Special Forum Issue

“Russian Thinking on Sino-Russian Relations and the Ukraine War”



Toward the end of 2022, as the Ukraine war was settling into an expected winter slowdown, the conundrum into which Russia had put itself had become shockingly obvious not only in its relations with the West, but also in its “Turn to the East.” The reorientation of Central Asia in the context of Sino-Russian relations was accelerating. India’s patience with Russia, despite resisting pressure from the US to join in economic sanctions, was waning even as its hopes to keep Russia from completely throwing in its lot with China survived. Above all, Moscow needed to take a deeper look into how relations with China were evolving. For our purposes, we look back to how Russian thinking about China had influenced the decision to go to war as well as how the Ukraine war to date has been impacting the overall state of Sino-Russian relations.

The realities of the war compounded the fact of going to war. Beijing did not register concern that Russia had invaded Ukraine, contradicting its professed commitment to the sanctity of all territorial integrity and sovereignty. It justified Russia’s reasons for taking this action, equating the expansion of NATO to expanding US security arrangements in Asia. If the “special military operation” had proceeded smoothly, it is apparent that Beijing would have lauded it for the blow it struck against the West. Yet, the war went poorly for Russia, unified the West and allies in Asia, and served as a basis for extrapolating economic sanctions to China. The impact on Sino-Russian relations increased Russian dependency, but at a cost to the desired world order.

Gilbert Rozman,The Ukraine War in the Context of Russian Thinking about China”

Russia’s siloviki have one overriding foreign objective rooted in three strands of legacy thinking. The primary goal is to secure a place in the big three, alongside the United States and China, in what is known as the grand strategic triangle. The legacies in question are superpower rivalry with the United States—the obsession of the Cold War and the communist belief in forging a new world order with Moscow at the center—contested with China in the Sino-Soviet split; and Russocentrism determining the fate of neighbor states, whether part of the Soviet Union or under its control. The “Turn to the East” since 2012 is guided by these objectives and legacies.

Awakening to defeat by the United States in the Cold War, to failure in the Sino-Soviet dispute as China rose rapidly in stature, and to loss of all that made Russocentrism viable, the siloviki in the 1990s grasped for what Boris Yeltsin called the “Russian Idea.” The muddled response left an opening for a more forceful leader to fill the vacuum by reviving legacies of the Soviet era. Putin’s “Turn to the East” should be understood in this context. It became a synthesis of ideas rooted in past consciousness. The Ukraine war cannot be divorced from this turn eastward.

Critical to fidelity to the legacies behind Russia’s “Turn to the East” was the argument that Russia is not becoming a junior partner to China. If it were, the identity claims advanced for the “Turn” would fall apart: Russia would lose its claim to drive the rivalry with the US; it would have to concede that Beijing had displaced Moscow as had been vehemently opposed through the Sino-Soviet split; and it would need to abandon Russocentrism, standing by as Sinocentrism took over Central Asia. Often reinterpreted, the narrative of the “Turn” vigorously countered such negative notions.

Russians made sure to highlight “multipolarity” and to insist that China was pursuing this as well. They emphasized that the two were co-leaders of the SCO, an umbrella grouping for the East and operated on the basis of Chinese deference to Russia in Central Asia. Moreover, it was not Russia alone reaching deals with China on big economic plans, but the EEU. Indeed, Russia was not entering a geographic area known by any other name than Eurasia or the “Greater Eurasian Partnership” (GEP). The GEP was, in turn, described as a broad association with the word Eurasia and with India and ASEAN included, eager for Russia’s balancing presence.

Further proof of Russia’s wariness of China came from the failure to agree on investments and infrastructure in Russia. Whether the openness of the border between the Russian Far East and Northeast China, the building of infrastructure linking Asia and Europe, the development and naming of the Arctic maritime route (called by China the Polar Silk Road and envisioned as part of BRI), or construction of Chinatowns in Russian cities, Moscow proved to be wary of Chinese designs. Distrust reflected both the legacy of the Sino-Soviet dispute and the fragility of claims about a close relationship or of confidence in China’s intentions. Moscow kept its distance, as befitted a global power determined to become an independent pole and a global civilization.

Desperately striving to be included in the conversations on the other two powers, Russia found itself marginalized. Doubts could not be suppressed about the prospects for the “Turn to the East.” A final gambit was possible: invade Ukraine, get China to support Russia in the context of the growing Sino-US clash over Taiwan, expand the EEU, make the military central to foreign relations, drive energy prices much higher, and rally states in the SCO to stand with Russia.

Putin’s “Turn to the East” has rested heavily on thinking about China and Sino-Russian relations. That thinking derives less from accurate recognition of what has been transpiring than from contrived imagery to bolster Putin’s narrative of what should be occurring. This is a narrative rooted in a deep-seated view of history, including of China’s place in the evolution of socialism, the grand strategic triangle of Russia-the US-China, and the role of national identity in Russia’s revival as a center of global civilization. The “Turn to the East” depends on reconstructing this narrative to better fit reality, whether of a highly asymmetrical bond to a Sinocentric power or of a much-chagrined Russia recommitting itself to multipolarity. The bond with China prevails.

Putin from 2000 decided to ride China’s coattails with three clear objectives: (1) to breathe new life into the Russia-US-China triangle; (2) to partake of the dynamism of East Asia; and (3) to construct a new identity of Eurasianism to replace past communism. In 2012 these goals coalesced in the “Turn.” Its triangular thrust claimed dynamic results and an identity focus.

The centerpiece for Moscow’s plans for turning to the East, both before the 2012 initiative and after, has been China. Given its size, its long border with Russia, its historic centrality in Russia’s march eastward, and its salience as the third party to the grand strategic triangle as understood since at least the 1970s, China far overshadows the other countries of possible interest in this turn. It captured Moscow’s attention as a revolutionary opportunity from the 1920s, preoccupied Moscow as a center of socialism from 1949, and kept the spotlight from the 1990s as the key to recovering status in the top ring of great powers. How Russian leaders thought about China during the late Cold War period and the first Cold War decades left a lasting legacy.

Vladimir Putin’s decision to invade Ukraine was both a sign of confidence in China’s support for Russia and a mark of desperation that Sino-Russian relations were becoming too unbalanced, requiring drastic action to put them on a new track. Of course, Putin was reacting to the United States and its European allies as well as to developments in Ukraine itself, but that is no reason to downplay his thinking on the “Turn to the East” as a driving force. Having failed at other approaches to limit China’s dominance over Russia, Putin shifted to the west to alter the balance in the east; the strategy backfired, and the asymmetry with China only intensified.

Moscow’s reasoning about China has repeatedly led it astray. In the 1950s its “big brother” mentality proved insensitive to Mao’s Sinocentric approach to an alliance. In the next quarter century, Moscow’s pique at having been jilted drove demonization that left scant room for flexible diplomacy. When Gorbachev turned to the West, he alienated China further, normalizing ties in a manner that left relations in purgatory. Yeltsin started by exacerbating the problem and then proceeded haphazardly. Putin swung policy sharply in China’s direction, but it kept misjudging the prospects for the relationship and the balance needed to act strategically.

The Ukraine war would have been inconceivable without confidence that it would capitalize on a strengthened Sino-Russian relationship and would be a stimulus to a stronger strategic partnership. Moscow and Beijing from the 1970s placed emphasis on the decade from 2012 to show the connections between the thinking about China and that which led to hostility to US alliances in Asia and to aggression in Europe. Advocates of the “Turn to the East” became firm supporters of the 2022 war. Parallels are found in 1980s Soviet rhetoric on the Asia-Pacific region and the 2012-22 Russian rhetoric on Greater Eurasia.

Going to war in Ukraine was a misjudgment comparable to the stagnation in thinking about the grand strategic triangle in the 1970s-80s. It too was rooted in erroneous assumptions about both China and the United States. In the late Cold War decades, Moscow was saddled with an out-of-touch national identity that could not comprehend the dynamism taking flight in Asia, the capacity of China to reform, or the nature of Sino-US relations. In the recent decade, it became obsessed with the “Turn to the East,” as if that gave it an alternative to reliance on the West and support from China to cushion the blowback from countries in the West over the war. Russian assumptions about the “Turn” fueled a serious miscalculation in the West.

Xi Jinping and previous Chinese leaders had steered Moscow toward the outcome in 2022. They had urged it to demonize the US, to overestimate itself as one of three centers of power, to expect that China would act aggressively against the existing world order, and to count on a united front in pushing back against US-led alliances. If Putin for a time found himself getting ahead of Xi Jinping in his urgency to take action, he was heartened in 2018-21 by Xi’s anger toward Trump’s trade war, Biden’s human rights rhetoric and economic security agenda, and the hardening of policy in the US toward China’s pressure on Taiwan. One could discern newfound confidence that China was preparing to recognize a new cold war, as Putin had done. Russians exaggerated the extent China was gearing for action and they could count on it.

The “Turn to the East” is an evolving Russian narrative on how to capitalize on East and South Asia for Russia’s benefit. It rests overwhelmingly on the relationship with China. Assumptions treat Russia as vital to China, having assets that require China to take its interests seriously, and China as intent on pursuing interests consistent with Russia’s needs. Fundamental to all that follows is that both have irreconcilable differences with the US and its allies and must prepare for war over territory, making the other a partner. Ironically, the communist ideology that drove Beijing and Moscow apart is the very foundation of what has been drawing them closer. Yet, Putin seeks a pathway to closeness beyond Russia’s means, fearing asymmetry as he desperately gambles on gaining ground in the West for strength in the East.

Gaye Christofferson, “Central Asia over a Decade: The Shifting Balance in Central Asia between Russia and China”

The balance between Russian and Chinese influence in Central Asia has shifted rapidly from the 1990s, accelerating in the 2010s and vividly brought to life by Russian failures in 2022. In the decade of Putin’s “Turn to the East” from 2012, Russia struggled to manage this transition and limit China’s gains, especially in security and energy influence, but under the shadow of the war in Ukraine, Russia has suffered much more serious setbacks to its plans and aspirations.

Over a decade, Central Asia has tested whether Sinocentrism pressed by Xi Jinping can coexist with Russocentrism espoused by Vladimir Putin. Each side has launched initiatives to forge a region to its advantage. Despite claims to be working harmoniously together, each repeatedly sought an advantage over the other. Meanwhile, Central Asian states maneuvered between the two for their own advantage. Kazakhstan, by virtue of size, location, resources, and population, is the key state in the maneuvering under way. Xi Jinping introduced the BRI in Kazakhstan in 2013. Putin in 2014 announced the EEU as a means to prevent Central Asia being absorbed into a Chinese sphere. That the EEU has not been as dynamic as the BRI in the region has shifted the balance of power due to extensive investment in hydrocarbons and infrastructure by China. In response, Russia created the GEP to hedge Chinese influence, although both powers accept a process of adaptation; competing while aiming to create a stable Eurasian regional order.  

Putin could not block Chinese economic penetration of Central Asia, the original purpose of the EEU, as Beijing had treated the EEU as a corridor for the BRI. The GEP was meant to show Russia as taking the initiative in the Eurasian region, an effort to conceal the increasing asymmetry in Sino-Russian economic capacity. The GEP would help Putin reestablish Russian spheres of influence in the post-Soviet states and reconstruct the Soviet Union.

Russia’s “Turn to the East” rests on Central Asia as its base and the GEP as its framework with Moscow as the leader. Russian analysts claim that China and Russia are leaders in the project to integrate Europe and Asia into one large Greater Eurasian region. Putin’s Greater Eurasia vision assumes little agency for Central Asian countries even though they have pursued multi-vector diplomacy since the collapse of the Soviet Union. Kazakhstan has shown the greatest agency.

Sino-Russian great power rivalry is managed by a concept China constructed, the Central Asian division of labor. The formula was that Russia assumed leadership in the region in security matters while China led in economic relations. averting competition through this division of labor. This was constructed to placate Moscow’s concerns that Beijing was encroaching on Russia’s sphere of influence. Central Asian states were expected to compliantly adapt to it, not expected to have any meaningful agency. Beijing was confident relying on BRI would further its influence because Chinese ideas of power rely on the concept of “comprehensive power” which combines military, diplomatic, discourse and economic power. Russia’s lack of emphasis on economic power, and narrow focus on military power, made it a weak competitor.

Kazakhstan’s foreign policy is said to be in constant rebalancing between traditional ties to Russia and economic opportunities of China, but some analysts argue its multi-vector strategy will eventually have diminishing returns because there are only two realistic vectors—either alignment with Moscow or Beijing. It must manage two larger countries, each attempting to establish a sphere of influence in Central Asia, trying to incorporate Kazakhstan into regional integration projects it controls, and has questioned Kazakhstan sovereignty and statehood.

Russian analysis has worried that the “near abroad” would forget the Russian language and forget that it was ever a part of the Soviet Union and Russkiy Mir. In 2021, the Kazakh government stated it would shift away from the Russian Cyrillic alphabet and would use a Latin-based alphabet for the written Kazakh language, confirming these fears.

In August 2021, Russian media even carried out intensive informational attacks on Kazakhstan’s nation-building policies on language, using Kazakh instead of Russian, as incidents of Russophobia. Cultural soft power in Central Asia contributes to maintaining a sphere of influence, which, media argued, is being undermined by Russophobia—discrimination against ethnic Russians residing in Kazakhstan. Kazakhs were stunned since Moscow had not criticized Kazakhstan so intensely in 30 years, worrying that, under the guise of protecting ethnic Russians, it could expand territorially into Northern Kazakhstan where ethnic Russians are concentrated, employing the concept of “Russian World” to justify the expansion.

Russia intended to keep post-Soviet states within a Russian sphere of influence, emphasizing Russia’s influence in security and culture. China had expected Central Asia to go through a process of de-Russification that would reduce Russian cultural influence and allow for a larger Chinese economic influence in the country. Putin’s promotion of Russkiy Mir has led to denial of Kazakhstan statehood, given the Russian belief that Kazakhstan did not exist as a country in the past until the Soviet Union created it, and Kazakhstan did not form a coherent nation but rather was composed of separate territories and clans. Russian statements that northern Kazakhstan is really part of Russia are generating concern that Russia will seize it.

The prevailing view in Russia and China was that the two were adapting to each other in Central Asia, accommodating and coexisting with the other’s project. China does not criticize Russian military interventions in the post-Soviet space, and Russia appeared to accept China’s growing economic dominance in Central Asia. Yet there is a lack of concrete Sino-Russian cooperation projects in Kazakhstan, demonstrating that Russia and China pursue hedging strategies against one another, even if Central Asian perceptions of Moscow as the guarantor of regional security still serve to buttress the image of a lingering Russian sphere of influence across the region.

Kazakhstan was always the center of Chinese interest in Central Asia due to its oil resources and its location as a transportation hub linking China to Europe. The trend of increasing Sino-Kazakh economic integration was accompanied by increasing Chinese assertiveness. Tensions recently have become more pronounced. The Kazakh government gives refugee status to ethnic Kazakhs who flee China, crossing the border from Xinjiang. China has retaliated by blocking exports from Kazakh entrepreneurs. In March 2021, thousands of Kazakh railcars sat idle and trucks lined up at the border. From January to September, Kazakh food exports to China dropped 78%. Freight cars loaded with grain, non-ferrous metals, fertilizers, and construction materials sat idle. The Chinese did not explicitly link the issues of refugees and exports, but the timing was clear.

A Chinese website, sohu.com, published an article “Why Kazakhstan is eager to return to China,” which claimed Kazakhstan had not minded being invaded by Chinese and had historically been part of China’s territory. It claimed the majority of Kazakhs wanted to rejoin China. Although the Chinese government tries to distance itself from these claims, Kazakhstan’s foreign ministry felt compelled to summon the Chinese ambassador.

Despite outbursts of Sinophobia, Beijing has a campaign to increase Chinese soft power in Kazakhstan. Some analysts view China’s campaign as an effort at Sinification, to “socialize” Central Asia into gradually accepting Chinese practices as normal and China as benevolent, increasing Chinese influence. Analysts accused the Kazakh government of forming an alliance with the Chinese Embassy and the Kazakh media in order to shape public opinion in a more positive direction, encouraging a more accommodating view of the Chinese presence in the country. It is claimed that this alliance was highly successful in socializing Kazakh elites to acceptance of BRI. China has invested over $22 billion in Kazakhstan in the past 15 years.

Critics of Beijing’s approach to the Central Asian region argue it is becoming increasingly geopolitical, encroaching on Russia’s sphere, and had become less concerned with Russian sensitivity regarding its sphere of influence being displaced in Central Asia. If both countries could agree they should build a Central Asian exclusion zone that blocks the West from the region, the problem remains of managing rising tides of Russocentrism and Sinocentrism.   

At the June 2022 St. Petersburg International Economic Forum, Putin publicly pressed Tokayev to show support for the Russian invasion of Ukraine, declaring that the entire former Soviet Union was part of “historical Russia,” his effort at legitimizing the invasion of Ukraine. However, Tokayev, one of the few leaders who attended the event, stated unequivocally that Kazakhstan does not recognize the Russian annexation of Luhansk and Donetsk. It was an unexpected pushback for Putin. In August 2022, Kazakh oil exports through Novorossiysk were again halted, the fourth time in 2022. Oil revenues accounted for approximately 44 percent of Kazakhstan’s budget in 2021, leaving the country vulnerable to Moscow’s manipulations.

By the end of 2022, Russia had less control over Kazakhstan’s multi-vector oil exports than before and was more dependent on the Chinese market to buy its oil exports than it had planned to be. Russia’s grip over Central Asia, notably Kazakhstan, was also slipping faster than most had expected, as control over energy exports was diminishing in response to the new war.

Central Asian regional organizations provide an arena for Moscow and Beijing to assert their leadership of the region as they pursue their spheres of influence. These multilateral organizations also provide space for Central Asian states to engage in their repertoire of multi-vector diplomacy using various strategies of balancing, blackmail, neutrality, binding, and bandwagoning, some of which were demonstrated in the 2022 meetings of the SCO and CICA. For Putin, the SCO is the core of his GEP, and offers an alternative model of world order and regional governance, anti-Western in its outlook. However, the Central Asian states are not as anti-Western, and they seek greater foreign policy independence from Putin’s directives. These smaller states have supported widening the geographic scope of SCO since this would increase opportunities for them to balance Russian and Chinese influence.

In 2022, the SCO was divided over the Ukraine war. Central Asian leaders refused to support Putin’s invasion, and worried about whether their country would be next in Putin’s effort to create a Russian sphere of influence. China’s position was carefully balanced. Zhao Huasheng explained that China’s position was not neutrality, which would support neither side, but rather one of “constructive involvement,” which meant China supports both Ukraine’s struggle to protect its territorial integrity and Russia’s struggle against NATO eastward expansion. Visiting Kazakhstan, the key state in China’s BRI in Central Asia and a transit corridor for BRI to Europe, prior to attending the SCO meeting. Xi issued a statement supporting Kazakhstan’s independence, sovereignty, and territorial integrity, and opposed interference by any forces in the internal affairs of the country. The statement was a warning to Putin not to intervene in Central Asian countries. It also presented China as a protector of Central Asian sovereignty.

The 2022 SCO meeting revealed growing friction between Moscow and Central Asian elites, a loss of Russian influence in the region, and a reduced role in maintaining security. Central Asian leaders were left uneasy by Xi’s failure to criticize Putin for the Ukraine invasion. Central Asia left the SCO with the sense that China and Russia as leaders in the organization had failed.

In 2014 when Xi Jinping hosted CICA in Shanghai, he placed it as an equal to APEC, a more established and respected multilateral organization. Xi called for a “new regional security cooperation architecture” for Asian countries that would replace US-led military alliances. Xi planned defense consultations with member states, capacity building, and institutionalizing a security regime. Xi’s theme was “Asia for Asians” which would have Asian problems “solved by Asians themselves.” This would distinguish CICA from APEC. It appeared that Xi had taken an organization that originated with Kazakhstan and tried to turn it into a China-led organization.

Putin’s address to the CICA tried to hijack the summit in several ways. Putin claimed that CICA was part of integration processes that would join CICA with the SCO, EEU, and ASEAN, implying it was a part of the GEP. He promoted formation of a regional security system, implying Russian leadership. Putin was attempting to establish a Russian leadership position in CICA and discourage Central Asian countries from their multi-vector foreign policies, but this effort seemed irrelevant to the summit. The 2022 SCO and CICA meetings revealed that most Central Asian states sought greater agency over Central Asia’s relations with the world and rejected the Sino-Russian joint hegemony over the region.

In the past decade, China’s economic presence in Central Asia expanded under BRI. Russia responded defensively, organizing the former Soviet Union Central Asian states into the EEU and the GEP to hedge Chinese influence and establish Russia’s identity as a great power with geopolitical influence. Beijing and Moscow have held a continuous dialogue since 2015 on how to connect these different projects, but that has proven difficult because the essence of each is single-country centrality, either Sinocentrism or Russocentrism. At every stage through the ten years of Russia’s “Turn to the East,” the effort to find common ground has barely obscured the fundamental divide over spheres of influence and national identity and the irreconcilable gap with the states of Central Asia, most poignantly with Kazakhstan, over regional architecture.  

Sino-Russian competition in Central Asia is managed through an agreed upon division of labor as they aim to create a stable Eurasian regional order, but in 2022 this arrangement became more at risk. In January 2022, Moscow assumed that its security role was expanding due to the Russian-led CSTO intervention in Kazakhstan, which it expected would reduce Beijing’s influence in the country and quash Kazakhstan’s multi-vector diplomacy. However, Putin was surprised by the Central Asian states’ assertion of their autonomy in February 2022 when all Central Asian states practiced leash slipping as they rejected his efforts to pull them into the Ukraine war.  The Sino-Russian division of labor was further changed in 2022 by Beijing expanding its security role in the Central Asian region while Moscow was distracted with the Ukraine invasion. Beijing offered security capacity building to the region and encouraged the formation of a security community using Xi Jinping’s GSI.

Yet, Russia’s loss of influence in the region does not simply equate to Beijing’s progress towards a Chinese sphere of influence there. The year 2022 proved most interesting for exposing Russian hubris in failed efforts to rally support, but it also demonstrated deepening challenges for Moscow and Beijing to find common ground. If Beijing still anticipates that its position in the region should strengthen, Moscow must acknowledge that its failed plans in Central Asia, particularly in the shadow of the Ukraine war, are seriously jeopardizing its agenda for the “Turn to the East.”

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