The Illusion that Realism Is Driving Sino-Russian Relations


Accurately assessing the prospects of relations between Moscow and Beijing has been of great importance for seven decades and a persistent test for officials making policy, especially in Washington, and for analysts seeking to clarify the driving forces in international relations. As Sino-Russian relations draw closer once again and also face new strains, it is essential to understand the complex factors underpinning this relationship and their implications for its future trajectory and western policy options.

From the 1960s to the 1990s, observers were preoccupied with a set of forces supposedly driving Sino-Soviet relations that proved misleading in predicting the future of the relationship. Thus, their rapid rapprochement came as a shock, as the territorial dispute and other “hot-button” issues of mutual accusations were sidelined. Then, in the 2000s many commentators were enamored of the idea that tightening Sino-Russian relations were a mere “axis of convenience,” overlooking the importance of historical memory and other national identity issues in the relationship and assessing that it therefore rested on shallow and brittle foundations. Accompanying President Biden’s June summit with President Putin in Geneva, there has been an upsurge in assertions of Russian receptivity to US overtures aimed at splitting this “axis of convenience” and persuading Moscow to tilt back towards the West. But such arguments misjudge the nature of contemporary relations between Moscow and Beijing and fail to learn the lessons of the past. In fact, such an approach may only serve to reinforce Sino-Russian ties and weaken the resolve of allies versus Russia.

Below, we begin with the case for Russian receptivity to a US initiative to “split” it from China, then we consider the factors such arguments overlook, both analyzing historical memories in Russia and China for both overlap and divergence and comparing the impact of national identity on Russia’s relations with China and the United States, and finally this article draws conclusions about what policy options are advisable in such conditions.

The Case for Russian Receptivity

In Foreign Affairs on August 4 Charles Kupchan authored “The Right Way to Split China and Russia: Washington Should Help Moscow Leave a Bad Marriage.”1 Arguing that while “Beijing and Moscow have forged a relationship that is ‘alliance-like,’” the relationship only appears to be strong, he finds that there are cracks beneath the surface mainly because it is asymmetrical, leaving Russia with misgivings as a junior partner. Since the relationship is held to be grounded in a realist view of the world, Russia is likely to be amenable to arguments that “it would be better off geopolitically and economically if it hedged against China and tilted toward the West.” Kupchan insists that the relationship “rests on a fragile base and lacks a foundation of mutual trust—as did the Chinese-Soviet partnership of the early Cold War,” and the US has an opening by helping “reduce Russia’s growing economic dependence on China” and working to strengthen Russia’s strategic autonomy, e.g., by waiving sanctions on India for purchasing the S-400 air defense system. Citing some evidence of investment and infrastructure ties that failed to meet expectations and of strains in Central Asia, Kupchan concludes that ties are now fragile and underlying tensions between the two could soon resurface. As he writes, “nationalism and ethnocentrism run deep in both political cultures and could reignite long-standing territorial disputes.” The US should therefore drop its “democracy versus autocracy” framing in order to avoid pushing Russia and China closer together and initiate a “candid” conversation with Moscow as to the areas where their long-term national interests overlap, especially regarding China, with a view to encouraging a Russian exit from this unhappy union.  

But this argument largely overlooks how Russian leaders see China and says little about their perceptions of the US and the history of this triangle. Dropping the democracy/autocracy framing will not alter Russian and Chinese assessments of US intentions. Moreover, this logic suggests that the US can vigorously pursue its values agenda while Russia would abandon its own. As Kupchan writes, “Splitting Russia from China would check both countries’ ambitions, making it easier for the United States and its democratic partners to defend their liberal values and institutions and to shape a peaceful international system in an increasingly multipolar and ideologically diverse world.” In fact, their opposition to those values and the liberal international order is one of the crucial areas in which Moscow and Beijing see their interests as being aligned. And besides the inherent contradiction in the argument that nationalism and ethnocentralism will on the one hand rupture Sino-Russian ties, while on the other, a pragmatic realist assessment of Russian interests will see Moscow shift back towards the West, such an assertion belies the historical record since 1992.


Both Putin and Xi came to power confronting perceived political crises. For Putin it was the chaos, economic turmoil, and violence of the post-Soviet transition with a second war underway in Chechnya, salaries and pensions going unpaid, and life-savings wiped out after Russia devalued its currency and defaulted on its debt. Xi, meanwhile, assumed the leadership of a party that was riven with corruption, failing discipline, and ideological malaise, with the country’s previously dizzying annual GDP growth rates starting to slow. “Winning or losing public support is an issue that concerns the Communist Party’s survival or extinction,” Xi warned in his first months in office, while an internal party document warned of a “complicated, intense struggle” in the ideological sphere.2 For his part, Putin told frontline troops in Chechnya shortly after becoming president that their mission was not only about “restoring the honor and dignity of the country,” but “putting an end to the disintegration of Russia.”3 From the outset, both men portrayed themselves as leaders on an historic mission to restore national greatness and reclaim their nations’ rightful place in the world, which they claimed rested on restoring strong central leadership and rebuilding their military strength. They both wielded formidable security forces and displayed no qualms about crushing opposition to their rule and dismantling civil society, but they also made a concerted effort to rally public support behind these narratives by stoking historical grievances and appealing to a sense of national identity rooted in a distorted rendering of the past.

According to the version of history that Putin and Xi advance and enforce, they are the leaders of great nations and unique civilizations that have always been destined to be great powers. Each has suffered at the hands of foreign aggressors—Russia was invaded by Napoleon and Hitler (although the contemporary focus is on Hitler) and China was subjected to a “century of humiliation,” starting with the Opium Wars of the nineteenth century and culminating in the Japanese invasion at the start of World War II, or as it is officially known, the Chinese People’s War of Resistance Against Japanese Aggression and World Anti-Fascist War. They repelled those attacks and reclaimed their dignity and security by uniting behind necessarily strong rulers and putting national interests above personal preferences.

Past conflicts play a crucial role in these narratives, especially the Second World War or Great Patriotic War as it is called in Russia, and increasingly including the Korean War as well as World War II in China. And both leaders have built on foundations previous generations laid. Putin built on the Brezhnev architecture of the cult of the Great Patriotic War; Xi reinvigorated the post-Tiananmen Patriotic Education Campaign as he put a final stop to Hu Jintao’s ”New Thinking” toward Japan and built on achievements Mao had claimed, including in his 70th anniversary speech on the “War to Resist US Aggression an Aid Korea,” which Xi presented as a victory against US aggression that “smashed the myth that the American military was invincible” and a warning against contemporary US attempts to bully or intimidate China.4 While commemoration of the conflict has ebbed and flowed over the decades, it has returned to prominence in recent years as tensions with Washington have increased,5 with China’s state broadcaster interrupting its scheduled programming to screen black and white Korean War movies in 2019 as the trade war between the two countries escalated.6

The prior 70th anniversary commemorations of the end of WWII in 2015 transformed what had been separate if potentially largely overlapping narratives of history into joint recognition of victory for Russia and China over not just the enemies of the day, but an unjust world order. While western leaders largely stayed away from these Victory Day celebrations and bombastic military parades, Putin and Xi attended each other’s events as guests of honor, reinforcing both their status as respected global leaders for their domestic audiences and their shared acknowledgement of the other’s version of history.7 While both depict victories over Nazi Germany and Japan in their respective theaters, the greater lesson they draw from the conflict is their resistance to foreign aggression and imperialist ambitions more broadly, with the clear contemporary parallels against US hegemony, and the moral authority these wars confer on them as joint founders of the modern international order. Accordingly, WWII is presented as the “first complete victory” in China’s century of humiliation, with the country coming together under the leadership of the Communist Party and embarking on the road to national rejuvenation and the China Dream that is at the heart of Xi’s public messaging, and the event that “reestablished China as a major country and won the Chinese people the respect of all peace-loving people around the world.”8 Putin insists the conflict should be remembered as an “epic, crushing victory over Nazism” when the Soviet Union “saved the entire world.”9

There are elements of truth in these narratives and legitimate complaints about the degree to which Russian and Chinese suffering and sacrifice during the conflict has been forgotten in the West, but they are also highly selective and deeply distorted, intended to serve the political needs of those currently in power rather than to preserve the historical record. And while the temptation to rewrite the past to suit the present is not unique to Putin and Xi, or indeed to autocrats, they have each moved to seal off their version of history from scrutiny, ensuring that theirs is increasingly the only acceptable rendering, with those who disagree cast as “falsifiers of history” and “historical nihilists.” Crucially, the two countries’ present narratives are not in opposition. The Chinese leadership can get behind the idea that Russia fought all but alone against Hitler in Europe and has been unfairly deprived of its share of the credit, and the Kremlin can certainly support the idea that it was China’s long struggle with Japan that laid the groundwork for their eventual joint victory in the Pacific War, rather than US actions. In 2020, the Russian parliament approved a bill to move the official end date of the war from September 2 to September 3, bringing it in line with the initial Soviet holiday and the Chinese chronology.10

But while these complementary narratives are paramount in current Sino-Russian relations, historical memory is also one dimension that could derail the amity both sides advertise. They are careful to put the vitriol of the Sino-Soviet split history wars aside because they know that they have not really put it behind them. This silence obscures lingering Sino-Russian differences in historical thinking, as on what Chinese continue to call “tsarist imperialism” and Russians fear is “Chinese revanchism.”11 Behind the floodgates of censorship lies, at least on the Chinese side, waves of Chinese accusations of historical humiliations. Yet as long as the focus of both is kept on the shared image of historical injustices by the West and Japan, the floodgates are likely to hold. As a group of four Chinese marshals reported to premier Zhou Enlai in 1969 ahead of the rapprochement with the United States, it was sometimes necessary to ally “with the less dangerous enemy in order to confront the more dangerous enemy.”12 Thus, while this episode has not been forgotten on either side, for the time being it has been sublimated to more pressing concerns and a shared assessment of the current most dangerous enemy.

The historical narratives espoused today are not limited to Putin and Xi. Whoever comes next in Russia and China is likely to depend on them even more as they face the same search for unifying ideas, useful history, and credible enemies as the current leaders. Putin and Xi guard these narratives closely because they understand their potency and thus perceive external attempts to challenge them and to promote alternative views of history as an attempt to undercut their claims to rule. At risk is not only a story about the past but the essence of national pride, the key to national development, the foundation of moral values, and therefore national security.


The same realpolitik argument has been dangled before Putin for fully two decades without acknowledging what is driving Moscow’s political elite to Beijing. Close examination of Russian narratives about international relations indicates consistent elements of national identity, which can be encapsulated in five clear symbols. First, lingering superpower identity focused on equality with the United States is indelibly entrenched in the Russian political establishment. Rather than thinking of balancing China in Asia as just a regional power, this outlook harks back to the strategic triangle of balancing the superpower of the United States, leading Russia to China as the only available partner. Second, the pull of glorification of achievements long celebrated in the Soviet Union puts Russia on a collision course with the United States rather than China, which despite the invectives of the Sino-Soviet split, is largely laudatory toward Stalin and has no wish to excavate the Soviet Union’s record on human rights. Third, Putin’s authoritarianism and rejection of the US political model is incompatible with US democracy promotion but welcomed in China, a reality which is unlikely to be tempered by simply dropping the “democracy versus autocracy” framing. Fourth, opting for a restricted society antagonistic to independent media, civil society, and foreign NGOS puts Moscow at odds with the US, but in agreement with China. Finally, insisting on a sphere of influence coterminous with the former Soviet Union and beyond may have raised long-term challenges with China, but provokes more immediate frictions with the West and concerns about US and European interference on Russia’s borders and in its internal affairs.

If communism is no longer associated with Moscow’s agenda, that is not reason enough to deny ideology a place in its foreign policy. After all, class struggle faded as a theme in favor of a troika of ideological mainstays long before the collapse of the Soviet Union. As ugly as the invectives against China were for a quarter century, they remined rooted in an anachronistic reading of communist tropes much more than in the revitalized troika: socialism stripped to its essence; Russocentric thought versus Western civilization; and anti-imperialism obsessed with the US.13 Communist heresy could no longer be leveled against China once Gorbachev had introduced “new thinking,” and Putin in defending socialism at its core opened the door wide to accepting China as a fellow socialist state. If Russocentrism still left room to arouse anti-Chinese demagoguery in the 1990s, this proved to primarily have appeal in the Russian Far East—a pale echo of Soviet hysteria in comparison to intensifying anti-US and anti-Western ideology.  Little-challenged assumptions drove a revival of ideology rooted in Soviet times.

Soviet and Chinese narratives had battled over the history of the communist movement, of building socialism, and of tsarist imperialism. Yet Russians quickly lost interest in the details of internecine communist struggle, aided by the Chinese strategy to end polemics over the history of communism and to put emotions about the tsarist humiliation of China out of sight. Chinese sources led the way in demonizing the history of the West and soon found eager receptivity in Russia, where the Kremlin has doubled down on amplifying history in opposition to the West, putting it more in sync with portions of China’s narrative. The fact that Moscow had only cared about Chinese history to legitimate its dogmatic version of communist orthodoxy meant that interest waned abruptly, while Western history gained even greater salience for Russia as it reconnected with its tsarist past and refocused on one, all-consuming identity target.

A key identity challenge for Putin was to reconstruct Russia as a distinct civilization. For this China mattered little; only the West was seen as threatening to overwhelm Russia as the “common European home” and the exporter of a liberal, international order steeped in assumptions of a universal civilization. China’s call for multipolarity was interpreted as recognition of multiple, distinct civilizations. The struggle against encroachments on Russian state-society relations—NGOs, religious activism, media, law, certain oligarchs, and so on—intensified over Putin’s two decades. If sensitivity also existed toward Chinese immigration and businesses, suggesting xenophobia, China exercised restraint, expounding non-interference in internal affairs and limiting cross-border movement. By contrast, the US was accused of attempting to eradicate other civilizations as well as political models, adding to a national identity gap.  Both Moscow and Beijing identified western “universal values” and democracy promotion initiatives as cover for attempts to intervene in their respective political systems. Huang Kunming, head of the CCP’s Propaganda Department, for instance, has warned that “so-called ‘universal values’” are “trying to seduce people into… being compliant with the West, weakening or even abandoning their identification with their own spiritual culture.”14 The Russian president, with the support of parliament, meanwhile, claims to be defending “traditional values” against western immorality, passing bans on same-sex marriage, “homosexual propaganda,” and claiming that some European countries are considering legalizing pedophilia.15

A frequent refrain from the West is that China is encroaching into Central Asia, but this is a far less central concern for Russian national identity than the loss of Ukraine to the West, or perhaps in the future, Belarus. A “color revolution” in the former Soviet republics resonates much more than the economic ties China espouses. Even Chinese inroads into security in Central Asia, violating the informal division of labor behind the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, matters much less than NATO expansion and western military capabilities to the west when refracted through this lens. While the Kremlin would undoubtedly prefer that it remained the primary player in Central Asia, both Beijing and Moscow can agree that a stable region with the status quo of authoritarian leaders in place is preferable to any option that allows extremist groups to flourish or the United States to get more involved. Thus, here too, China represents the less dangerous enemy for Russia than the alternatives.

Policy Options

If realism were the driving force behind Russia’s pivot to China as the centerpiece in its “turn to the East,” then the United States could weigh the costs economically and militarily to making a counteroffer. They would undoubtedly be much greater than advocates of overtures to Putin have acknowledged. After all, China would not step aside in a bidding war, and it has carrots of great value and sticks very painful for Russia to weather. The idea that currying the favor of Russia would come cheaply is contradictory to a purely realist case for Russia’s choices.

The realist argument often rests mainly on the notion that Russians will awaken to the threat from China, and the US will not have to pay much of a price. Yet as long as China is preoccupied with regaining Taiwan, strengthening its military capabilities, defending its territorial claims, and securing its energy needs, it is hardly inclined to arouse Russian anxieties or to scupper the relationship prematurely by flaunting its asymmetries. The case for Russia’s receptivity to a split also rests on the flawed assumption that the Kremlin can be persuaded that its role in international affairs has now been reduced to that of a junior partner and that it can be tempted to choose an asymmetric relationship with Washington over Beijing. This misjudges the extent to which the current relationship with China reinforces Russian national identity narratives and shores up Putin’s claim to be the leader of a great power.

Many have Nixon’s overtures to Mao in the early 1970s in mind when they propose contemporary US moves toward Russia. But besides the fact that tensions between China and the Soviet Union at the time had escalated to the point of deadly military clashes along their border, the other crucial difference between the current Russia-China relationship and the conditions that preceded the Sino-Soviet split is that the leaders of the two countries now promote world views that complement and actively reinforce each other. Where Mao and Khrushchev, then Brezhnev, disputed the pace and direction of socialist development and nurtured resentments and rivalries over the leadership of the global movement, Xi and Putin offer mutually acceptable diagnoses of the greatest threats to their own and broader regional development and security, namely US hegemony and western overreach. To drive a wedge between them is not a matter of dangling economic carrots before Putin or insisting that China eventually will pose a security threat, but of undercutting Russia’s threat perceptions rooted in identity.

At least three glimmers of recent concern in Russia about China deserve further scrutiny, even if they may currently be voiced by only a few observers, not likely reflecting the thinking of the top leaders. First, despite the declarations of intimate friendship between Putin and Xi and largely positive coverage of China in Russian state media, there are signs of unease about Chinese intelligence gathering among Russian security officials with a “law enforcement source” revealing details of a counter-espionage case to the government-run TASS news agency in 2021, contrary to the recent pattern of reporting.16 Similarly, the involvement of Chinese telecommunications firm Huawei in Russian mobile networks has reportedly raised concerns, even if senior officials have pressed ahead and presented their embrace of the Chinese firm as part of their shared pushback against the West.17 Second, there was the 160th anniversary commemoration of the founding of Vladivostok in 2020, when the Russian Embassy in Beijing posted on its social media account that “Vladivostok” meant “ruling the orient,” triggering a nationalist backlash on Chinese social media and claims that the territory actually belonged to China, proving that historical fault lines between the two countries, though currently buried, are never far below the surface.18 Third, China’s 2020 border skirmish with India struck a blow against Russian hopes for Greater Eurasia and multipolarity—two staples of national identity in foreign policy. Further possible sources of tension include Russian oil and gas exploration in the South China Sea with Vietnam, a rival claimant to China in the disputed waters, China’s Arctic aspirations, and its non-recognition of Russia’s annexation of Crimea. These issues are mentioned in passing, but they have yet to be encapsulated into a national identity critique.

In 1975-83, reform-minded Soviet writers found an accepted outlet in criticisms of China to denounce the excesses of a communist-led country with parallels in the Soviet Union. This was a delicate endeavor to stay on the right side of the censors with a focus on history.19 Today it is, of course, much harder to criticize China, given close ties, but mention of Hong Kong, Xinjiang, and certain authoritarian currents has crept into some writings without any mention of comparisons with Russia. The idea that some developments in China could cast a shadow on Sino-Russian relations is sometimes broached, albeit with circumspection. Fear of Russia slipping back into Soviet habits—often linked to advocates of an alliance with China—gives us the first signs that contestation over Russian national identity could lead to divisions over the relationship with China. But this is a long way from a real, top-level debate over China’s national identity that would be likely to alter Russia’s calculus.   

Strains in Sino-Russian relations have, it is true, persisted over three decades of improving relations, and Russian articles have recently recognized that they are deepening.20 If this creates an opening sufficient for the United States to test, that should be done not based on an illusion, but on a clear-eyed assessment of Russian thinking. Putin is firmly in charge, and there is scant evidence that the bulk of the political elite does not share his views of national identity. Signs of rethinking the identity symbols that favor China over the United States, such as had emanated from Beijing by 1971, would need to precede any such overtures with any prospect of success. It is also essential that policy makers proceed on the understanding that Russia is unlikely to be lured into making a binary choice between closer ties with China and with the US, but rather that Moscow will attempt to extract what it can from both relationships. Therefore, any suggestion of lifting sanctions or declining to impose further consequences for future Russian aggression should be considered separately from the issue of whether it is possible to influence the direction of Sino-Russian relations, which as this article has shown are based on more than purely realist assumptions.


Both Putin and Xi have removed the formal limits that would have required them to leave office at the end of their current terms, signaling clearly that they intend to wield power in some form well into the future. Thus, the apparent strength of their personal relationship augurs the continued deepening of ties rather than their inherent fragility. Both men have based their claim to that power not just on security or economic concerns, but on appeals to historical memory and national identity—both claim to be restoring their countries to their rightful status, reclaiming prestige, power, and respect—and their respective, highly selective narratives complement and reinforce one another. These two leaders conjure past great victories over foreign aggressors as ideological ballast in the contemporary battle they claim to be fighting against US hegemony and attempts to undermine their respective development, security, and traditional values.

To understand the nature of the current relationship between China and Russia it is important to bear in mind that China does not just offer Russia a market for its energy exports and its military technology, but a joint partner in its rejection of the liberal international order and democratic ideals, and political and diplomatic cover, if not always full-throated support, for its foreign policy moves. The idea that Moscow is likely to be lured away from an asymmetric relationship with Beijing for an asymmetric relationship with Washington that offers much less support for these national identity narratives is therefore difficult to foresee, and realist arguments for a grand bargain with Putin must be tempered by a clear understanding of this reality.

1. Charles A. Kupchan, “The Right Way to Split China and Russia: Washington Should Help Moscow Leave a Bad Marriage,” Foreign Affairs, August 4, 2021.

2. Chung-yue-Chang, “Study history, be close to the people,” China Daily, July 9, 2013,, “Document 9: A ChinaFile Translation,” ChinaFile, November 8, 2013,

3. Arkady Ostrovsky, The Invention of Russia: The Journey from Gorbachev’s Freedom to Putin’s War, (London: Atlantic Books, 2015), 284

4. “Imperialist invaders brought the flames of war burning to the doorway of the new China,” Xi claimed. “The victory in the war to resist U.S. aggression and aid Korea was a victory of justice, a victory of peace and a victory of the people.” Doug Bandow, “Xi Jinping Doubles Down on Korean War Propaganda: China’s new nationalism is alienating its neighbors and distorting history,” Foreign Policy, November 18, 2020.

5. Katie Stallard, “Who Controls the Past Controls the Future: The Political Use of WWII History in Russia and China,” September 9, 2019, The Asan Forum (September – October 2019),

6. “Amid trade tensions with America, China is showing old war films,” The Economist, May 23, 2019,

7. See “Country Report: Russia,” posted in late 2015 and early 2016 in The Asan Forum for discussion of these commemorations.

8. Xinhua, “Full text: Xi’s speech at commemoration of 70th anniversary of war victory,” China Daily, September 3, 2015,

9. Vladimir Putin, “The Real Lessons of the 75th Anniversary of World War II,” The National Interest, June 18, 2020,

10. “Russian parliament approves law on moving end of WWII date to September 3,” TASS, April 14, 2020, 

11. For Russian concerns about Chinese thinking regarding territorial claims, see “Country Report: Russia, int The Asan Forum, July 2021.

12. Yang Kuisong, “The Sino-Soviet Border Clash of 1969: From Zhenbao Island to Sino-American Rapprochement,” Cold War History, (2000) 1:1, 21-52 DOI: 10.1080/713999906

13. Gilbert Rozman, The Sino-Russian Challenge to the World Order: National Identities, Bilateral Relations, and East vs. West in the 2010s (Washington, DC and Stanford, CA: Woodrow Wilson Center Press and Stanford University Press, 2014).

14. “China minister warns against seduction of values by Western nations,” Reuters, November 16, 2017,

15. Shaun Walker, “Vladimir Putin: gay people at Winter Olympics must ‘leave children alone,’” The Guardian, January 17, 2014,

16. Alexander Gabuev, Leonid Kovachich, “Comrades in Tweets? The Contours and Limits of China-Russia Cooperation on Digital Propaganda,” Carnegie Moscow Center, June 3, 2021,

17. Andrei Soldatov, “Security First, Technology Second: Putin Tightens his Grip on Russia’s Internet – with China’s Help,” DGAP Policy Brief, March 7, 2019,; Leon Aron, “Are Russia and China Really Forming an Alliance?” Foreign Affairs, April 4, 2019,

18. Eduardo Baptista, “Why Russia’s Vladivostok celebration prompted a nationalist backlash in China,” South China Morning Post, July 2, 2020,

19. Gilbert Rozman, “Moscow’s China-Watchers in the Post-Mao Era:  The Response to a Changing China,” The China Quarterly 94 (June 1983), 215-41.

20. Compare articles in the bi-monthly Country Report: China, The Asan Forum in 2020-21 with those in 2013-19.

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