Putin’s Russia is already learning the cost of becoming a vassal state of Xi’s China

No one is quite sure whether he meant to admit it or not, but there it is. China, said Vladimir Putin after his first tête-a-tête with Xi Jinping since the war started, has “questions” and “concerns” about Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. I’ll bet it does. A year ago, Xi was pleasantly contemplating the West’s inevitable decline and eyeing a decade as chief of the ascendant dictators’ club. This year, China is facing a renewed sense of purpose in the democratic world and, with gritted teeth, obeying a barrage of American sanctions.

What is really revealing about Putin’s comments, however, is not how badly wrong his war has gone (we already knew that), but what they reveal about Russia’s subservience to China. What started as a beautiful friendship is already turning sour.

It was just a month before Putin’s invasion when the two countries affirmed this undying “friendship”. It soon became clear that Moscow had quietly tipped off Beijing about its intentions. This was a worrying sign for the West. Since the days of Henry Kissinger, it has been received wisdom that we should try never to be at odds with Russia and China at the same time. You only have to look at a map to see why. A long-lasting authoritarian alliance between the two main empires of the Eurasian continent is a stomach-churning prospect.

Ukraine’s vigorous resistance and potential victory have, however, complicated the picture. If, as Putin had expected, Kyiv had fallen into his hands within days or even weeks, the Russo-Chinese pseudo love-in could have gone on for years. Instead, with every Ukrainian breakthrough, the inevitable, unpalatable implications of Russia’s dependence upon China become clearer.

“Friendship”, you see, is such a slippery word. You might think it means military aid, sanctions-busting and sharing technology, but it might turn out that your “friend” just thought it meant buying a lot of cheap assets and resources off you while you’re weak.

Just like the West, Russia has always tried to have a hedging strategy when it comes to foreign relations. One of Putin’s major projects of the past decade has been to build pipelines to the east as well as west, to give Russian gas more routes to market. After all, despite soaring prices, Moscow’s budget slipped into deficit in August because of its European gas embargo. Russia needs options.

The first east-facing pipeline, Power of Siberia 1, began shipping gas to China in 2019. But an agreement over the second, Siberia 2, which would link up China to the same gas fields that supply Europe, ran into the sand in 2015 after the two sides couldn’t agree on gas prices.

In February, Xi and Putin declared the pipeline was back on, though it still wouldn’t start flowing until 2030. That didn’t stop Russia’s energy minister declaring this week that Siberia 2 could entirely replace European exports. What he didn’t mention is that now is not a brilliant time to negotiate. Moscow has marooned most of its gas inside Russia without a buyer. While that continues, Russia is a forced seller and Xi knows it.

At the same time, Russia has made itself into a forced buyer of high-tech goods. It needs equipment, semiconductors and finance to wage war. It is increasingly short of places to get them.

China cannot afford to bust US sanctions openly, because of its dependency on exports to America, but it could potentially be a source of under-the-radar goods for a desperate Moscow. So far, however, Beijing does not seem to be playing along. If and when it does decide to, there will be an important question to answer first: what will Russia have to give in return?

One of China’s asks over the years has been to get greater access for its migrants, companies and investors to Siberia. In 2015, Moscow was forced to put the kibosh on a huge Chinese land leasing deal in Siberia and, at the same time, imposed a language test for Chinese guest workers in the region, following furious protests at the prospect of a so-called Chinese worker “invasion”.

It is easy to see why those on the Russian side might feel threatened: just look again at a map, and find the country next to the half-empty, undeveloped wilds of Siberia that has a vast population, a huge thirst for resources, oodles of cash (for now at least) and a racist notion of its own superiority.

According to a 2020 report by the Free Russia Foundation, there is already a burgeoning industry of Russian firms acting as fronts for state-subsidised Chinese investors buying up gold, oil and factories in the country, especially in the Far East, and thriving Chinese influence operations in all sorts of Russian state entities. In the long run, it could well turn out that the biggest threat to Russia’s territorial integrity comes not from the West, but the East.

In truth, the only thing that really brings Russia and China together is a hatred of democratic liberalism and a shaky ideological fellowship based on a notion called the “civilisation state”. This ideology, in some ways a new iteration of Samuel Huntington’s “clash of civilisations”, promotes the idea that freedom and human rights are ideas limited to Western civilisation that have no universal applicability. Instead, each civilisation is driven by its own internal logic and must pursue its own destiny. As the historian Peter Eltsov puts it: “They think they’re not nation states any more – they’re above that.”

While this sounds intriguing in theory, in practice it is mainly a way to legitimise one-man rule by linking up Confucius with Mao or drawing a line from the tsars to Stalinism and the neo-fascist creed of “Eurasianism” and the Russian Orthodox Church. But although the civilisation-state doctrine may seem like a unifying factor between dictators, it is more likely to be a recipe for conflict between them.

What, after all, does the stridently materialist, atheistic doctrine of Xi Thought really have in common with Putin’s notion of Russia as the “third Rome” of Christendom – except an expansionist idea of their own exceptionalism?

The democratic world cannot force these realisations upon Russia, China or anyone else. But we could do a much better job of talking about them, loudly and clearly, and highlighting events that support our view of the world. For now, Moscow has in record time forced itself to enter into vassalage to China, but there is no inherent reason why this position should last.

If, indeed, Ukraine can hold its own and win the war, there is every reason to think that we could eventually pull Russia into a position of neutrality in the broader rivalry between China and the democratic world. The best reason to think so is that this would overwhelmingly be in Russia’s interests, a fact that will become increasingly obvious – even to Moscow.

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