May 29, 2024

The Axis of Upheaval: How the Convergence of Russia, China, Iran, and North Korea Will Challenge the US and Europe

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov laying flowers at the bronze statues of the late North Korean leaders Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il at Mansu Hill Grand Monument in Pyongyang on 19 October 2023.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov laying flowers at the bronze statues of the late North Korean leaders Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il at Mansu Hill Grand Monument in Pyongyang on 19 October 2023.

One of President Putin’s many miscalculations in his decision to invade Ukraine was his underestimation of the west’s response. Indeed, the US and Europe outperformed what many in the west themselves thought was possible in the run-up to the war. Russia’s aggression set in motion extraordinary coordination on everything from sanctions to military assistance for Ukraine. Russia’s brutal attack on its neighbour jolted the allies into action and revitalised cooperation among the western allies and partners.

Yet the urgency and imperative for greater cooperation has not been limited to the transatlantic allies. Since its invasion, Russia has similarly catalysed deepening cooperation among its partners, namely China, Iran, and North Korea. Just as Russia’s war in Ukraine has spurred the strengthening of ties between the US and its allies, so too has it accelerated the growing collaboration among Russia and its backers. Their alignment of interests and convergence of efforts are creating nothing short of what Richard Fontaine and I have labelled an “axis of upheaval” — one that is bent on overturning the principles, rules, and institutions that underlie the prevailing international system.

The challenges that this axis pose are significant: their cooperation is increasing the military capabilities of these revisionist actors, diluting the efficacy of the foreign policy tools that the US and Europe use to confront them, and creating the basis of an alternative order that portends greater global instability. There are myriad fissures and distrust that plague their relationships, but their shared and overarching geopolitical objective — to undermine the US-led global order — provides powerful motivation for their partnership. In the two years since Russia’s invasion, the evidence of their convergence has mounted, making it impossible and even irresponsible to dismiss their alignment.

Russia: The Key Instigator

For Moscow, the war in Ukraine is first and foremost about controlling Kyiv and its choices. But Putin’s ultimate objective is to undermine NATO — a key step in revising the global order he sees as disadvantaging Russia. He has long harboured these objectives, but the invasion of Ukraine was his point of no return in his crusade against the west. Since the invasion, Putin’s resolve has only hardened as he appears ever more committed to pursuing a long-term confrontation with the US and Europe. To better position Moscow to wage it, Putin is doubling down on relations with like-minded partners in China, Iran, and North Korea, thus making Russia the key catalyst of this emerging axis.

Because of the invasion, the Kremlin realistically had no options other than to deepen these partnerships. Russia needs the trade, weapons, and component parts that these countries provide to sustain the fighting in Ukraine. Yet, even if Putin has deepened these partnerships opportunistically, the Kremlin also sees leaders in Beijing, Tehran, and Pyongyang as fellow travellers in its showdown with Washington. Russia, China, Iran, and North Korea have coalesced around their shared hostility to the status quo. Each country seeks to overturn the balance of power in their respective regions and views Washington as the primary obstacle. Each country recognises that by working together, they are less vulnerable to the sanctions and other costs that the United States and its partners can impose.

For the moment, it is easier to see what they oppose than what they stand for. But that shared hostility can provide a powerful basis for partnership. As Hal Brands correctly notes, “Some of the world’s most destructive alliances featured little coordination and even less affection: they were simply rough agreements to assail the existing order from all sides.” The ways in which the four countries seek to upset the current order are extensive. Their list of shared ‘NO’s includes: no universal definition of democracy, no interference in internal affairs, no expansion of US alliances, and no stationing of US nuclear weapons abroad. What’s more, Russia, China, Iran, and North Korea may not even intend to replace the rules-based international order with a coherent alternative but rather may be preparing and forging partnerships that will allow them to more effectively advance their interests in a future world that lacks a clear order.

Increasing the Military Capabilities of the Revisionists

Russia’s operations in Ukraine have benefitted greatly from the assistance of Moscow’s external backers. Since the start of the war, Moscow has fired more than 3 700 Iranian Shaheed drones and is now producing more than 330 of them inside Russia every month. It has received more than 2.5 million rounds of ammunition and ballistic missiles from North Korea. China has emerged as Russia’s most critical lifeline, increasing its purchase of Russian oil and gas, putting billions of dollars into Moscow’s coffers. Beijing is sending vast amounts of technology — everything from machine tools for tanks, propellants for missiles, intermediary goods used in producing gunpowder and explosives, and turbojet engines — that Russia uses to prosecute its war. China is even providing geospatial intelligence, including satellite imagery, which the Russian military likely uses to support military operations in Ukraine.

But just as important as what Russia gets from its backers is what it is giving away in return. Even before the invasion, Moscow’s military cooperation with Beijing amplified the China challenge. Now, Beijing could use its increased leverage to pressure Moscow for submarine technology, remote sensing satellites, and aircraft engines — areas where Russia retains a relative edge — which could erode the US’ military advantages over China in the Indo-Pacific. Pyongyang is reportedly seeking advanced space, missile, and submarine technology from Moscow. If Russia were to comply with those requests, North Korea would be able to improve the accuracy and survivability of its nuclear-capable intercontinental ballistic missiles and use Russian nuclear propulsion technology to boost the range and capability of its submarines. Russia’s testing of North Korean weapons on Ukraine’s battlefields has already supplied Pyongyang with information it can use to refine its missile programme. Russia has provided Iran with advanced aircraft, air defence, intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance, and cyber capabilities that would help Tehran counter a potential US or Israeli military operation.

Russia’s deepening relations with its backers have also emboldened Pyongyang and Tehran. In December, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un abandoned the country’s longstanding policy of peaceful unification with South Korea and stepped up its threats against Seoul. Now enjoying strong support from both Russia and China, he indulged in nuclear blackmail and missile tests and refused to engage in talks with the US. Although there does not appear to be a direct connection between the Kremlin and Hamas’s attack on Israel on 7 October, Russia’s partnership with Iran probably encouraged Tehran to activate its regional proxies in the aftermath.

Warships during the “Maritime Security Belt 2024” combined naval exercises between Iran, Russia, and China in the Gulf of Oman. ZUMA Press Wire/Scanpix

Diluting the Efficacy of Foreign Policy Tools

Concurrently, the cooperation between Russia, China, Iran, and North Korea is reducing the potency of the tools on which Washington and its partners often rely to confront them. In the most glaring example, China has supplied semiconductors and other essential technologies that Russia used to import from the west, undercutting the efficacy of western export controls. Moscow too is undermining sanctions on Pyongyang by releasing millions of dollars in North Korean assets that previously sat frozen in Russian banks. In March, it vetoed a UN resolution that would have renewed an independent panel of experts investigating the violations of Security Council sanctions by North Korea.

The four countries’ enhanced trade and efforts to reduce their dependence on the US dollar further dilute the efficacy of US sanctions and export controls. Taking advantage of their shared borders and littoral zones, China, Iran, North Korea, and Russia are building trade and transportation networks safe from US interdiction. Iran, for example, ships drones to Russia across the Caspian Sea, where the US has little power to stop the transfers. Were Washington to engage in conflict with Beijing in the Indo-Pacific, China could seek support from Russia, which could increase its overland oil and gas exports to China or send arms across their shared border, which would allow China to better sustain its war effort.

The axis is also hindering Washington’s ability to rally coalitions needed to raise the costs for the revisionist powers’ destabilising actions. Their parallel efforts in the information domain weaken international support for US positions. Beijing has parroted the Kremlin’s talking points blaming NATO for the war in Ukraine, and in the aftermath of the October attack, Iran, Russia, and, to a lesser extent, China used state and social media to express support for Hamas, vilify Israel, and denigrate the US. Even if the axis countries do not overtly coordinate their messages, they still push the same themes — and the repetition makes them appear more credible and persuasive.

Ushering in Global Instability

Ultimately, Russia has become the key catalyst of a coalescing axis of upheaval that is transforming the international system into one characterised by two increasingly organised and competing orders — a shift that will give rise to global instability. Already, the two years since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine have proven to be particularly tumultuous. Not only does Hamas’s attack on Israel threaten to engulf the wider Middle East in conflict, but so does Azerbaijan’s offensive in Nagorno-Karabakh by resorting to the use of force to regain full control over the region. Tensions flared in 2023 between Serbia and Kosovo, portending an escalation into a wider conflict, whereas Venezuela threatened to annex parts of Guyana by military means.

Although the coups that have swept across Africa are internal affairs, they speak to the new international arrangement. For many years, coups were on the decline, in large part because their plotters faced costs within a cohesive liberal international order. That no longer appears to be the case. There is reason to believe this uptick will be sustained. International relations research shows that historically, periods in which there are competing orders are characterised by a higher rate of conflict initiation than periods in which there is one dominant order. The axis of upheaval, then, likely portends an era of heightened global instability that Europe and the United States will have to navigate.

Among the plausible scenarios for future instability is one of opportunistic aggression. Were the US to first become involved in a major conflict with China in Asia, the military balance in Europe could look quite different for the Kremlin, and the threat of Russian venture against NATO would increase. Moscow could conclude that Washington would have neither the political interest nor the resources to come to Europe’s defence. The Kremlin could reach a similar conclusion should the US be forced to respond to multiple smaller but significant conflicts, for example, in the Middle East and on the Korean Peninsula. Adding to the plausibility of the scenario is the Kremlin’s propensity for both risk-taking and miscalculation.

Countering the Axis of Upheaval Starts in Ukraine

Defeating Russia in Ukraine is the most impactful way to thwart this rising challenge. Washington, for its part, should not ignore Russian aggression in Europe to focus on rising Chinese power in Asia — the two are linked. Given the scope and magnitude of the challenges that the axis poses, Washington will need a stronger and more capable partner in Europe. Getting there will require significant changes on the continent and a more supportive approach from Washington. The goal is within reach but must be pursued with urgency if we are to prevent the world of upheaval the axis seeks to accomplish.

This article was written for the Lennart Meri Conference special issue of ICDS Diplomaatia magazine. Views expressed in ICDS publications are those of the author(s).

Filed under: Commentary