Russia and China are moving closer together. Is this a new world order?
Now that Putin and his generals have threatened Russia’s economic power by invading Ukraine, they have one place left to turn: China
Two separate movements have taken place in the resurgent Russia since the early 2000s.
One is primarily economic.
Russia’s business elite has joined the ranks of the global rich, assuming the role of intermediary between the domestic resource sector and international financial markets. The number of Russian business people on the Forbes dollar billionaire list soared from just eight in 2001 to 87 in 2008, while real-estate markets in London and Dubai saw record purchases by the Russian nouveau riche with their bottomless pockets.
Importantly, Russia’s role in the global economy went beyond the resource periphery. Russian corporations assumed command and control functions in the post-Soviet space, expanding outward investment and capturing Soviet-era supply chains. Some went even further, buying steel mills in the US and cell phone operators in India.
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Russia’s new position was best described as sub-imperialist: a regional power that generally plays by the rules of Euro-Atlantic capitalism, yet is able to dictate its own terms of integration into the global economy. Another useful term for this strategy is “sovereign globalisation”.
The second movement was primarily political.
Speaking at the 2007 edition of the annual Munich Security Conference, Vladimir Putin for the first time presented a comprehensive list of grievances to the West, directly challenging the post-1989 world order. The Munich speech revealed Putin’s shallow, cynical vision of the world: a small number of ‘sovereign’ states carve out their ‘spheres of influence’, while others are relegated to the status of mere ‘territories’ subject to outside control.
The speech marked Putin’s characteristic style of foreign policy thinking. He has always been ready to expose ‘Western hypocrisy’ (indeed, not without reason), but he never offered any alternative foundation for the world order besides the principle of ‘might makes right’.
Talking to George W Bush, then US president, at the 2008 NATO summit, Putin apparently claimed that Ukraine was “not even a state”, and that Russia would dismantle it by annexing Crimea and the country’s eastern regions if Ukraine ever joined NATO. In the late 2000s, Russia launched a comprehensive modernisation of its army. The seeds of violence and chaos were planted.
From belligerent rhetoric to full-blown war
For a time, however, it seemed that there was a synergy between these economic and political movements in Russia. Belligerent rhetoric could be interpreted as a bargaining tactic, not a declaration of intent. Furthermore, Russia’s heavy-handed attempts at influencing politics in neighbouring states dovetailed with the external ambitions of its corporations. The Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU), Russia’s regional alliance with Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan, illustrates this ambivalence: it represents both geopolitical and economic goals, being something of a two-headed Janus.
However, this synergy turned out to be short-lived: the events of 2014 decisively shifted the balance in favour of the second movement, essentially reversing the first. Full-scale confrontation with the West seemed like the logical outcome of the worldview presented in Putin’s Munich speech – yet it was in direct contradiction with Russia’s previous mode of integration into global capitalism. No one expected Putin and the national security establishment to threaten the position of Russia’s ruling class to such an extent. How did this become possible? This question presents perhaps the biggest challenge for analysing Russia’s recent trajectory.
At the beginning of the Ukrainian crisis in 2013–14, the Kremlin was still driven by a combination of geopolitical and economic concerns that intersected in Ukraine’s unwillingness to join the Russian-led EAEU and its preference for European integration. However, at a later stage of the crisis, security issues overshadowed everything else for the Russian leadership.
The most likely reason for the Russian annexation of Crimea was the threat of losing its naval base in Sevastopol, after the February 2014 departure of pro-Russian Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych. And the annexation of Crimea started a chain of events that led to the unravelling of Russia’s previous economic strategy.
The formula – ‘if not by tanks, then by banks’ – no longer applies. Now, it is just tanks
Russian businesses suffered from sanctions after 2014, and the country’s economy was thrown into a deep recession, with outward investment falling to mid-2000s levels. In dealing with post-Soviet countries, Russia could no longer rely on economic leverage. It also lost the last shreds of ‘soft power’: the ‘Russian model’ became repulsive rather than attractive. What was left was violence and war. As I wrote last November: “The formula – ‘if not by tanks, then by banks’ – no longer applies. Now, it is just tanks.”
The 2022 invasion of Ukraine completed the arc that began in 2014. Russia’s murderous aggression has turned it into a pariah. Its position is no longer sub-imperialist in any meaningful sense. The question is: what is its future place in the world?
Russia’s relationship with China
In order to answer this question, we need to investigate a third movement, this time global in nature. The United States–China axis at the heart of the global economy has been fracturing for several years. Trade wars and the bipartisan anti-China consensus in the US indicate that the previous economic and political relationship between the two countries is over. Russia’s reckless assault on Ukraine is accelerating the global tectonic shift that this movement entails.
Rhetoric aside (as recently as 4 February, Russia and China declared that “friendship between the two states has no limits”), Russia’s actions almost mechanically propel it towards China. Under the current conditions of financial and logistical blockade, China becomes Russia’s economic lifeline, insufficient as it is. Putin clearly had extensive consultations with the Chinese leadership before launching the invasion of Ukraine. While being rather cautious in their foreign policy statements, Chinese officials apparently began an internal propaganda campaign at home, defending Russia.
What does China get from this relationship? Hu Xijin, a commentator for official Chinese media, states it rather succinctly. His article is worth a long quote:
With Russia as a partner, if the US carries out maximum strategic coercion against China, China won’t be afraid of the US energy blockade, and our food supply will be secure. So will other raw materials. It will be harder for the US to make up its mind in engaging in a strategic showdown with China.
If a war breaks out in the Taiwan Straits or in the South China Sea, the US will find it hard to impose nuclear blackmail toward China, as China’s conventional forces are getting increasingly stronger to overwhelm those of the US, and no matter [if] Russia supports China or remains neutral at that time, it will be a super nuclear force which is hostile toward the US. China itself is a nuclear power. And the US will have to be wary of Russia leaping from a position of nuclear parity with the US to a position with nuclear advantage.
In effect, the long-term deterioration of the US–China relationship, which is structural in nature, requires China to value its partnership with Russia. This will reduce the asymmetry in China–Russia relations somewhat, but not eliminate it completely. The Russian leadership will face tough bargaining with China in economic matters, with Chinese officials fully appreciating Russia’s catastrophic position. Nevertheless, the contours of a closer alliance – and a new world order – do seem to emerge.
Differences with the Cold War era abound. The China–Russia alliance is pragmatic and conjunctural, not ideological. Economically, this kind of alliance between state capitalisms is probably stronger and more flexible than the Eastern Bloc.
Perhaps the key difference with the Soviet Union is that neither China nor Russia truly offers an alternative to the Western capitalist system, even rhetorically
Still, perhaps the key difference with the Soviet Union is that neither China nor Russia truly offers an alternative to the Western capitalist system, even rhetorically. Both countries take particular pride in rejecting universal ideological claims, in effect resorting to pure economic and military domination with an ultimate goal of perpetuating the power of narrow oligarchic elites. It is the international Left’s task to fight for a utopian horizon in a world without hope.
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