The Ukraine war would have been inconceivable without high confidence in Russia that it could capitalize on a strong Sino-Russian relationship and the war would serve as a stimulus to a more balanced strategic partnership. By tracing the evolution of Russian thinking about the bilateral relationship with Beijing from the 1970s, the analysis below links this thinking about China to the thinking that led to hostility to US alliances in Asia and to aggression in Europe. Advocates of the “Turn to the East” became ardent supporters of the 2022 war. Parallels emerge between 1980s Soviet rhetoric on the Asia-Pacific region and the 2012-21 Russian rhetoric on Greater Eurasia. Fateful decisions at the end of the 1980s and in 2022 drew on myopic worldviews.
Setting aside Putin’s ostensible rationale for invading Ukraine in February 2022, we are left with two serious explanations: (1) Putin’s understanding of Russian national identity, drawing, above all, on thinking about history; and (2) Putin’s calculus of the balance of forces in the world, recognizing that a rapidly ascendant China has Russia’s back, but poses a long-term threat unless Russia boosts its own standing. These factors are intertwined. The overlap in worldview had grown just as Putin’s calculations of the weight of combined power and will in comparison to the West had tipped decisively.
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 rung 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 reset 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; however, the strategy backfired—the asymmetry with China only intensified further.
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 desired 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 future of the “Turn to the East” depends on reconstructing this narrative to better fit realities, whether of a highly asymmetrical bond to a Sinocentric power or of a much-chagrined Russia recommitting itself to multipolarity. To date, the bond with China is clearly in the ascendancy, obscuring wariness. Yet the Ukraine war, which aimed to redraw that bond to Russia’s benefit, has backfired in leaving Russia both more vulnerable and without options.
The first sections below demonstrate how the “Turn to the East” is rooted in thinking of Russia’s power elite that also fueled the Ukraine war and can be linked to thinking about China in the Cold War era and subsequently in the decades that followed. The linkages are drawn in chronological coverage. Emphasis is put on the parallels between 1976-86 and the decade to 2021.
Three background factors help to explain Putin’s decision to take extreme measures in 2022 to put Russian relations with China on a different track. First, the cat-and-mouse game the two sides had been playing had grown more ominous, as China took actions undesired by Russia and it became more difficult to find a meaningful response. Second, the Russian critique of China and Russian policy toward China had been bursting through the guardrails of censorship, hinting that Moscow needed a new approach—for the critics to distance itself, but for some a different solution might be found. Third, the impression that China at last was aroused to take strong action against the US emboldened Putin to think he could get away with a daring move. All three of these factors are explained in later sections of the article.
Worldview of the Siloviki
Russia’s power elite (siloviki) has one overriding foreign objective rooted in three strands of legacy thinking. Its 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 has been guided by this objective and these 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, Russia’s power elite 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. Vladimir 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 should not be divorced from this extended turn eastward.
Moscow not only lost the Cold War with the United States, but it also lost the Sino-Soviet split with China. In the first decade of the split, both China and the Soviet Union were losers, compounding each other’s shortsightedness. In 1971-72, however, Beijing transformed the grand strategic triangle with the US to Moscow’s disadvantage, and in 1978-79 Beijing preceded Moscow by a decade in starting to capitalize on the dynamism of East Asia and did so in a manner that would prove decisive in the 1990s as Moscow lost its way. Awakening to this turnabout, Vladimir 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 what Putin called the “Turn to the East.” Its triangular thrust claimed dynamic results and acquired an identity focus.
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. Frequently reinterpreted, the narrative of the “Turn to the East” vigorously countered such negative notions of impending asymmetry.
The vocabulary of the “Turn to the East” as well as unofficial policies gave the impression that this was not a “turn to China.” Russians made sure to highlight “multipolarity” and to insist that China was pursuing this as well. They emphasized that the two states were co-leaders of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), which was 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 Eurasian Economic Union (EEU). Indeed, Russia was not entering a geographic area known by any other name than Eurasia or the “Greater Eurasian Partnership” (GEP). When China announced the “Silk Road Economic Belt” later morphing into part of “One Belt, One Road” and then renamed by China the “Belt and Road Initiative” (BRI), Moscow’s response was two-fold: not to acknowledge Russia was part of this initiative but would partner as the EEU with China; and to insist on using the name “One Belt, One Road,” which kept alive the idea partnership was limited to a narrower belt through Central Asia, where Russia held many cards. The GEP was, in turn, described as a broad association with the word Eurasia and with India and ASEAN eager for Russia’s balancing presence, even as prudence dictated that reasons to fear China be downplayed or refuted.
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 as 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, befitting a global power intent on being an independent pole and a global civilization. Behind a façade of ever-growing closeness lies a struggle over rival goals.
Thus, the Russia-China bilateral relationship has been repeatedly obscured through contortions about factors that limit the asymmetry facing Russia—with population and economy one-tenth the scale of China’s—relying on what it candidly considers to be a power on a par with the United States. 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, put the military dimension at the center of international relations, drive energy prices much higher, and rally states in the SCO to stand with Russia against sanctions. As that plan met with difficulty, Russia doubled down on it, still counting on China’s role.
When at the SCO summit in mid-September 2022 Putin felt obliged to openly acknowledge that Xi Jinping had “questions and concerns” about Russia’s military operation in Ukraine, a hole in the Potemkin Village of Sino-Russian comradery opened for the world to see. At the very moment reassurance was most needed, its exposure as being shaky on the most significant security issue of our time revealed a truth both sides had long concealed: China’s support for the war is conditional, and Russia’s pretenses about bilateral relations are often misleading. Yet, in rhetoric to challenge the US-led order, the two stick closely together. China is not about to leave Russia in the lurch in the key strategic triangle. That is not Russia’s worry; it fears that China will take advantage of its weakness.
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,1 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,2 normalizing ties in a manner that left relations in purgatory. Yeltsin started by exacerbating the problem and then proceeded haphazardly to heal the wounds.3 Putin swung policy sharply in China’s direction, but even he kept misjudging the prospects for the relationship and the balance needed to act strategically. In the thralls of legacy thinking,4 the siloviki could neither distance Russia from China nor reconcile themselves to a subordinate status. The only way out was to prove Russia’s value through war, as China had done in Korea.
Views of China in the Late Soviet Period and Parallels to 2012-2022
Moscow badly misjudged East Asia in the 1970s-80s.5 The officials blamed for holding back a change of course were ousted in 1986 with Gorbachev’s “new thinking,” but later that was seen as insufficient. Gorbachev, himself, was criticized for his thinking about China and, more broadly, the Asia-Pacific, in the backlash gathering steam from 1992. The rethinking that has kept gaining in intensity retains enduring salience for Russian behavior.
Soviet writings on China were scarce in the 1960s; a few polemical pieces filled the vacuum as the Kremlin bided its time in explaining the causes of the Sino-Soviet split and how it would reboot its strategy in the East. Three developments in the 1970s brought misjudgments to the fore, as writings proliferated: (1) China’s breakthroughs in 1971-72 with the United States and Japan; (2) the death of Mao Zedong, and Deng Xiaoping’s success in the leadership struggle of 1976-78; and (3) the launch of policies aimed at “reform and opening” in 1978-79. Distorted ideas that China was joining the imperialist camp, that it had Maoism without Mao, and its economic plans were bound to fail, left little room for initiatives to take advantage of the huge changes under way. Looking back, many recognize missed opportunities to transform great power relations. Pride in Soviet history avoids China policy in the four decades of the 1950s through the 1980s filled with misjudgment.
The period 1982, when normalization talks with Beijing began, to 1991 is more consequential for the end of the Cold War and collapse of the Soviet Union. Neither the entrenched old guard, long used to demeaning the rival communist state, nor the new champions of a “common European home” understood the “strategic triangle” Chinese leaders embraced as early as 1982 with talk of “equidistance.” While Gorbachev succeeded in “normalizing” relations with China in 1989, it was a pyrrhic victory, coming on the heels of intense Chinese criticism of his domestic and foreign policy. On all fronts across East Asia Gorbachev is faulted: delaying diplomacy with Japan, abandoning North Korea, and not taking China very seriously. He leaned strongly to the West and, according to the thinking of today’s power elite, missed opportunities in the East, especially to an eager China.
The decades 1976-86 and 2012-22 have some clear parallels in Moscow’s thinking. On the one hand, demonization of the United States as a declining power with a deeply flawed Asia strategy anchored the prevailing narrative. On the other, leadership change in China was viewed in an overwhelmingly one-sided manner despite a stifled backlash gaining momentum. In both periods Moscow downplayed Japan’s role as an Asian power, even veering toward threats, as it feigned a winning strategy on the Korean Peninsula while prioritizing North Korea at the expense of the South. It further insisted that the paradigm for regionalism offered by the US and its allies was a flawed attempt at containment and would fail, while also showcasing its own model of regional leadership, which was of scant interest to others. It is, of course, necessary to note substantial differences between the two decades, but they should not obviate striking similarities, which suggest that the legacies of the Cold War era still shape Russia’s behavior in Asia.
In each decade, Asia was on the minds of Moscow officials and writers. Vulnerability of the Russian Far East cast a dark shadow, but salvation lay just around the corner. Sino-US ties preoccupied analysts, but a reassuring outcome was assured. The optimistic scenario left no room for Moscow and Washington to reconcile; this was a struggle to the end, which the Russian side was bound to win. Its assets were chiefly military might and energy clout, not a booming economy with up-to-date technology. North Korea’s belligerence was considered an asset too. Whether the deepening of the Cold War or a New Cold War, conflict was ordained, in 1980 and in 2020.
The most glaring contrast between the two decades was the role assigned to China. After the death of Mao Zedong, Soviets spent six years insisting that China had “Maoism without Mao” and another four years in a silent mode withholding commentary as normalization talks were just sputtering along. The Brezhnev legacy, lasting until Gorbachev initiated “new thinking” and ousted the old guard overseeing the demonization of China, bypassed Russia’s big neighbor in Asia.6 With the coming to power of Xi Jinping in 2012, the opposite tact was taken, assuming only the most positive role for China and riding its coattails in Russia’s “Turn to the East.” Whether as an implacable foe, posing a great threat to Russian territory and its historical pride, or as a kind of savior, whose economic, military, and civilizational partnerships were critical to the advance of Russia in Asia, China loomed large in Russian narratives with little balance to the coverage, old and new.
The Soviet Union over the decade to 1976 was obsessed with fortifying the Russian Far East as it concentrated on building its military strength in the region and keeping the area closed to the outside. Interest in Japan was apparent as a market for coal, oil, and other Far Eastern exports. After the death of Mao little changed. Failure to acknowledge Japan’s fast economic ascent worked against overtures to induce more Japanese investment into the Russian Far East. The border with China remained almost completely sealed. South Korea was an enemy with no effort to offend North Korea’s insistence that Moscow does not talk to it. Domestic incentives to draw internal migrants to the Russian Far East brought minor benefits at great cost. The ostrich-like approach to a region surging with opportunity is now regretted.
A groundswell of dissent arose in each period about the shortcomings of Russian thinking and policy toward Asia. In 1976-86 it fought censorship by finding obscure avenues of analysis or analogies to make a case for three types of argument: (1) normalize ties with China, altering the balance of power in Asia; (2) recognize China’s reform course, leading to reform at home; and (3) appreciate dynamism in East Asia and transform relations with Japan, South Korea, or even the United States. All three arguments were considered dangerous dissent and had to be broached indirectly.7 Only from 1986, in stages, did glasnost lead to open acknowledgment of the criticisms building over a decade of rigid thinking and policy stagnation.
In 1976-86 Moscow lost ground in the strategic triangle, in reform of its system, and in gaining a place in the dynamic rise of East Asia. By 1992 it was beginning to point the way out of its nadir. By 2012 Moscow saw itself gaining ground in the strategic triangle, across Asia, by reconstructing its domestic system, and as an energy and natural resource exporter to Asia. There were similar pretensions in the earlier decade. This time three key concepts defined the apparent rise in Asia: multipolarity, Greater Eurasian Partnership, and alliance with China. Combining them in a single regional architecture posed a continuing challenge. As earlier, bravado that all was marching toward a rosy outcome obscured hard to conceal contradictions.
The legacy of the orthodox communist era proved conducive to overall convergence in national identities.8 Replacing a dogmatic ideology with no room for deviation with more flexible targeting of anti-imperialism renamed anti-hegemonism and defense of socialism, centered on symbols, the two heirs to great power communism found common ground. Concentrating on the identity gap with the West over the 1940s extrapolated through the Cold War, the diatribes launched at each other in the Sino-Soviet split were left on the sidelines by censorship and a narrow attention span. Threatened by the sweep of the civilization spreading from the West and its civil society advocacy, China and Russia hunkered down behind a shared bunker. The final force derived from the past—communist thinking as well as Sinocentric and Russocentric heritage was the presumption that one world center (of two or perhaps three) was in their capital. Blaming Washington for refusing to grant it the desired status, each credited the other with being similarly disrespected. Yet, that did not mean that Russia trusted China.
Setting aside what followed 1986, we can discern a disastrous outcome from the decade of Soviet inaction toward Asia based on distortions and misjudgments. Soviet audiences were fascinated with the technology of Japan but were warned against its leadership. Chinese reforms set a model for overcoming the stagnation of socialism but were distorted and reviled. Moscow had an opening to rebalance the strategic triangle by making tough decisions, but it held back. The failure of reforms, the collapse of the Soviet Union, and the disastrous state of Russia in the 1990s can be traced to these mistakes. This period is filled with regrets toward roads not taken.
Both Moscow and Beijing in subsequent years drew lessons from the slow thaw in the Sino-Soviet split. They had allowed ideology to blind them to the logic of balance of power policies, especially Moscow through 1991. Yet, a second lesson was also drawn, if obscured for a time. They failed to keep their eyes on the principal ideological threat, the United States. Both Gorbachev and Zhao Ziyang are faulted, but the problem long persisted. Souring on the outcomes of 1989-92, Moscow saw China as the solution. Yet, it waffled on embracing China, fearing the absence of “equal” relations.
In the period 1976-86, the Soviet Union held such a weak hand in the triangle with the United States and China that it needed urgently to remedy the situation with one or the other or both. Its opportunity after Mao’s death and even more so after China declared equidistance as its orientation was squandered. In 2012-22, Russia also held a weak hand but decided to put itself firmly in China’s hands. Whereas in the earlier period it so demonized China that it could not bring itself to see the wisdom in making overtures, in the later period it censored criticism of China to such a degree that it could not acknowledge its more disadvantageous situation. Triangular dynamics were not the subject of calculations allowing room for critical maneuvering.
Ideology drove Moscow prior to Gorbachev to stay obsessed with the threat from China to its dogmatic understanding of communism. It was unable to flexibly assess steps to reconstruct the strategic triangle. Détente with the US in the early 1970s was not accompanied by steps to relax ideological rigidity either. Although Russian leaders insist that they eschew ideology and are driven only by realistic considerations, the barriers to balanced assessments of China and the United States are again rooted in national identity. Despite policies as varied as Obama’s “reset,” Trump’s “love-fest,” and Biden’s rush to summitry to explore common ground, there has been no exploration of options for improving relations with the US. That can be explained only by ideological barriers such as an obsession with rebuilding the Soviet space centered on Ukraine. As much of the world has reacted to Xi Jinping’s return to hardline communism, “wolf-warrior” aggressiveness to the outside, and Sinocentrism, Russia’s mainstream has remained silent for ideological reasons—fear of undercutting Russia’s own authoritarian drift, of weakening the resistance to the international order anathema to Russia, and of damaging Sino-Russian bonds to forge an alternative order. Yet, the quest to gain more equal footing only intensified as asymmetry grew larger.
A single question dominated in 1976-86 and cast the darkest shadow in 2012-21. Was Russian sovereignty under threat from Chinese territorial memories and claims? The answer in the first period was definitely “yes,” leading to turning the Russian Far East into a militarized fortress and not trusting China to normalize ties. In the interim quarter century Russians were reassured that only a slight demarcation alignment could resolve the matter. Yet as the second decade witnessed a rise in Chinese confidence, leading to “wolf warrior” assertiveness even toward Russia, alarm over a revival of territorial claims was spreading. Russians reported on Internet postings, rare access to Chinese history museums, and even authoritative statements that stirred concern. In the run-up to the five-year extension of the 2001 twenty-year bilateral treaty, some dared to ask for real assurance that the Chinese had, indeed, abandoned all of their past territorial claims.9 Such suspicions led not to separating from China but to trying to prove to it that Russia is now a formidable power worthy of being treated as an equal.
Whether under Brezhnev or Putin, there is a dearth of scholarship on maneuvering within a changing balance of power. Cold War thinking present to 1976 barely shifted during the following decade of dramatic changes in Asia. A quarter century later, the mindset of taking down the US was so entrenched that a decade of transformation across Asia with China in the forefront could not dislodge Russian assumptions on what it must do.
In the late 1980s Moscow unraveled the strategic triangle through a sharp tilt toward Washington and preemptory but slight normalization with Beijing. This established an unsustainable foundation for the new era, incompatible with the national identity that haltingly emerged. The verdict reached in the two reforming socialist states was the same: misjudgments of Asia, notably China, over decades had led to a geopolitically disastrous outcome. Today, Moscow has twisted the “Turn to the East” into a turn to China, despite the pretense of the GED, again misjudging China to the point of panicking over its intentions and the asymmetry. The Ukraine war only deepens Russia’s challenges in the East without satisfying strategic triangle aspirations. The abrupt end of the Cold War similarly exacerbated challenges without any sense of satisfaction about Moscow’s ability to sustain its status as a great power, let alone a superpower. Getting China and Asia wrong exacts a heavy price. Severe censorship stifled a debate at two momentous times.
The Post-Cold War Period
Russian national identity suffered a double blow from, on the one hand, defeat in the Cold War and collapse of the Soviet Union and all it stood for, and, on the other, reversal of the superiority complex toward its arch-rival China. The narrative became fixated on the former and ignored the latter. This was made possible by the fleeting nature of communist dogma about which side adhered to the orthodoxy more and the enduring nature of great power identity centered on pride about Soviet strength or accomplishments such as victory in WWII and superpower status. Chinese rhetoric catered to Russia’s grievance over its loss of status. The West dangled before Russia an entirely new identity, which not only could not assuage wounded pride, but it also rubbed salt on the wounds of the loss of identity. Chinese promised to work together to restore key parts of that identity. Ukraine’s independence and reorientation to the West became a powerful symbol of severe humiliation.
Before Putin’s “Turn to the East” Russia was the laggard in acknowledging the worldview China sought to establish as a shared identity. Yeltsin used China for leverage against the United States, but his quest for the “Russian idea” never settled on a worldview resonant with China’s. The relationship kept growing closer except for economic ties, and Russian demagoguery toward China—mainly from local officials—was gradually stifled. Yet, trust was low, and Russians remained preoccupied with the West. Discontent with the West lacked a clear alternative, given low Russian self-confidence and hesitation to recognize how quickly China was ascending as a power.
The decade of the 2000s saw a budding strategic partnership with China coupled with rapidly growing economic ties. The countries were shifting on parallel tracks, as China left Deng Xiaoping’s guidance behind and Putin put the Yeltsin era in the rearview mirror. Missing, however, was Russian confidence in itself and in China. Despite a final demarcation of the border dispute that had long roiled relations, Russians were wary of a Chinese presence in the Russian Far East and of Chinese economic penetration into Central Asia. Hu Jintao prized relations with Japan and South Korea and looked to the south more than the north, given economic benefits. If Putin was growing more hostile toward the West, he lacked an agenda for Sino-Russian relations. Medvedev’s stint as president also missed this.
Four preconditions were essential for Russia to swing sharply to China and to draw linkages between that and Putin’s determination to draw a red line in Ukraine against the West. First, it required a huge boost in Russian self-confidence, which followed from perceived economic and political success. Second, an image of deepening Western decline was necessary, which the global financial crisis and US political near paralysis conveyed. Third, even before Xi Jinping became party chairman, Russians could discern a sharp break from earlier Chinese caution as well as a trajectory of overtaking the United States. Fourth, Russian national identity had to dwell on historical landmarks that both raised the stakes for regaining control over Ukraine and connected the historical destinies of Moscow and Beijing. All of these forces came into play by 2012 and later were gaining rapid momentum.
Sino-Russian relations were transformed in at least five ways through the bond built between Putin and Xi Jinping: (1) becoming a two-front, linked challenge to the US alliance system; (2) affirming a shared view of history centered on the significance of the 1940s and minimizing the relevance of the end of the Cold War; (3) envisioning an alternate economic framework reducing vulnerability to the US-led liberal international order; (4) forging complementarity to a much greater degree on a framework for regionalism in Asia; and (5) prioritizing quick action for confronting the US on the border.
For two decades after the collapse of the Soviet Union, anxiety about the Russian Far East was reported. Its economic backwardness, depopulation tendencies, and concerns about a wave of Chinese migrants or foreign business encroachments spurred demagoguery and handwringing as well as a succession of unrealized development plans. By 2012 failure was widely recognized. Given the gloomy prospects for this region, Putin’s pursuit of a new path drew praise. The “Turn to the East” started with the Russian Far East in the forefront. At the 2012 Vladivostok APEC summit, the region was showcased. Talks with Xi Jinping, Park Geun-hye, and Abe Shinzo soon highlighted the benefits on the way for the region. From 2016 Putin held an annual Eastern Economic Forum in Vladivostok to showcase development plans for the region as well as the overall success of his “Turn to the East.” Yet by 2022 he had little to show for this effort in the Far East: investment was sparse, development programs went unrealized, and the pandemic halted what little cross-border activity there was except transport.
Multiple claims of progress over this decade were belied by the results on the ground. The idea that Vladivostok could become the locomotive behind a regional turnaround after investments to prepare it for the APEC summit and later plans for a Greater Vladivostok special economic zone proved to be an illusion. The three main targets all attached conditions: South Korea spoke of north-south corridors for transportation, pipelines, and electricity transmission, but they depended on North Korea’s cooperation; Japan offered plans for infrastructure and urban improvements, but they were premised on progress on territorial negotiations; and China put conditions on its investments, requiring Chinese ownership and workers unacceptable to the Russians. Meanwhile, even Russians complained of stifling red tape, legal uncertainties, and poor conditions for foreign investment prevailing in the Russian Far East. Putin blamed the South Koreans, only opening Vladivostok for visa-free travel to boost tourism; the Japanese, after he had encouraged Abe’s high-sounding economic proposals that amounted to little; and quietly the Chinese, who came to the city mostly on excursions to casinos and pre-paid programs run by Chinese companies. Successive schemes failed, leaving Russians scrambling to develop the “Arctic-Pacific” region as part of the Northern Sea route while squabbling with the Chinese over whether this was the polar route of the BRI, for which China would enjoy freedom of navigation. Discord over the Russian Far East pervaded relations over 30 years, driving the quest for acting to boost Russian clout.
In 2012-14 multipolarity stood in the forefront of the “Turn to the East.” Ties to India, Japan, and South Korea were, accordingly, promoted. The SCO, co-directed by Moscow and Beijing, would be its vehicle. Yet Sino-Russian relations increasingly eclipsed Moscow’s other ties, and Beijing advanced its own frameworks, notably the BRI (Belt and Road Initiative), leaving Moscow scrambling to restate its centrality. It propounded the GEP as a framework, which won the endorsement of China and could build on the smaller EEU as regional architecture. Sinocentrism was repeatedly denied.
Three elements were vital for this framework: (1) India as the anchor in the South; (2) ASEAN as the partner in the Southeast; and (3) Sino-EEU “docking” as the nexus further north. This ideal confronted obstacles largely of China’s doing, although Russia’s lack of appeal and marginality were also drawbacks. China alienated India, especially in 2020 owing to border infringements. It alarmed much of ASEAN with encroachments in the South China Sea and other aggressive moves, driving states closer to the US with little interest in the argument that Russia—so closely aligned with China—serves the goal of a balance of power. Eviscerating claims of multipolarity, facts on the ground left Russia needing another way to deny Sinocentrism.
As Russia edged toward an alliance with China, it still sought to keep its claim to autonomy in Asia through the GEP design for regionalism to which China only paid lip-service. This stage, gathering speed in 2017-19 and at a high pitch from 2020, faced at least three unexpected obstacles: (1) loss of interest in China during the pandemic in non-military linkages desired by Russia; (2) lack of restraint in China in dealing with sensitive, bilateral issues or in forging an attractive image as a close partner; and (3) alarm that Russia was becoming isolated as a country dependent only on China with little influence on China’s ties to others in Asia, especially to India.
The end game over the first decade was normalization, but the 1989 agreement fell short of what both countries had in mind, leaving a trail of loose ends until the 2004 demarcation deal. The 2012-22 process appeared to be heading toward an alliance if agreement could be reached on the architecture of Asia as well as on the contours of the strategic triangle. After a decade of advancing without interruption in one direction, the end game still remained unclear. Discord over the relationship of Greater Eurasia and the BRI—ranging from Central Asia to the Arctic to India—had been left to simmer. China’s desire for Russia’s support over the South China Sea, the East China Sea, and possibly Taiwan remained unsatisfied. Despite agreement on how to move the North Korean issue forward, elements of rivalry lingered in what should be done afterwards. It was not clear that problems that bedeviled ties would be settled any easier than the problems that had plagued normalization over the 1970s-80s.
The dissent in 2012-22 has had more opportunities to reveal its meaning despite censorship. It too carries three main messages: (1) do not form an alliance with China, leaving Russia at risk as a new balance of power is taking shape; (2) recognize China’s reversion to hardline communism and the danger of spillover to Russia; and (3) reinterpret the dynamics of the Indo-Pacific with room for better ties to Japan, South Korea, and the United States, and avoidance of a split with India. It has been easiest to make the first point, although no criticism of Putin’s embrace of China is clearly visible. The second point is emerging obliquely without direct references to the implications for Russia’s internal policies. Finally, the case for renewing the pursuit of Japan and South Korea is vaguely in evidence and the loss of India is more openly bemoaned, but arguing for cooperation with the United States is beyond current bounds. Parallels should not be taken to suggest a similar about-face. There is no Gorbachev in sight. The war in Ukraine has stifled dissent, while doubling down on China, whatever the risk ahead.
Thinking about China came to support the war in Ukraine. Known as a “two-headed eagle,” Russia has looked to Ukraine as its bulwark against the West and to China as its principal challenge in the East. In the 1960s-80s it considered Ukraine securely under Moscow’s control and China a serious threat to undermine Russia’s eastern flank. In the 2010s, the situation was reversed: Ukraine loomed as a threat causing insecurity to the west and China drew praise for reinforcing security to the east. The Ukraine War highlighted Russia’s efforts to shore up its western flank, but it relied on assumptions about the state of relations with China in the East.
A similar obsession riled Russian officials forty years apart. The US on both occasions was accused of harboring a strategy of containment of their country in Asia, squeezing it militarily, economically, and ideologically. Its accomplice was Japan with South Korea supportive too. Yet, Moscow could defeat the US and its allies with its own regional strategy, The big difference between the two periods in Moscow’s thinking was China, changing sides. Another difference after the collapse of the Soviet Union was Russia’s weaker position in the west. To bolster its place in Asia required taking bolder action in Europe. China’s significance had shifted from Asia’s big challenge to the Asian stabilizer allowing action in Europe.
Moscow’s strategy in the first half of the 1980s sowed the seeds of its approach much later in the lead-up to the Ukraine war: Demonize the US, dismiss Japan and South Korea, reject regionalism on terms others sought, tighten ties to North Korea, and treat China as imagined rather than as it was. Heightened bravado insisted that this was a winning strategy, which a more militarily assertive Moscow could play to a successful conclusion. Yet, reality finally interfered: in 1986 turning to the West, in 2022 going to war. If the past approach reached a dead-end, a drastic alternative had to be tried.
Russia views the Asia-Pacific through three principal dimensions. First, it is an arena for expressing national identity viewed through an historical and ideological lens. Second, the East is perceived in terms of military/ political power as a strategic battleground. Third, as an energy and natural resource exporter, Russia conceives of the East as the market destination for its key products, while looking more broadly at exports and imports for autonomy.
Finally, mutual recognition of powerful and growing forces of Sinocentrism on one side and Russocentrism on the other also weighed against trust. If all of these challenges could be kept in check, it is testimony to the power of the forces working in favor of continuously closer Sino-Russian relations.
Westerners got Russian national identity wrong through the 1990s, wrongly assuming that the communist legacy could be erased and universal values would be transplanted. A similar error occurred from the 1990s to 2010s in failing to grasp the force of this shared legacy in drawing Russia and China closer. A third challenge faces us in the 2020s: will national identity propel the two nations to an alliance and shared worldview on Asia and the world order or will it start driving the two apart even if national interests mitigate their rift? The Ukraine war has fueled predictions of closer relations and an identity convergence, but there is reason to doubt growing identity overlap.
How is that legacy of thinking about national identity changing early in the 2020s? Consciousness of China in Russia has been raised by realization that Russia has been cut adrift from other major powers. On the ideological dimension, Russocentrism has intensified with likely sharpened awareness of Sinocentrism, already growing due to Chinese arrogance, news coming from China, and recent awakening to increased asymmetry. At this moment Russocentrism, anti-imperialism, and history are focused on images of the West linked to Ukraine. Refocusing on images of China would take a move by the Russian government offering China something alarming to many of its residents or a move by Beijing deemed insulting to their country. Both sides are careful to avoid arousing the Russian public.
Victory in Ukraine offered Russia the prospect of making credible the idea of a strategic triangle with the United States and China and creating a more equal relationship with China. Wars have impacted relations between the Chinese and Russians before: the Korean War giving China credibility, and the Soviet war in Afghanistan losing credibility for the invader. Counting on a quick victory, Moscow envisioned a positive response for bloodying the common enemy and demonstrating its claim to Eurasianism on a big scale.
From all sides, the comments stung that Russia cannot avoid becoming the junior partner of China. Beijing did not give it the respect befitting a full partner. Washington treated it as a short-term troublemaker, not a long-term competitor. Many in Moscow warned of asymmetry with China ahead. Seizing Ukraine promised to change the narrative, reviving triangularity at the highest level of international relations and eclipsing talk of bipolarity. It was nothing less than a strategic triangle gambit to satisfy the weakest leg.
Comparing the two decades, we find that China was the preoccupation in both: first as a threat and then as a savior. Japan and South Korea were viewed with too much suspicion to satisfy their demands. When China and Russia proposed separate plans for regional integration, insisting that they could “dock” them together for maximum benefit, it tested the relationship.
Russians and Chinese conspire to conceal problems in their relationship as if it has been a steady march toward alliance based on national interests and balance of power objectives. Foreign critics latch onto troubles in these bilateral ties to insist that they are faking closeness. Over the past decade, relations have followed a dual track: overlapping pursuit of a breakup of the existing regional/global order with increasingly close security ties; and a cat-and-mouse game of discord over Eurasianism versus Sinocentrism.
While the complexity of Sino-Russian relations has been revealed in both Russian and Chinese publications, it is the increasingly bifurcated Russian sources that tip us off to the actual duality. In 2020-21, as talk at the highest levels turned to forging a formal alliance, a backlash built in Russian writings with two visible strands: 1) this is not in the interest of Russian autonomy as a pole in the world and regional order; and 2) this would risk dangerous consequences for Russia at home and abroad. The second critique is more far-reaching. Both emerged clearly recently, though concerns about conflicting Russian and Chinese objectives course through the past decade since Putin declared that Russia would “Turn to the East.”
The Cat and Mouse Game Prior to the Ukraine War
The opposition narrative was limited by censorship, e.g., no criticism of Putin’s decisions, no open opposition to close Sino-Russian relations, and no endorsement of improved relations with the United States. Yet, it found breathing room for: warnings against a decision yet to be made to declare an alliance; appeals to renew the quest for multipolarity in Asia; and even talk of smoothing ties with at least parts of Europe and key US allies in Asia. Also, those resisting the decisive step of proclaiming an alliance drew on a wealth of evidence over the past decade of China’s unilateral actions in Asia at odds with Russia’s national interests and the partnership that had been promised. Whether in Central Asia, Southeast Asia, South Asia, or the Arctic, the discord between Moscow and Beijing had intensified.
Moreover, in views of bilateral history, in cultural exchanges, and in economic cooperation, the level of distrust had risen appreciably. In the background was alarm inside Russia that China’s authoritarian pathway reminiscent of past socialism would be a harbinger of where Putin was increasingly inclined to take Russia as well. The opposition narrative is revealing about the real problems plaguing this relationship, but it does not tell us that alliance can be averted. Close scrutiny of it can shed light on the cat-and-mouse game over the past decade and on the nature of either an alliance ahead or a rupture in the momentum leading in that direction.
We are justified in recognizing a record of move and countermove to 2021. On the global stage and even in military exercises in Asia, momentum had been building. In the geographical and ideological arenas of Asia, however, rivalry had been pronounced. If Putin started the back-and-forth of the past decade by proclaiming the EEU, the initiative has increasingly been in Xi Jinping’s hands. Russian moves have mostly followed Chinese ones or reflected concern that China’s position is becoming increasingly dominant in Asia. It has been on the back foot in cross-border relations, responding to repeated plans for Northeast China reaching to the Russian Far East. It fought a rearguard action in Central Asia, where China has sought to change the status quo. On North Korea, Moscow has felt obliged to defer to Beijing’s moves, although in the mid-2010s it briefly got in front when Sino-DPRK relations were more troubled. On India, Vietnam, and elsewhere in Asia’s southern tier, Russia has retreated when China has pressed its case. At each point, Russia tries a mild rejoinder, hoping to keep its autonomy alive, before China takes its next move, putting Russia more on the defensive. This is a stealthy game, given pretenses that the relationship is proceeding swimmingly, and each summit brings closer ties.
A more wide-ranging battleground can be discerned in the rival claims for the BRI and the Great Eurasian Partnership. Seeming to offer reinforcing visions of trans-Asian architecture, they conflict in notions of leadership, membership, and purpose. BRI is a hub-and-spokes plan for Chinese infrastructure projects to draw states under an economic umbrella with demands to follow for deference to China’s “core interests” and strategic ambitions. Russia’s Eurasian plan is mostly political with an anti-West emphasis. It relies heavily on India, while the BRI has prioritized Pakistan. In 2020, to Moscow’s great displeasure, China engaged in a Himalayan skirmish with India, soiling bilateral relations further, driving India into the Quad with the US, and scuttling Russian dreams of multipolarity in Asia. Opponents of an alliance warned that Russia would be forced to abandon India and also arms sales to Vietnam, etc. If Sinocentrism proceeds, the foundational concept of Putinism—Eurasianism—could not survive.
Russia seeks a sphere of dominance in Asia—Central Asia, Mongolia, the Northern Sea Route—and a balance recognized by China in areas from the Korean Peninsula to India. Multipolarity is its desired architecture with Eurasia a label for areas under Moscow’s sway or shared influence. Critics view an expanding BRI as Sinocentrism, emasculating the SCO, killing Greater Eurasia, and dooming multipolarity. Moscow has tried to keep aloof from BRI investments and fight back over Central Asia and the Arctic, but outmaneuvered, it is left with a stark choice. For many commentators in Russian newspapers of late, a last-ditch effort is needed to resist China.
The counteroffensive warns of what could go wrong, citing conflicts over geography that have already become visible. For three decades, they have played out in the Russian Far East. First, there was the “yellow peril” threat of Chinese migration, then the “Chinatown” threat of new businesses either openly or clandestinely overwhelming Russian companies, then concern over infrastructure opening the area to Chinese transit and control over natural resources, and finally the demands that China as a “near-Arctic” state incorporate the “Polar Silk Road” into the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). Despite numerous joint plans for the Russian Far East and Northeast China, pandemic border closings widened mutual distrust—now at a peak.
Central Asia is the second battlefield obscured by Chinese and Russian claims of harmony. In the first decade of the SCO to 2011, tensions were kept in check by a well-understood division of labor, limiting China’s reach in Central Asia, although Chinese kept pressing for change, e.g., though the establishment of an FTA. Putin returned as president heralding a November 2011 agreement to establish the EEU, drawing much of Central Asia tighter into Moscow’s orbit. Xi Jinping started his tenure as president by countering with the Silk Road Economic Belt (SREB), altering Beijing’s relationship with Central Asia. No matter how often Putin and Xi insisted that they were “docking” the two entities and encompassing them with their jointly led SCO, the reality was tense maneuvering. In fear of an alliance, the opposition warns that Central Asia would slip out of Russia’s sphere.
Increasingly skeptical, if guarded, comments about the results of the “Turn to the East” hinted at serious losses for Russia, even referring to the death of the GEP and of multipolarity. Moves taken by Russia to counter those by China were seen as too little, too late. Putin then found his own solution, however, not diversification in Asia but glory through victory in Ukraine.
A case could be made that Putin saw Russia at a crossroads with one last chance before it fell into China’s clutches in a polarized cold war and lost its ability to maneuver as a great power. An undercurrent is present that China had set a trap, feigning deference to Russia in Central Asia and on history, but agreement on multipolarity, support for a Greater Eurasian Partnership, or understandings of a different kind over the decade had only lulled Russia into complacency. In fact, tensions prevailed over not only India, Central Asia, and Vietnam, but also North Korea, Japan, and Mongolia. In the background, China wielded its financial clout and Russia’s one-sided needs to drive Russia into a corner from which it urgently had to extricate itself.
Sino-Russian relations appeared ever closer on the surface, but behind the scenes there was a cat-and-mouse game of one side testing the other’s limits of tolerance and the other, in response, proffering a test of its own. This duality to keep up appearances would not have been possible without considerable overlap on urgent priorities. They agree on key dimensions of national identity. At the same time, the distrust underscoring the lack of coordination visible in cat-and-mouse behavior is also rooted in national identities. The legacies of the Sino-Soviet split, the heyday of the grand strategic triangle, and traditional communist ideology are all in evidence. Russian thinking about China has taken shape in these enduring contexts.
Signs of Disenchantment with the State of Sino-Russian Relations
Antipathy to the US-led worldview has buttressed Sino-Russian relations, but Russians are now finding a threatening Sinocentric worldview, which the mainstream long denied. For the prior decade, Russians had ignored Chinese civilization as of no consequence as long as China kept its gaze on the evils of Western civilization. It sufficed to assert that ideology has no relevance for Sino-Russian relations. This façade was broken by 2020 for three, clear reasons: (1) watching the way China’s “wolf warrior” diplomacy and rhetoric treated other countries and fearing they would be turned against Russia too; (2) watching China’s rekindling of socialist ideology, while remembering the much-despised Mao era and the potential for Russia to follow the same track; and (3) hearing echoes of the Sino-Soviet split and China’s territorial grievances. Developments of late raised the specter of Sinocentrism, raising alarm about China’s intentions as an ally, and about its threat to Russian sovereignty and national identity. In making the case against forming an alliance, critics did not defend democracy or Russia’s European identity, but they issued warnings over rising inequality.
Unmentioned in official Russian narratives are suspicions of the unrevealed Chinese motives in bilateral relations. They range from redressing historical injustices at Russia’s expense to forging a Sinocentric regional hierarchical order including Russia to building a socialist camp with China replacing the Soviet Union at the center. Should Moscow defy Beijing, it would invite a revival of the territorial dispute as well as the full wrath of “wolf warrior” invectives. Isolated and economically dependent, Russia could ill afford to test if China would blackmail it. Should Moscow accept Chinese plans for new levels of economic, technological, and geopolitical closeness, it would leave itself vulnerable, at odds with the driving force in Putin’s worldview.
If China is driven by Sinocentrism with scant room for Russia’s interests and is reverting to elements of Maoism with potential to reassert a socialist hierarchy, desperate conditions demand desperate measures. Fear of “wolf warrior” diplomacy and blackmail over territorial grievances would only deepen if Moscow did not act abruptly. Sensing there is no time to waste amid increasingly clear revelations of China’s conduct in 2018-20, some hinted at turning away from China to a degree; others looked elsewhere.
Aleksandr Gabuev wrote, “What China is doing to Australia is relevant. In a decade will Russia still be able to sell weapons to India or Vietnam if China controls half of Russia’s trade?”10 Igor Denisov said, “Attempts by Chinese diplomats in the EU countries to switch to personal threats against the most active critics destroy the social capital that China has been building for many years.”11 Such alarm about China cast doubt on the course Russia had been taking.
Fedor Lukyanov wrote that it is dangerous for Russia to become entangled in positioning in the Sino-US world, ignoring debate on its own development. He added, politics based on "civilizational choice" is inadvisable and he drew a parallel with Russia’s ill-advised entry into WWI, when it took sides.12 This appears to be a warning against signs that Russia would take sides and against optimistic assumptions steeped in misjudgments about Russian as well as Chinese civilization. Yet, if such concern raised alarm, a response to draw back from China was rejected in favor of a war to raise Russia’s stature.
Russians, it seems, could easily bring down the wrath of “wolf warrior” Chinese. A Nezavisimaya Gazeta article focused on the unprecedented pressureagainst that newspaper from a Chinese diplomat unhappy with an article. Despite many in Russia believing that the golden age of the 1950s in Moscow-Beijing relations lives on, some Chinese officials do not, says the article. They do not respect Russian laws and do not treat Russians as equal partners. “This tells us more about the real state of bilateral relations that what politicians say.”13 Clearly, a trusting relationship was not developing.
At the end of 2020 Vladimir Skosyrev wrote in Nezavisimaya Gazeta that “China has quarreled with everyone, is pursuing a policy that rejects its neighbors.”14 Sergey Trush argued that a Sino-Russian military alliance “does not serve Russia’s security interests and impacts multipolarity,” adding, “Russians are talking a lot about such an alliance since in October China was seen as changing its view of alliance relations… A new East-West axis would take shape. India would move further to the US. An impact could be felt in Russian society too, adding to disproportions and ideological thinking. The dominant partner would hold sway over foreign policy, ideology, and even budget expenses.”15 These warnings may have fueled a search for change.
Poignant reminders of China’s clashing thinking about history came in rapid succession. A 2016 Global Times article warned, “Russia really wants to do what it accuses the United States of.” After the Russian charge d’affaires responded in the paper, Alexander Lukin wrote, “This new tone of Chinese assertiveness is not just for hostile states and is supported by a significant share of the elite, while the leadership does not appear to want to change this.”16 Lukin added, “exchanges through the media are becoming more and more asymmetrical: publication of Russian works on relevant topics in China is possible only if they do not contradict the official position of Beijing. The control has been significantly tightened recently in contrast to Russian publishing of a significant number of translated Chinese materials on history, politics, and international relations, many reflecting Beijing’s official approaches, which are not shared by most Russian researchers… The complex of ‘lost territories’ is constantly being fed in China.”
A low point occurred in July 2020 when, as one Russian journalist wrote, the 160th anniversary of Vladivostok reminded Chinese of unequal treaties and that the city does not leave Chinese nationalists in peace. Mentioning the occasion prompted a wave of negative emotions from Chinese bloggers. Anti-western feelings can be turned against Russia too. Nezavisimaya Gazeta warned of a new ideological component in Sino-Russian relations, pointing not only to the attack on the name of Vladivostok, but a wider pattern of harking back to China’s historical humiliation, anti-Russian emotions raised by a Chinese diplomat in Pakistan, and spillover from the Sino-Indian border clash. It indicated that if China’s leaders do not intend at this time to cause a dispute with Russia, they are artificially arousing emotions over history.17
The distrust in personal exchanges is high in academic collaboration, acceptance of Confucian Institutes in Russia and of Russian tv and publications in China, and business ties. The term “xenophobia” has crept into Russian complaints about China long after it was present in Chinese complaints about Russia. There is scant cause for joint celebration without strife. In mid-July 2020 Ivan Zuenko wrote that “bilateral relations over the past two years have been on the razor’s edge due to anniversaries, convenient and inconvenient.” He noted the 50th of the 1969 border clash, the 120th of the forcible resettlement of Chinese from Russia, and the 160th anniversary of the founding of Vladivostok in 1860, whose announcement arouseda virulent reaction in China, where many are suspected of doubting the 2004 final territorial demarcation, adding that “Historical facts will not persuade the Chinese.”18 On March 28, 2021 Zuenko said, “The living and working conditions for foreigners in China are constantly becoming more difficult. The borders are closed, and no one knows when they will open… business is going bankrupt. It is not just the pandemic. That only accelerated a process growing over the past five to six years.”19 Pretenses that contacts are proceeding smoothly are exposed in such revelations.
Such criticisms, however, fell short of offering a solution. That heeding these warnings could undercut Putin’s main policy objectives did not go unnoticed. An unexpected response needed to be found, as it, arguably, was in 2022.
Impression that the Chinese Were Ready
For the first fifteen years of the post-Cold War era, China urged Russia to do more to bolster bilateral ties and face the US more assertively. Yet, the cautious legacy left by Deng Xiaoping limited what China would do or was seeking from Russia. Over the next decade or so, Russia was at least as assertive as China, growing more so in the mid-2010s, as the two egged each other on. Increasingly, especially from 2018, Russians took comfort from the thought that China was turning more sharply against the US and is ready to raise relations with Russia to a much higher level. The notion that this was becoming an alliance drew attention, both positive and negative. On the positive side, Moscow felt more emboldened toward North Korea, US allies, and the international order. On the negative side, some dared to warn of new dangers Russia would face, overlapping in their concerns with hardliners who were delighted with China’s shift but feared marginalization.
The mainstream narrative is all about the unstoppable advance to a partnership determined to reconstruct Asian and global architecture. From 2014, having confronted the West militarily in Crimea, Russia was the driving force, waiting for China to agree that the divide is irreconcilable with the US. Finally, in 2018-19, China joined in this cause, which served to put the forging of a Sino-Russian alliance on the agenda. However welcome this outcome was to Russia, it raised a problem little anticipated by the mainstream: instead of the long-desired multipolarity in Asia, a pattern of bipolarity was emerging, leaving Russia in the shadow of China’s conflict with the US. Moreover, by raising the “red banner” of socialism, China had launched an ideological struggle, which inspired like-minded Russians to embrace a cold war more heartily, as grew apparent in the Ukraine war.
Both critics appealing, indirectly by necessity, for reducing dependency on China, and the mainstream, eager for joint aggressiveness against the US and its allies, recognized that the Sino-US relationship had deteriorated. In strategic triangle logic, that invited change to the other sides of the triangle. Unlike the critic’s advice to shift toward multipolarity (calling for better ties with the US would have crossed a red line), the mainstream pressed for a closer Sino-Russian leg and a more aggressive stance against the US. The Trump impact on Sino-US relations was viewed as an inadvertent favor to Russia. If the pandemic slowed diplomacy, Biden’s more strategic calculus for countering China whetted the siloviki’s appetite for taking quick action.
To the extent that the Russia war in Ukraine has gone badly and that ties to Russia damage China’s international image, Beijing is distancing itself from the message conveyed at the Sino-Russian summit in February 2022 prior to the war of “no limits” to relations. Yet, it considers Moscow an invaluable strategic asset in the most important struggle with Washington, militarily, diplomatically, in economic security, and in the global clash of values. Now that Russia is weakened and more isolated, it is also a prime opportunity to extend Sinocentrlsm. Russia is ever more a junior partner and will pay the price. Moscow has boxed itself into a corner for which it is still unprepared.
Russians have long detected a lack of respect from Chinese. If one reason for the war in Ukraine was to win more respect, its counterproductive effect, visible increasingly since the summer of 2022, is obvious to Moscow. What was bothersome in earlier years is likely to become seriously irksome. Yes, China will want closer relations, needed now by Russia, but on terms more onerous and more offensive to Russian national identity. This dilemma is not going to go away because, on the surface, China is solicitous, and in the background are more acrimonious relations with the US and its allies.
The ball is in Russia’s court. China will want to rein it in, take advantage of it, and draw the relationship closer on China’s terms. The illusion of GEP is unsustainable. The Ukraine war backfired as a way to gain more equality with China. Putin may see no way forward but to agree to China’s terms. Yet, a backlash in the Russian elite is not inconceivable. Three factors are likely to make it a possibility: 1) the high level of distrust of China, never fully overcome from the Sino-Soviet split and even revived in the 2010s; 2) the lack of respect in China for Russia, felt more vividly in recent years and now exacerbated by the Ukraine war; and 3) the backlash in Russia to the failure in Ukraine, which may take no less than a year or two to play out.
The record of the “Turn to the East” is of an increasingly close partnership without increasing trust or confidence that it could proceed favorably for Russia absent a drastic change. The illusion of Eurasianism is shattered, and the reality of advancing Sinocentrism is approaching. This leaves the Russian state and people with no good options and no inevitability.
Reasoning about strategic triangles normally focus on joining one of the other two parties to gain leverage over the other. What may be missing is attention to action to secure an equilateral triangle, not just a spot in the mix. China was not content in the 1950s to ally with the Soviet Union as the weak third party. Moscow is clearly like-minded, although its plan to use the war to propel it into a new triangular formation clearly has backfired to date.
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. Over these years, one could discern in Russian sources 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 China’s help.
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.
After a decade of cat-and-mouse moves rather than close coordination, the Russian side was essentially out of options. Its pretenses about multiple poles, Eurasia, and Chinese deference rang hollow. Meanwhile, critiques were mounting from both conservatives and reformers that the partnership with China and the “Turn to the East” had gone off the rails. No longer were the goals behind Russian policy, such as a grand strategic triangle rather than a polarized struggle exclusive of Russia, deemed achievable. Finally, China was poised to take action over Taiwan and more amenable to accept Russian aggression challenging the west too. Such background factors put a Russian invasion of Ukraine on the agenda, with erroneous expectations.
An outcome of one-sided dependency on China without outside support would allow China to impose its will in a polarized Asia. China, Russia, North Korea, and various states across Central and Southeast Asia with communist legacies would confront a US-led alliance and partnership network mobilized behind an Indo-Pacific strategy. Having given up on multipolarity and watched as Greater Eurasia was being subsumed by BRI, Russia would have little leverage on China: deferring to its censorship and national identity demands; yielding to its economic integration requirements on all fronts of the BRI; and waiting in trepidation for historical and territorial issues to be raised that previously were seen as crossing a red line. The hole dug between 1976 and 1986 proved too deep to climb out of. There is reason to think that the hole still being dug in 2022 was becoming so deep that Russia would again not find an escape hatch as events kept unfolding.
1. Gilbert Rozman, A Mirror for Socialism: Soviet Criticisms of China (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1985)
2. Gilbert Rozman, “China’s Concurrent Debate about the Gorbachev Era,” in Thomas P. Bernstein and Hua-Yu Li, eds., China Learns from the Soviet Union, 1949 to the Present (Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2009), pp. 449-76.
3. Gilbert Rozman, “Sino-Russian Mutual Assessments,” in Sherman Garnett, ed., Rapprochement or Rivalry? Russia-China Relations in a Changing Asia (Armonk, NY: M.E. Sharpe, 2000), pp. 147-74.
4. Gilbert Rozman, “The Sino-Russian Strategic Partnership: How Close? Where To?” in James Bellacqua, ed., The Future of China-Russia Relations (Lexington, KY: Univ. of Kentucky Press 2010), pp. 12-32.
5. Gilbert Rozman, “Russia’s Revived Debate on China: Historical Perspective and Implicit Significance,” The Asan
Forum, Vol. 6, No. 5 (2018).
6. Gilbert Rozman, "Moscow’s China-Watchers in the Post-Mao Era: The Response to a Changing China," The China Quarterly 94 (June 1983), pp. 215-41.
7. Gilbert Rozman, The Chinese Debate about Soviet Socialism, 1978-1985 (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1987).
8. 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).
9. These issues are explained in Ch. 2, above.
10. Aleksandr Gabuev, Moscow Carnegie Center, March 2, 2021.
11. Igor Denisov, Forbes, April 6, 2021.
12. Fedor Lukyanov, Profil’, May 20, 2020.
13. Nezavisimaya Gazeta, March 4, 2020.
14. Vladimir Skosyrev, Nezavisimaya Gazeta, October 4, 2020.
15. Sergey Trush, in Vestnik—Rossiiskaia akademiia nauk, No. 11, 2020.
16. Aleksandr Lukin, Rossiya v Global’noi Politike, July 1, 2021.
17. Nezavisimaya Gazeta, July 15, 2020.
18. Ivan Zuenko,, “Kitaitsy o iubilee Vladivostoka: ‘posol’stvo Rossii unizirolo Kitai,’’” Argumenty i Fakty, No. 29, July 15, 2020.
19. Ivan Zuenko, RIA Novosti, March 28, 2021.
Special Forum Issue
“Russian Thinking on Sino-Russian Relations and the Ukraine War”