MOSCOW – Chinese President Xi Jinping was the toast of Russia last week. He smiled at the Moscow Zoo as Russian President Vladimir Putin admired the pandas Xi had brought (a standard Chinese gift to countries it courts). In St. Petersburg, he toured the Aurora, the warship that fired the shot marking the start of the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917 and took an evening boat cruise with Putin. At the St. Petersburg Economic Forum, he quoted Fyodor Dostoevsky.
At a time when U.S. President Donald Trump — who once called his relationship with his Chinese counterpart “outstanding” — is waging a trade war against China, Xi needs a new “best friend.” In his own words, that is what he has found in Putin. But is all this mutual affection really in Russia’s best interest?
To be sure, this is not a new development. Over the last six years, Putin and Xi have met at least 30 times and annual trade between their countries amounts to more than $100 billion. But the bilateral relationship has deepened significantly lately, exemplified by last week’s forum, which resulted in more than 25 trade and other agreements covering areas ranging from agriculture to technology. Both leaders gush that their two countries are now on better terms than ever.
For Russia, closer ties with China are undoubtedly tempting. After five years of international sanctions, imposed on Russia after its annexation of Crimea, Xi’s overtures provide a seemingly welcome reprieve. But, before Putin places too much faith in Xi, he would do well to recall a 1960s Soviet dissident song, “People are brothers; I will hug the Chinese,” which mocked ill-fated early attempts at a Russo-Chinese union.
In the early 1950s, soon after the Communist Party took power in China, it formed an alliance with the Soviet Union. The relationship was always tense, however, because Joseph Stalin and Mao Zedong were both vying to lead the international communist movement. Although Stalin had the upper hand, Mao knew that the communist regimes needed to form a unified front against the capitalist West.
That is why Mao was so incensed in 1956, when Nikita Khrushchev, who had taken over after Stalin’s death three years earlier, denounced his predecessor. How could Khrushchev dare challenge Stalin’s exalted status (and, by extension, threaten Mao with a similar fate)? Though the Soviet Union accounted for 60 percent of China’s exports, the tensions led to a decade-long split.
Today, Putin and Xi are vying for global leadership in challenging the United States and the West, and both are channeling their ruthless predecessors in the process. The difference is that this time, with Russia’s economy hobbled by Western sanctions and Putin’s mismanagement, it is the Chinese leader who has the upper hand.
So far, this has not yet created any major problems for Russia. The deal between the Russian telecoms firm MTS and Huawei to develop next-generation 5G networks in Russia over the next year is certainly mutually beneficial. But that deal was driven by China’s need to offset pressure from the West, led by the U.S., which has blocked Huawei on the (dubious) grounds that it poses a national security risk.
There is a sense on both sides that the combination of Chinese economic power and Russian political audacity should help the two countries better withstand challenges from the U.S. Yet there is little evidence that Russians and Chinese have much fondness for each other at all. On the contrary, each seems to look down on the other, raising the specter of a competition that Russia is unlikely to win.
I noticed this dynamic firsthand a few years ago in Blagoveshchensk, on the Siberian border, just a half-mile from the Chinese town of Heihe. A century and a half ago, Blagoveshchensk was part of China. Then the Cossacks took control of it, along with many other territories in Chinese Outer Manchuria, on behalf of the Russian czar. Blagoveshchensk’s local history museum presents the development of the town after the Cossack takeover as a civilizing mission. The Russians, it seems, still view themselves as superior Westerners.
As for Heihe, it got rich a quarter-century ago, after capitalizing on Russia’s post-Soviet disarray to sell cheap goods to then-starving Russians. Its own history museum presents the Cossacks as “hairy barbarians” (Lao Maozi) and lists the towns of Russia’s Far East by their historical Chinese names: Blagoveshchensk is Hailanpao, Vladivostok is Haishenwai and Sakhalin is Kuye.
Local behavior reflects these perspectives. At the ferry port, the Russians sneer at the Chinese traders who bring Russian vodka and chocolate to Heihe, while the Chinese move past the Russians as if they do not exist.
From the Chinese side, a similar attitude can be seen in logging operations across eastern Russia. As Steven Lee Myers recently pointed out, China’s rapacious pursuit of primary resources, which utterly disregards environmental concerns, can strain not only a small African country, but even “one that regards itself as a superpower and a strategic partner” against American dominance.
Putin has, at times, been an impressive tactician, identifying and seizing opportunities to strengthen Russia’s position, even when holding weak cards. The annexation of Crimea, made possible by a distracted West, obstructed Ukraine’s peaceful integration into Western structures, though at the price of economic decline and international isolation.
Similarly, the Kremlin’s intervention in Syria, enabled by the absence of a coherent U.S. strategy, established Russia as a key player in the Middle East. And the interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential election, facilitated by America’s democratic deficit, helped to throw American politics into turmoil.
But, in the longer term, these grand feats have brought Putin more headaches than happiness. In fact, grand strategy has never been Putin’s forte. Chinese leaders, who usually have a very long-term perspective, have excelled at it. Xi may be no exception. Engaging a far superior strategist in his drive against the West may be a gamble that Putin — and Russia — soon regret.
Nina L. Khrushcheva is a professor of International Affairs at The New School. © Project Syndicate, 2019