During a video-conference on December 15, Presidents Vladimir Putin of Russia and Xi Jinping of China hailed close political, military and economic ties, as well as promoted their mutual personal friendship. The two leaders demonstrated their defiance to Western pressure and threats of escalating sanctions from the United States and Europe. According to Putin’s foreign policy aide Yuri Ushakov, during the 1.5-hour-long discussion Xi insisted that although Russia and China are not treaty allies, their relationship “even exceeds an alliance” (Izvestia, December 15). Putin reportedly briefed Xi about his recent video-conference call with US President Joseph Biden on December 7. Moreover, Putin and Xi jointly condemned Washington’s “disruptive” policies. Xi supported the Russian demand of talks with the West on a comprehensive security arrangement in Europe and of legally banning any further eastward enlargement of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) or the deployment of any Alliance weaponry close to Russia’s borders (see EDM, December 2, 9). The two heads of state also discussed enhancing mutual trade and technological and economic cooperation. Xi specifically thanked Putin for “solidly supporting Chinese efforts to defend its key national interests and adamantly resisting attempts [by third parties] to drive a wedge to separate our countries” (Kremlin.ru, December 15).
Washington and its allies have been relocating resources to the Asia-Pacific region, seeing growing Chinese economic, financial and military might as a major potential threat. Russia, with a GDP smaller than Canada, Italy or Brazil, presumably lacks the potential to be anything more than a regional power with inflated ambitions and is geographically too close to emerging superpower China to feel safe. Attempting to pull Moscow away from Beijing would, therefore, seem like a reasonable foreign policy ploy—especially since Russia and China considered themselves sworn enemies for some 30 years in the 1960s–1980s. Russia inherited a massive Soviet nuclear and conventional arsenal and clearly still sees itself as a superpower. Putin contends that under his rule, the Russian economy expanded and the people were given a chance to live better; but after that, resources were relocated to rebuild the Russian military and restore the domestic defense industry to produce new weapons. Today, according to the Kremlin leader, “Russia is number one in the world in new weapons” (TASS, December 12). The reality, however, is not quite so rosy. Russia has been modernizing and putting back into service Soviet-built tanks, ships and jets, but it is struggling to mass-produce modern weapons in the same volumes as during Soviet times. Without Ukrainian industrial capabilities in airplane and ship engine-making, Russia has been mostly constructing small corvette-size warships and does not seem to have a single operational destroyer left in its fleet. In contrast, China not only kept operational its Sovremenny-class destroyers it purchased from Russia in the 1990s, but it has already put into service more than ten new modern destroyers and frigates; it now deploys more operational ships than the US Navy.
A decade ago, then–US President Barack Obama tried to “reset” relations with Russia’s Dmitry Medvedev, who was erroneously seen in Washington as a possible leader of a new generation of the Russian ruling elite. Obama’s successor, President Donald Trump, spoke often of making a deal with Putin. Today, Biden and his foreign policy/national security team are trying to find a way to deescalate with Putin, reach some compromise on Ukraine and other outstanding issues, while concentrating US resources for the China standoff. Biden participated in a video-conference call with Putin on December 7, and apparently wants to call again soon, possibly before the New Year—at least according to Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov (Interfax, December 15).
In the summer of 2021, a European foreign minister visiting Moscow told this author, on the condition of anonymity, that the fighting in Donbas must stop, Russian arms must be withdrawn, and the region must return to Ukraine with enhanced autonomy. After that, the problem of Crimea may be put on ice: The West will never recognize the Russian annexation, some residual sanctions will remain, but the issue will not be allowed to seriously affect future cooperation with Moscow. The European high official also implied that to reach such a quasi–modus vivendi, Moscow must move away from Beijing. Russia must understand that being a Chinese sidekick is not a good idea. The Chinese are not amicable bosses, and Russia may need Western help when it has problems with China in the future.
The United States, Japan and other Western allies have been doing their best to drive a wedge between Putin and Xi, but these efforts have apparently failed. On the contrary, Western pressure, sanctions and threats of additional sanctions have been pushing Russia and China closer together. Pro-Kremlin commentators in Moscow assert the US and the United Kingdom are losing the battle to maintain their positions of world dominance; and in the ensuing chaos, the Sino-Russian alliance will only grow stronger. Of course, in Moscow, this presumptive association is seen as an alliance of equals: Putin and Xi emphasized as much during their video-conference and will surely continue to harp on that subject when they meet in person, as planned, in February 2022, in Beijing, during the coming Winter Olympics. Russian officials are banned from the event as part of the punishment for using state resources to promote the use of doping in sport; but Xi officially invited Putin, who accepted. China’s president has not traveled abroad since the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic, so the coming Putin-Xi “Olympic” summit in Beijing may be quite a notable event for both leaders (RIA Novosti, December 16).
China has not recognized the annexation of Crimea and will hardly support Moscow as an ally on the battlefield in any possible military confrontation in the region; while Russia will almost certainly stay out of any potential flare-up in the Taiwan Straits. For Moscow, China is a major trading partner—second only to the European Union—but for Beijing, trade with Russia is much less significant. The presumed Sino-Russian relationship may be “more than simply an alliance”; but in many respects, it is much less. Alliances between authoritarian regimes always tend to be fragile, despite all rhetoric to the contrary. Yet for now, the Sino-Russian pair-up is sending jitters up the collective Western spine.