As NATO representatives work up a plan that will place its troops behind the former Iron Curtain to counteract Russia’s aggression in Ukraine, Vladimir Putin isn’t batting an eyelid.

The Russian president is running a multi-pronged operation that isn’t just focusing on military incursions into Ukraine, but also includes continuing to build up Russia’s nuclear power. Just a few days ago, news broke that the forces responsible for Russia’s strategic nuclear arsenal will conduct major exercises this month involving more than 4,000 soldiers, 400 technical units and substantial use of air power. [pullquote]

Troops will practice countering irregular units and high-precision weapons as well as "conduct combat missions in conditions of active radio-electronic jamming and intensive enemy actions in areas of troop deployment," according to Dimitry Andreyev, a major in the strategic rocket forces.

But that isn’t all. A Kremlin adviser added that Russia is planning on updating its military doctrine this year in light of the Ukraine crisis and soured relationship with NATO.

Russia is already the world’s third highest military spender behind the United States and China and they’re clearly going to keep amping it up. But they won’t be doing it alone.

As has been the case for the last decade, Russia can look to China for support. The two nations’ alliance is more powerful than most are willing to acknowledge. Consider their support for one another throughout the Ukraine crisis.

When Russia invaded Crimea in March, China tacitly supported the move by abstaining from a vote in the United Nations. And when new EU sanctions against Russia came out last week, Beijing suggested that additional sanctions “may lead to new and more complicating factors” in Ukraine.

And that’s not all. Russia and China cooperate along economic, technological, military, and political lines. What’s more, in all of these areas they have something the U.S. lacks: strategy and the will to put it into practice.

Examples of the China-Russia alliance abound.

The signing of a 30-year, $400 billion natural-gas deal between China and Russia in May was the biggest in the history of the natural-gas industry.

“This will be the biggest construction project in the world for the next four years, without exaggeration,” Vladimir Putin said in Shanghai, as he raised a glass to drink a toast with Chinese president Xi Jinping. Under the terms of the deal, Russia would supply the Chinese with natural gas for the first time—38 billion cubic meters of gas per year, through pipelines and other mas­sive infrastructure investments.

Militarily, the two nations are cooperating and collaborating like never before. Also in May, the Russian and Chinese navies held large-scale joint drills in the East China Sea—sending a message to Japan, which has found itself in increasing tension with Beijing.

“Moscow and Beijing have found advantages in working together to diminish U.S. influence and create greater room for them to pursue international economic and strategic interests,” Brian Spegele and Wayne Ma note in the Wall Street Journal. “Mr. Putin is widely depicted in Chinese official media as a powerful leader unafraid to take on the West.”

U.S. Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel spoke to the China-Russia alliance in the lead-up to last week’s NATO summit. He said, “China and Russia have been trying to close the technology gap by pursuing and funding long-term, comprehensive military modernization programs.” The two countries are “developing anti-ship, anti-air, counter-space, cyber, electronic warfare and special operations capabilities that appear designed to counter traditional U.S. military advantages.”

Russia and China are formidable combatants in one of the 21st century’s primary battlegrounds: cyber warfare. In the fall of 2012, then Defense Secretary Leon Panetta warned that the US could someday face a cyber “Pearl Harbor” at the hands of China and Russia who “have advanced cyber capabilities.”

The Justice Department indicted five Chinese officers of the People’s Liberation Army for cyber espionage in May. And Russian hackers almost certainly affiliated with Moscow have been wreaking havoc on American corporations. Home Depot looks to be the latest victim since news broke in August that Russian hackers had amassed over a billion internet passwords.

Moreover, China and Russia aren’t doing all the work themselves. As Russia and China flex their muscle, rogue nations have often looked to one or both of them for support—whether tacit or explicit. Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad stands in a stronger position than he has for years, thanks to Putin’s staunch support. 

The Islamic theocracy that runs Iran is closing in on achieving its goal of becoming a nuclear power, thanks again, in large part, to Russian support. And a new Defense Intelligence Agency report shows that North Korea has nuclear weapons capable of delivery by ballistic missiles. The murderous regime, propped up by China, threatens the peace and stability not only of Asia, but the world.

It follows that this alliance between China and Russia is not new, but a longstanding evolution and cooperation in a wide range of spheres. This makes it all the more disappointing – and frightening – that U.S. and Western policy does not reflect a true understanding of this alliance and the threat that it poses to our way of life.

Americans must begin by acknowledging the realities. It took us too long to grasp the threat from militant Islam, and we continue to pay the price as ISIS destroys the region and takes innocent American lives.

We can ill-afford to keep our head in the sand any longer. Russia and China emerged immeasurably stronger from America’s War on Terror, with a clear plan to advance their strategic interests at the expense of our own. We must defend ourselves before it’s too late.

Melik Kaylan is co-author of "The Russia-China Axis." An international journalist, he has reporting from conflict zones throughout the world, including from the North Korean border to the Caucasus, the Middle East, and the former Iron Curtain countries.