The Platform

Photo illustration by John Lyman

For China, Russia is a useful idiot.

Russian President Vladimir Putin isn’t likely to face a coup any time soon. That, at least, is the argument put forth by Michael Kimmage and Maria Lipman in their article for Foreign Affairs. “The regime in the Kremlin is hardly on the verge of collapse. Putin has used the war to clamp down on Russian society, to pull elites even closer to him, and to shore up his domestic position…[Putin] has instead focused on militarizing the state and the public sphere, purging those who openly dissent from the government’s position on the war, and stoking militant anti-Westernism among the wide swaths of the public that are, if not pro-war, at least genuinely anti-antiwar.”

During his time as president, Putin has directed Russia’s foreign policy aggressively with military operations in Chechnya (1999), Georgia (2008), Crimea (2014), Syria (2015), and now Ukraine (2022).

However, during the invasion of Ukraine, Putin has used the narrative that Volodymyr Zelensky’s government is filled to the rafters with neo-Nazis, despite the fact that Zelensky is Jewish. This is the most ridiculous and baseless narrative; Putin looks desperate and seems rushed in making decisions. Some analysts see this war as a way for Putin to secure influence, not an attempt at de-Nazification.

While Ukraine has much of the world behind it, with the United States and Europe funneling billions in military aid to Ukraine, Russia seems to be fighting alone. China, Russia’s authoritarian ally, has so far avoided becoming entangled in Putin’s war of choice.

Mutual hatred for Western values

Relations between Russia and China are maintained on mutual distrust and hatred for Western values. If the West is for something, more than likely China and Russia will find a way to object.

Importantly, Russia and China give each other diplomatic cover. Russia supports or doesn’t raise any objections to China’s approach to Hong Kong, Tibet, Xinjiang, Senkaku/Diaoyu, the South China Sea, or Taiwan. China supports or doesn’t openly object to Russia’s annexation and military operations in Ukraine, Syria, Chechnya, Georgia, and the Kuril Islands. On the UN Security Council, the two will often veto resolutions that either side doesn’t like.

Russia also supports China’s efforts to increase economic cooperation and integration the through Belt and Road Initiative, the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, BRICS, and the Shanghai Cooperation Organization.

Power disparity

China, with its vision for the future, continues to increase its influence in various parts of the world. Russia on the one hand is facing a myriad of problems and seeing its influence on the wane. Its Wagner mercenaries, operating in several places around the globe, are probably overhyped. The arms trade, which is one of Russia’s strengths, has continued to decline. From 2016-2021, there was a 24% decline. The war in Ukraine isn’t helping Russia move tanks off the showroom floor.

On the economic side, trade between the two countries is very unequal. China is Russia’s main trading partner, meanwhile, Russia is China’s tenth trading partner. Specifically, Russia’s trade value to China is 18%, and China’s trade value to China only reached 2%.

The war in Ukraine illustrates that China is very pragmatic. China is aware that providing full support to Russia will only harm its interests. China wants to build a new system that emphasizes shared prosperity. Russia, on the other hand, is more like an arsonist wanting to burn the house down. If China supports Russia in Ukraine with arms and equipment, it will suffer severe reputational damage.

New world order?

This is the perfect moment for the United States. Reflecting on the Cold War when relations between China and the Soviet Union were at an impasse, the U.S. offered to engage in dialogue which led to the opening of diplomatic relations with China. However, at present, the two revisionist forces are unlikely to repeat the same mistake. They realize that the best way to deal with the West is through cooperation.

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has given Chinese President Xi Jinping the idea that China must be able to calculate perfectly if it wants to invade Taiwan. Russia is overly confident that Ukraine will surrender and capitulate, and the United States and Europe will begin to suffer donor fatigue.

The complex relationship between the three countries bears some resemblance to what happened during the Cold War. There is a buffer country or what is known as a “buffer zone.” During the Cold War, the U.S. and Russia tried their best to maintain their influence in countries such as West Germany, East Germany, Cuba, and Afghanistan. Currently, the same thing is happening in Ukraine, Taiwan, and on the Korean Peninsula.

Gufron Gozali is a junior research assistant from the Islamic University of Indonesia, whose research focuses on the United States and the Middle East.