanding their military and security cooperation to include joint air patrols and joint naval wargames in the Mediterranean. Moreover, Russia is helping China develop its own early warning radar systems. The Chinese defense ministry’s latest white paper describes the relationship as a “comprehensive strategic partnership, while the English-language version of Russia’s latest foreign policy doctrine (released in 2016) refers to the Russian-Chinese relationship as one of “comprehensive, equal and trust-based partnership and strategic cooperation.”4

Nevertheless, as I have argued earlier year, I don’t believe Russia and China will enter an Article 5 type of alliance as long as their leaders continue to believe they can deter the U.S. on their own from both aggression and regime change. But I do believe that warnings such as Walt’s and Allison’s beg the question: What if Russia were to align with the West instead of China? How would the balance of power between the West and China have looked today if Russia had been admitted to the Western club in the 1990s or 2000s?5 I will attempt to answer that question even though, to paraphrase a Russian saying, “history does not tolerate ‘ifs’ and ‘buts.’”

Methods of Measuring Nations' Power

To measure the balance of power between the West and China I will rely on four methods for estimating national capabilities employed by scholars in the field, using data available from such organizations as the World Bank and the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute. For readers familiar with the 2018 report on national power that I co-wrote with Nabi Abdullaev—which compared Russia’s national power with that of its Western competitors and some of its peers—these methodologies will ring familiar.

First, I measured countries’ shares in the world’s GDP, which constitutes one basic, single-variable method of estimating countries’ national power.

Second,  I employed a variation of the method used by the Correlates of War project, replacing steel production with high-technology export. It is calculated as the mean of the following ratios:

  • TPR (total population ratio) = ratio of country’s total population to world’s total population;
  • UPR (urban population ratio) = ratio of country’s urban population to world’s urban population;
  • ECR (energy consumption ratio) = ratio of country’s primary energy consumption to world’s primary energy consumption;
  • MER (military expenditures ratio) = ratio of country’s military expenditures in constant dollars to world’s military expenditures in constant dollars;
  • HTER (high-technology exports ratio) = ratio of country’s high-technology exports to world’s high-technology exports.

Third, I applied a variation of the multi-variable method used by Taiwanese scholar Chin-Lung Chang,6 which equals (critical mass + economic strength + military strength)/3, where:

  • Critical mass = ([nation’s population/world population] * 100) + ([nation’s area/world total] * 100)
  • Economic strength = (nation’s GDP, PPP, constant dollars/world GDP, PPP, constant dollars) * 150
  • Military strength = (nation’s military expenditures/world military expenditures) * 100

Fourth, I calculated a variation of the Experimental Index of National Power, which my co-author and I developed on the basis of Ray S. Cline’s formula7 for our 2018 paper.

EINP = national resources * capability to employ resources, where:

  • National resources = critical mass + economic strength + military strength + technological prowess, where:
    • Critical mass = (country’s land area/world’s land area + country’s population/world population * national health adjustment) * 2, where:
      • National health adjustment = country's population’s average life expectancy/ world’s population’s average life expectancy
  • Economic power = country’s GDP/world’s GDP * 2
  • Military power = country's military expenditure/world's military expenditure * nuclear weapon adjustment, where:
    • Nuclear weapon adjustment is equal to 1.5 for countries with over 500 deployed warheads, 1.3 for countries with numbers of warheads ranging from 100 to 499 and 1.2 for countries with fewer than 99 warheads
  • Technological prowess = country’s residents’ patents/world’s patents
  • Capability to employ resources = indicator of government effectiveness: percentile rank among all countries.

I have chosen measurements from 2016 because that was the most recent year for which data for one of the key indicators (energy consumption) was available. I then conducted the measurements to explore two basic scenarios—status quo and “West at maximum,” i.e., with Russia and other European nations that are currently neither in the EU nor NATO “joining” the West. Scenario 1 (“Status Quo”) reflects the reality of 2016, in which full-fledged members of NATO and the EU are engaged in a peace-time rivalry with China and Russia (even if not all members of those blocs are enthusiastic about following the U.S. lead in this rivalry).8 While listing members of NATO and the EU, as well as most of the official candidates to both organizations,9 on the U.S. side, I have not included members of the Shanghai Security Organization or the Collective Treaty Organization in the equation on China’s and Russia’s side because, in my view, these countries remain reluctant to firmly take sides in the rivalry between them and the West. Scenario 2 (“West at Maximum”) envisions not only Russia but most of the other OSCE members aligned with the collective West. The exceptions include several European members of the OSCE, which I have had to exclude due to insufficient data on some key indicators of national power.10 I have also excluded the post-Soviet Central Asian republics and Mongolia, which, in my view, are too distant from the core of Europe for either NATO or the EU to consider integrating them in any version of “alternative history.” I included most of the other members of the OSCE, however, because, in my view, had Russia become a member of NATO and/or the EU, it would have raised no objections to other countries (and that includes Ukraine and Georgia) joining these organizations.

Results of Measurements: Russia's Orientation Quite Impactful, But Isn't a Game Changer

As Figure 1 below indicates, the combined peace-time might of NATO and EU members exceeds the combined power of Russia and China by at least 27 percentage points in the first scenario. As Figure 1 also indicates, the combined peace-time might of the members of the “West at Maximum” coalition would exceed the power of China by at least 43 percentage points in the second scenario. It follows from these measurements that a collective West would command more power than China with or without Russia on its side, no matter how you calculate the combined power of the nations concerned. It would be reasonable, therefore, to hypothesize that the inclusion of Russia and those European nations that are currently not aligned with the EU or NATO into the Western club would not have been a game changer in the rivalry between the West and China. However, as both Figure 1 and Table 1 below demonstrate, Russia’s decision to align with the West (and allow other European nations to do so) rather than with China would have diminished the latter’s might vis-à-vis the West by at least 15 percentage points and, therefore, would have had a tangible impact on that rivalry. As important, a Russia in compliance with the EU’s and NATO’s requirements for democracy in the second scenario would have made it more difficult for China to muster an alignment of autocracies to challenge the democratic camp. Something tells me that a Russia in the EU would have looked more like Viktor Orban’s Hungary than Angela Merkel’s Germany, but it would still be aligned with other Western democracies. Russia’s membership in the EU and NATO would entail that it would share these organizations’ strategic visions of China as formulated in their major documents. (NATO’s recent Strategic Foresight Analysis points to a “more assertive China” whose actions “foster tension” in seas abutting the Middle Kingdom and whose global rise contributes to a “redistribution of geostrategic power;” while the EU’s recent strategic outlook refers to Beijing as a “cooperation partner,” but also insists that China is a “competitor” and a “systemic rival.”)

Figure 1:

Russia's Sway

Table 1:


Share of world's GDP, PPP

Combined national power per Correlates of War formula

Combined national power per Chin-Lung Chang's formula

Combined national power per EINP formula

Combined population

Scenario 1: China+Russia as % of West






Scenario 2: China as % of West+Russia+Rest of Europe






Difference between Scenario 1 and Scenario 2 in percentage points






Difference in power between West and China+Russia in Scenario 1







Difference in power between West at maximum and China in Scenario 2





Of course, Russia could choose to align with neither China nor the West, striving to be an independent pole of power in the new world order, as such Kremlin insiders as Vladislav Surkov have suggested. However, Russia’s claim to what Surkov has described as strategic solitude in the changing world would be problematic, in my view. Russia accounts for 3 percent of the world’s economic output and 2 percent of its population. Even if it were to integrate all post-Soviet republics (with the exception of the Baltics) into a Eurasian Union, it would still not be on par with either the U.S. and its allies or China in such key components of power as economic output, population and technological prowess.

Acknowledging Limitations and Planning Next Steps

This research is not without flaws, of course. I will list some of them below, and this list is far from exhaustive.

First, my calculations assume that all European countries would have joined or at least aligned with the EU and NATO in the second scenario. That is a contestable assumption as demonstrated by the EU’s recent decision not to initiate membership talks with Albania and North Macedonia due to France’s concerns, which had little to do with accommodating Russia. Moscow is opposed to Albania’s and North Macedonia’s membership in the EU, but such membership would not have represented a redline for Russia.

Second, the aforementioned four methods are meant to measure nations’ resources only as they compete or cooperate in peacetime. A war among the competitors would have been a very different game, where such components of power as possession of nuclear weapons, long-range delivery systems and other military assets would have to be either assigned greater value or added to the calculations. In fact, in my view, imagining a war between a collective West, including Russia, and China would be a futile exercise as Russia would not agree to participate in such a war in the foreseeable future.

Third, the calculations of combined national power in both scenarios do not reflect the effect that Russia’s membership in the EU and NATO would have had on key components of its national power, such as GDP and population. On one hand, Russia’s economic output would have benefited from Russia’s being part of the EU’s common markets. On the other hand, if in the EU and NATO, Russia would have also probably been able to sell only a fraction of the tens of billions of dollars’ worth of advanced weaponry systems it has sold to China. Moreover, Russia would have also probably had greater difficulty stealing Saudi Arabia’s crown as largest exporter of oil to China. And Russia would have also experienced outbound labor migration to wealthier EU countries. These are just some of the multiple effects that Russia’s membership in the EU and NATO would have had on the measure of Russia’s national power, to say less of the impact it would have had on the West’s power.

Fourth, these calculations of national power are based on data from 2016 and need to be updated, perhaps, with assessments of what forecasts by the U.N., World Bank and other respected organizations tell us of the impact that Russia’s siding with either China or the West could have on their rivalry in the future.

Fifth, as stated above, I have had to exclude several European members of the OSCE due to insufficient data on some key indicators of national power for the majority of the employed methods. The same lack of data has forced me to replace triadic patents as calculated by the OECD with patents registered by residents as calculated by the World Bank in the EINP formula in what I believe has inflated China’s technological prowess.

Sixth, while the EINP, which is based on Cline’s formula, accounts for governments’ theoretical capability to employ the national power at their disposal, it does not fully account for such key variables in that formula as “national will” and “strategic purpose.”11

Last but not least, in addition to Cline’s two measurements, this research would benefit from a measurement of the cohesion of alignments, perhaps through sociological polling. After all, the collective West’s ability to employ its power depends on its political cohesion and that is something that appears to be lacking even in the absence of Russia, which would have probably been much more reluctant to confront China than, say, the U.S. if Scenario 2 were to materialize.


  1. Comments should be sent to [email protected]
  2. Putin then added a warning to the West: “If they push us away, then we will be forced to find allies and reinforce ourselves. What else can we do?” Putin, Vladimir, Nataliya Gevorkyan, Natalya Timakova, and Andrei Kolesnikov. First Person: An Astonishingly Frank Self-Portrait by Russia's President Vladimir Putin. Public Affairs, 2000.
  3. Other Russian experts who entertained the idea of Russia’s membership in NATO included Yuriy Davydov, Sergei Kulik and Sergei Medvedev, with the latter foreseeing Russian membership in the EU, too.
  4. Note the difference between the Russian and Chinese descriptions of the partnership, with the Russian documents describing it as just “comprehensive partnership,” while the Chinese documents describe it as a “comprehensive strategic partnership.” Russian and Chinese leaders repeat these formulations ad verbatim. Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu, for instance, referred to a “comprehensive partnership and strategic interaction” when congratulating Wei Fenghe with his appointment as China’s defense minister in April 2018. Wei more than returned the compliment one year later, calling bilateral relations “the closest interaction which is the best among all relations between large countries” during his April 2019 visit to Moscow. This seeming divergence endured through Xi’s latest visit to Russia (June 5-7, 2019), where he and Putin signed a joint declaration on June 5. The Russian-language version of the declaration and English-language references to it on the Kremlin’s website describe it as the “Joint Statement on Developing Comprehensive Partnership and Strategic Interaction Entering a New Era.” Moreover, that’s what Putin himself called it standing next to Xi in the Kremlin. In Chinese diplomats’ English-language descriptions of Xi’s June 2019 visit, however, they referred to the two leaders signing “statements on elevating bilateral relations to the comprehensive strategic partnership of coordination,” with the Xinhua news agency offering a similar description. Moreover, “comprehensive strategic partnership in the new era” is what Xi himself called the relationship during his visit, even according to the Kremlin’s English-language translation of his remarks in Russia on June 7.
  5. The author distinguishes between alliances and alignments for the purposes of this research. Building on works by Stephen Walt (“The Origins of Alliances,” Cornell University Press, 1987) and Robert Osgood (with John H. Badgley, “Japan and the U.S. in Asia,” Johns Hopkins University Press, 1968), the author defines alliance as a formal or informal arrangement in accordance with which states commit (1) to refrain from aggression against each other and (2) to render military and security assistance to each other in case of aggression by a third country (or alliance) against one or both of them. In contrast, alignment does not necessarily require such mutual assistance in case of war. Rather, the author agrees with Thomas Wilkins who has defined alignment as “expectations of states about whether they will be supported or opposed by other states in future interactions” and as a “state of shared agreement or accord on one or more significant issues,” arguing that it is a “superior and more accurate descriptor” than the term “alliance.” (Thomas S. Wilkins, “‘Alignment,’ Not ‘Alliance’—The Shifting Paradigm of International Security Cooperation: Toward a Conceptual Taxonomy of Alignment," Review of International Studies, Vol. 38, No. 1 (2012): 53-76).
  6. Chang, Chin-Lung, “A Measure of National Power,” Proceedings of the 2004 International Seminar at the National University of Malaysia, February 2004 (Bangi, Malaysia).
  7. Cline, Ray S., “The Power of Nations in the 1990s: A Strategic Assessment,” University Press of America, 1993.
  8. While all but one of the four methods of measurement of national power include some measure of countries’ military might, the latter is taken into account as a tool for coercion and/or deterrence without actual war.
  9. I excluded Georgia and Ukraine from this scenario even though both are listed on NATO’s official page for enlargement plans because Russia, by initiating military interventions into these two ex-Soviet republics, has imposed a de facto veto on their inclusion into the alliance in the near future.
  10. I excluded Monaco, Channel Islands, Isle of Man, Kosovo, Serbia, Holy See, Faroe Islands, San Marino, Andorra, Greenland, Iceland and Lichtenstein from all calculations due to insufficient data for some of the methods. I also excluded Switzerland, whose long-time policy is to refrain from membership in either NATO or the EU.  
  11. Cline’s definition of national will is as follows: “the degree of resolve that can be mobilized among the citizens of a nation in support of governmental decisions about defense and foreign policy. National will is the foundation upon which national strategy is formulated and carried through process.” Cline’s definition of strategic purpose is as follows: “the part of the political decision-making process that conceptualizes and establishes goals and objectives designed to protect and enhance interests in the international environment.” In his work, Cline does not explain how he quantifies these variables (Cline, Ray S., “The Power of Nations in the 1990s: A Strategic Assessment,” University Press of America, 1993)

Simon Saradzhyan

Simon Saradzhyan is the founding director of the Russia Matters Project at Harvard Kennedy School’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs.

Photo is available in the public domain.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.