“A friendship without borders” – this is how Chinese President Xi Jinping (69) described his relationship with Russia and his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin (69) at the beginning of the year and promised the Kremlin boss his support.
Almost six months into the war in Ukraine, it looks increasingly like Russia will fall back on the Chinese offer. The economy is weakening and the defense industry is suffering so badly from the war that Russia is not even able to supply its ally Belarus with tanks. In addition to Syria, North Korea and Iran, Putin could also turn to China for help. So, will Putin soon enlist the help of his old friend Xi?
It’s not unlikely, says Brian Carlson (44), head of the think tank’s Global Security Team at the Center for Security Studies (CSS). “If the new Western weapon systems turn the tide in Ukraine, there will be Russian officials who will ask China for help.” A further rapprochement, a further dependence on China could end fatally for Russia.
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A weak Russia is a good Russia – for China
“The weakening of Russia could allow China to extend its influence into Eurasia. And Russia could become more dependent on China. All of this could offer opportunities for China,” explains Carlson. China is generally dependent on a certain strength of Russia, so that Russia remains a valuable partner. “But Russia’s relative weakening – as long as it doesn’t go too far – can also be beneficial for China.”
However, Russia is aware that further rapprochement with – or even dependence on – China can be problematic. “Russia has always feared that by rapprochement with China it could suddenly become China’s little brother, junior partner or even a vassal.”
Carlson said: “The more dependent Russia becomes on China, the greater the danger that China will eventually have enough influence to get Russia to support it in an armed conflict in Asia.” China could therefore force Russia to provide military support in armed conflicts – on the Korean peninsula, in Japan or Taiwan.
But if Russia were to suffer a defeat in Ukraine, the “friendship without borders” – which is more of a kind of marriage of convenience – would probably be over. “If Russia suffers a total defeat in Ukraine, it would diminish the value of Russia as a partner for China.”
No end to the toxic relationship in sight
But how could it come to the point that Russia is practically at the mercy of China in an emergency? Carlson is convinced that Putin alone is to blame. Over the years, the head of the Kremlin has increasingly turned to China and away from the West – and not out of interest in the Russian people, for whom he is responsible.
His policy of rapprochement with China is not in Russia’s long-term interests. “He is only interested in his personal success. He is almost 70 years old and does not appear to be in good health and is only interested in the rest of his life in power.”
The expert is certain: “The way he is doing now, Russia is getting so close to China that they are even helping China to become stronger.” However, according to Carlson, there is no end in sight to this toxic relationship. “It’s possible in the long term. But not as long as Putin is here.” There would have to be a major rethink in the Russian leadership.