China Power | Diplomacy | East Asia

Is Putin’s Russia Seeking a New Balance Between China and the West?

20 years ago, Putin flipped Russia’s entire strategic orientation on its head. Is he ready to do so again?

By Stanislaw Skarzynski and Daniel Wong for
Is Putin’s Russia Seeking a New Balance Between China and the West?
Credit: Russian Presidential Press and Information Office

A recent article in the South China Morning Post posited that “[c]racks are opening in the Russia-China relationship.” Indeed, the list of differences between Moscow and Beijing has grown significantly in the past few months.

First, the commemoration of the 160th anniversary of Vladivostok was taken as an affront to China, as the city is the capital of the region annexed by the Russian Empire in 1860 after China lost the Second Opium War. Second, Russia signed an arms deal with India shortly after New Delhi and Beijing entered a military confrontation along their disputed border in the Himalayas. In the meantime, China still awaits delivery of its S-400 anti-aircraft missile-system, which was first “delayed” due to the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic but then labelled “suspended” by Moscow.

Yet, the most significant of these cracks is the suggestion, allegedly  from New Delhi, that Russia could join the U.S.-led Indo-Pacific grouping, something that – according to SCMP’s Maria Siow – is perceived by Chinese commentators as a “betrayal of China” and an “idea as explosive as asking Russia to join NATO.”

From NATO to China – and Back?

The article, headlined “Could Russia side with the US and India against China?” does not give any definite answers, but should be perceived as a reflection of the fact that China has increasing doubts as to whether Russia is still a country that neither has nor seeks a way out from its rising dependency on China.

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That Russia might be looking for an escape route would not be much of a surprise. The COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated all the problems Moscow has with its relationship with Beijing to such an extent that recently Russia has often been described as being slowly devoured by its economically superior ally. It would be one thing for Moscow to acknowledge that China is rather a threat than an ally. But to act on that would be an altogether different story.

Nevertheless, such a precedent exists. It has been described on countless occasions how, since Vladimir Putin rose to power in 1999, Russia has made a U-turn from its aspiration to join the transatlantic alliance. That objective largely governed Russian foreign policy in the 1990s and even resulted in Vladimir Putin’s famous statements in 2000 regarding the possibility of Russia’s access to NATO — something as unthinkable now as it was before the implosion of the Soviet Union.

The same two factors that contributed to Russia’s reversal of its pro-Western stance 20 years ago are responsible for the fact that Moscow might now be willing to significantly harden its stance toward China. The first factor was Russia’s fruitless experiment with Western liberal democracy after the Soviet Union imploded in 1991; the second consisted of concerning strategic shifts in Russia’s vicinity — NATO expansion in Central and Eastern Europe in the 1990s and two subsequent U.S.-led wars in the Middle East in the 2000s being the most prominent examples. In the Kremlin, these were perceived as existentially threatening.

As these two issues are to some extent currently being replayed, it is important to elaborate on both before arriving at the conclusion that it is the West that has the upper hand in this game – and, by extension, that allowing Putin’s Russia to find a new balance between China and the West could turn out to be an important step toward containing China’s aspiration to dictate terms on the global stage.

The Origins of the Modern China-Russia Axis

In November of the year 2000, Vladimir Putin published a programmatic article. He wrote:

Russia has always felt itself to be a Eurasian country. We have never forgotten that the main part of the Russian territory is in Asia. Frankly, we have not always made good use of that advantage. I think the time has come for us, together with the Asia-Pacific countries, to move on from words to actions and to build up economic, political and other ties. Russia today has every opportunity for this.

This remark undoubtedly reflected on how deeply Russia was disillusioned with the results of its decade-long entanglement with the Western democratic system. Moscow now viewed Asia as offering Russia a path to regain its position of being a “first-tier country.” This had been Putin’s dream from the very moment he, as a lieutenant colonel of the KGB in the East German city of Dresden, witnessed the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Alexiei D. Voskressenski (who contributed to the comprehensive “China and the World” published this year by Oxford University Press with a chapter on the development of the Sino-Russian relationship) described how the lack of genuine support for the Russian economy from the West in the 1990s had been used by Beijing. China correctly ascertained that destitute Russia was a missing ingredient in the potion that would allow China to transform itself into a genuine global superpower. Voskressenski documented how multibillion dollar military contracts allowed China “to upgrade the second post-war generation of armaments to the fourth (…) whereas Russia was able to preserve its military-industrial complex following the disintegration of the Soviet Union.”

This first military link enabled multifaceted economic and political cooperation to develop between Russia and China. Between 1996 and 2008, not only was the half-a-century long Sino-Russian border dispute gradually resolved, but trade exchange and Chinese investments in Russia also grew exponentially. The process even resulted in the creation and development of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), which, by 2017, had also accepted India and Pakistan as members.

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Those in Russia who warned against close relations with China had in fact little support due to the paucity of their argument. China had, for a long period of time, refrained from using its power on the global stage, at least in comparison with what it was capable of doing given its economic, political, and military power.

An Assertive China, a Worried Russia

The situation is now vastly different as in recent years China has suddenly begun to pull all the strings at its disposal. The dispute in the South China Sea has become a major international concern; the row with regard to Hong Kong’s autonomy has already engaged half of the world; the recent military confrontation with India left several dozen soldiers dead or wounded on both sides.

Notably, China no longer refrains from getting openly involved in parts of the world that Russia perceives as its indisputable sphere of influence. There is a long list, but the most recent example occurred during post-election riots in Minsk, where the Belarusian security forces used armored trucks manufactured in China against peaceful demonstrators.

It is no secret that for years Xi Jinping’s China has increasingly provided support to Belarus’ Alexander Lukashenko in his attempts to maintain independence from Putin’s Russia, which pressed for deeper political and economic integration between Minsk and Moscow. It is important to underline that these processes have significantly strengthened since the Russian invasion of Ukraine and the annexation of the Crimea – events that rendered Putin unable to use Europe and the West as a counterweight to Chinese influence.

However, the pendulum might have swung too far when China used the economic fallout of the coronavirus pandemic against Russia. Although we do not know whether Putin went on his infamous oil price war against the United States and Saudi Arabia with or without at least some backing from China, Beijing indisputably allowed Moscow to hemorrhage its precious reserves for long weeks before throwing a lifeline: China suddenly limited its purchase of oil in the Middle East and vastly (by 31 percent when compared with 2019) increased the share of oil it sources from Russia.

Moreover, this lifeline ended with a suspicious gambit: Wood Mackenzie’s analysts quoted by Reuters predicted that low prices and abundance of oil had allowed China to expand its reserves to 1.15 billion barrels this year.

This is a strategic amount, as the possession of more than a billion barrels is enough for China to sustain itself for nearly three months – approximately the amount of time required for oil to be bought and shipped from any corner of the world. Effectively, Russia has not only lost clients and deepened its dependency on China, but Beijing also managed to remove from Moscow’s hand the only asset it had when bargaining with China: the effect of geographical closeness combined with well-developed pipeline infrastructure.

In the future, it is Beijing that will dictate oil prices to Moscow. Given that oil production contributes about 16 percent of Russia’s GDP and the bulk of its federal government’s revenue, China will come out of the pandemic with its economic domination over Russia cemented as it has never been before.

This move much resembles the very thing that triggered Russia’s reversal from the path that was intended to lead toward NATO membership nearly two decades ago. Back then, Putin considered U.S.-led attacks on Afghanistan, and particularly on Iraq, to be moves that would result in encircling Russia, rendering it incapable of defending itself and effectively removing Moscow from the list of first-tier countries.

A Poisoned Choice for the West

Arguably, China has now gone too far in the same way that the West did 20 years ago, making Moscow open to a significant re-adjustment of its position between China and the West, something signaled by the list of “cracks in the Russia-China relationship” by the South China Morning Post.

It is up to the West (given that Donald Trump’s chances of re-election are somewhat doubtful, one could speak of “the West” without a question mark) whether it will elect to choose dialogue with Moscow in order to enable Russia to move away from China.

It would not be easy to do this without sacrificing the basic values the West holds dear. The list of issues that have accumulated since 2014 is huge, from Ukraine, Belarus, and Georgia, through numerous poisonings and political murders committed in Russia and other countries, to Russia’s meddling in the democratic processes in the U.S., the U.K., and many other countries.

Yet at stake is an ability to limit China’s capability to use Russia as a warehouse for raw materials and a source of military technologies. Furthermore, a less dependent Russia would be able to largely impede Beijing’s Belt and Road Initiative and thus limit China’s dominance in Asia, upon which the Chinese global offensive is founded.

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Arguably, given the signals coming from the Kremlin, perhaps this is the opportune moment for the West to present Vladimir Putin with conditions that would enable Moscow to escape from between Beijing’s jaws.

Stanislaw Skarzynski is a U.K.-based Polish journalist currently serving as the global affairs correspondent for Gazeta Wyborcza (Poland).

Daniel Wong is a Hong Kong national studying at Winchester College, U.K.