To avoid marginalization and over-reliance on China, Russia should repair ties with the West.
By Thomas Graham*
Two years ago, shortly after the West had levied sanctions against Russia, shunning it diplomatically for the illegal annexation of Crimea, Russian President Putin traveled to Shanghai to extol a burgeoning strategic partnership with China. Together, he and Chinese President Xi issued a statement promising joint action against America’s hegemonic designs and committing their two countries to deepening political and economic ties. The showpiece was a $400 billion deal that would eventually bring Russian natural gas to China. Sino-Russian relations had never been better, Putin boasted. He would not cave to Western pressure. He had options. Two years later, Russia finds itself reduced to having one option – China.
Commentators talked of a Russian pivot to Asia paralleling America’s. But the effort to build up relations with China – to create strategic options – had in fact begun much earlier, in the waning days of the Soviet Union. Then, Soviet leader Gorbachev had reached out, as Sino-American relations teetered with the 1989 rise of the democracy movement on Tiananmen Square, to restore balance to the triangular relations of those three great powers. The rapprochement deepened in the first post-Soviet decade, culminating in the Treaty of Good-Neighborliness and Friendly Cooperation of 2001. Commercial ties blossomed in its wake: Bilateral trade volume soared from $16 billion in 2003 to $95 billion in 2014, as China became Russia’s leading trading partner. The Ukraine crisis only reinforced Russia’s embrace of China.
Closer relations always made good strategic sense. In addition to eroding American diplomatic leverage over Russia, they quieted, and thereby eased the burden of defending, the long Sino-Russian border after decades of tension, including a brief armed conflict in 1969. Increased arms sales to China provided a lifeline to Russia’s defense-industrial sector, especially in the 1990s, when Russia could not afford large purchases for its military. In Central Asia, in the framework of the jointly-led Shanghai Cooperation Organization, Russia and China countered US influence as it built up its presence to sustain military operations in Afghanistan.
Today, closer relations also help anchor Russia in the world’s most dynamic economic theater, East Asia. The benefits are spread across Russia’s economy, but robust commercial ties hold out great potential in particular for developing the depressed economies of Russia’s Far East. Moreover, markets in East Asia, and especially China, can help diversify Russian trade away from an excessive reliance on Europe, which in recent years has accounted for half of Russia’s foreign trade and the lion’s share of foreign direct investment in Russia.
The great benefits do not come, however, without equally great risks, geopolitical, economic and psychological. China may be helping Russia contain the United States in Central Asia, for example, but it is also slowly eroding Russia’s own position there. In the past decade, China has overtaken Russia as the leading commercial partner of each of the five Central Asian states. Similarly, China may offer hope for the development of Russia’s Far East, but the region risks becoming captive to Chinese markets, and its integration into a Northeast Asian economic zone could attenuate already fragile ties to the distant European part of Russia.
But the biggest challenge is perhaps psychological, resulting from a sharp reversal of fortune. For most of the past 300 years, Russia has been the superior power, if not in economic output and population, then without doubt in energy and ambition. In the 18th and 19th centuries, Russia fortified its position in East Asia at the expense of a decaying Imperial China, seizing the territory of northern Manchuria, including what is now the port of Vladivostok, in one of the “unequal treaties” of the mid-19th century. It arrogantly mentored China after the communist takeover in 1949, leading to a schism in the international communist movement in the 1960s and eventually to China’s allying with the United States in the 1970s. Then the equation changed. At the breakup of the Soviet Union, Russia’s and China’s economies were roughly the same size. Today, China’s is more than five times as large, and the gap only promises to grow for years to come.
Behind the economic disparity lies an even bigger gap in ambition and strategic vision. China is a rising power that looks forward with optimism; it is building the future. Russia is a declining power worried that it will never recover its lost greatness; it wants to recreate the past.
The gap is on vivid display in the centerpieces of the two countries’ grand strategies, China’s new Silk Road, the One Belt, One Road project, and Russia’s Eurasian Economic Union. China’s is a grand Eurasian infrastructure plan to transform the landscape with land and maritime corridors linking two of the world’s great strategic-economic zones, East Asia and Europe. China has created the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank and persuaded most of the world’s leading economic powers to join, to help finance its vision. Russia’s project by contrast is an effort to reintegrate the depressed economies and fragile states of the former Soviet Union under Moscow. So far, it has managed to coax only four of the other 14 former Soviet republics to join, while its actions in Ukraine have probably driven that former Soviet republic away from Moscow for at least a generation. How these two strategically incompatible projects can be harmonized, as Putin and Xi have promised, remains a mystery.
The consequences of China’s superiority manifest themselves routinely on issues big and small. For all the talk of strategic partnership, China is not going to ruin its relations with the United States or Europe for Russia’s sake. It has, for example, refused to condone Russia’s annexation of Crimea, just as it refused to sanction Russia’s stripping of Abkhazia and South Ossetia out of Georgia in 2008. China continues to drive hard commercial deals with Russia, taking advantage of the latter’s weakness and isolation from Europe. Russia reportedly made a steep concession on price to close the $400 billion gas deal Putin touted in Shanghai two years ago.
How then can Russia hope to manage to its benefit relations with the dynamic colossus on its Asian border? It cannot do it alone; it needs partners, or strategic options. And the hard truth for Russia is that those partners can only be found in the West. India, Brazil or their like, as much as Moscow might hope otherwise, will not do. To be sure, no Western country is about to ally with Russia against China. What Russia needs instead is another pole or poles to create room for maneuver with China so that it can maintain good relations without falling captive to China strategically or economically.
The task should be evident: Moscow urgently needs to repair relations with the West. It should be seeking friends, not multiplying enemies. But the country, under Putin, appears intent on exploiting the fissures and fears in the West – over migrants, terrorism, economic inequality, and national identity – in the hope of compelling it to concede positions on Syria, Ukraine and European security in general. Such meddling has only reinforced opposition to Russia among Europe’s big powers, as President Obama’s April trip to Europe has shown. It is a losing strategy for Russia, a path not to restored greatness but to marginalization, both in the West and the East. Only China can be happy.
*Thomas Graham, a senior fellow at the Jackson Institute for Global Affairs, was the senior director for Russia on the US National Security Council staff 2004-2007.