Russia is a Discount Gas Station, Not an Equal Ally: An Analysis of the Putin-Xi Summit

Marcus Kolga

Marcus Kolga shares his insights on the Xi-Putin summit and its impact on both countries. He believes that China sees Russia as a useful partner for cheap resources, but doesn’t consider Russia an equal. Russia needs China to buy its resources and for domestic legitimacy. Kolga also thinks that the recent ICC indictment against Putin has damaged his reputation, and the war in Ukraine has revealed the weakness of the Russian military. The joint statement between China and Russia following the summit is likely to benefit China more than Russia in the long term. Over the next decade, China will seek to take advantage of Russia’s geopolitical and economic decline as well as try to exploit the resource-rich Russian Far East.

What did the Xi-Putin summit achieve for each side? What is Russia’s strategic significance to China? Does it signal a deepening of a threatening autocratic Alliance? And what impact, if any, has the visit had on the war in Ukraine?

Marcus Kolga: First, I think that this is an extremely lopsided relationship. What China gets from Russia are cheap gas and other discounted resources. Geopolitically, China may see Russia as an ally that shares its contempt for NATO and the liberal democratic order. But President Xi certainly does not regard Vladimir Putin or Russia as an equal. And, of course, image and reputation are also extremely important to China’s regime. I’m sure that the ICC indictment against Putin accusing him of abducting and kidnapping thousands of Ukrainian children loomed large during President Xi’s meetings with Putin.

I also believe that China, along with most Western nations, probably regards Russia as a spent power that is on the descent. Putin’s disastrous invasion of Ukraine has really diminished his geopolitical clout, and it’s led to a serious decline in its economic power, and frankly, its stability. Without its nuclear arsenal, Russia wouldn’t be much more than a highly aggrieved and failing middle power. And China, of course, knows this now. What did Russia want from China and what did it get? Well, Vladimir Putin desperately needs China to continue buying its oil, gas, and other resources to stave off economic collapse, and Russia will continue to act as China’s discount gas station.

Putin’s armies desperately need Chinese ammunition, weapons, and parts to repair those that have been damaged over the course of the war. I don’t believe that the Chinese president reacted favourably to this request. In the broader geopolitical context, it would be strategically foolish for China to send lethal aid to Russia, given that the U.S. and the Western world have made it very clear that we will not hesitate to employ massive economic sanctions when foreign adversaries like Russia threaten our interests. I don’t believe that China has any interest in testing this right now. China’s relationship with Russia simply isn’t worth it.

Now, equally important for Russia and Putin is the need for the Russian president to be seen standing next to the Chinese president in order to reinforce the legitimacy of his own power domestically at home, and to demonstrate to his own people that Russia is not completely isolated at this point. We know, of course, that this protracted 14-month operation, which Vladimir Putin initially told Russians would last only three days, is facing considerable scrutiny inside of the Kremlin, and outside of it amongst just regular Russians. Projecting at least a facade of power and strength in the face of this disastrous war is important for Vladimir Putin to maintain control inside the Kremlin.

How was the summit received in Russia? Did it give Putin the political boost he was looking for? How resilient would you say both Russia and Putin have been amid the West’s attempts to isolate Russia on the global stage?

Marcus Kolga: The Kremlin controls most media inside of the country and censors most social media platforms—aside from YouTube—that are being beamed into it from the outside. So, of course, Russian state media portrayed the visit as being highly successful. Putin wanted to demonstrate to the Russian people that Russia remains a global superpower by standing side by side on the same stage and level as China. Those images may have temporarily distracted Russians. And it may have given Putin a short-term boost in his domestic credibility. However, the losses that we’re seeing in Ukraine, on the Russian side, especially in Bakhmut exemplify the failure of Russian forces to make any real significant gains.

The massive loss of life will eventually creep back into the domestic national debate in Russia, it’ll go around the censors—neighbours talking, families talking, and most importantly, that debate about Vladimir Putin will continue to rage inside the Kremlin. I also think that the recent ICC indictment against Putin, making him an international fugitive, has probably done irreparable damage to his reputation and credibility on the global stage. The motion tabled in the UN General Assembly in late February, calling on Russia to completely withdraw its troops from Ukraine had the support of the majority of UN members—141 nations supported it.

Only seven members including Russia, North Korea, Belarus, and a few other authoritarian regimes voted against it. Even China chose to abstain. This sends a strong signal. It demonstrates pretty clearly that Russia’s influence and credibility on the global stage seem to have been greatly diminished over the past fourteen months or so. I don’t believe that any of that can be recovered in the short term, and certainly not if Vladimir Putin and his gang of kleptocrats remain in power inside the Kremlin.

In your view, what are the key takeaways of the joint statement, “Deepening the Comprehensive Strategic Partnership of Coordination for the New Era?

Marcus Kolga: I’m not really all that sure that this partnership is in any way equal, at least not in the eyes of President Xi. For China, it’s actually it’s a smart strategic move to keep Putin onside right now and to keep that cheap Russian energy flowing into China to power its economy. Along with energy and resources, I think that China needs to make sure that Russia doesn’t cause any problems along its Northeastern border in the long term. Over the next decade, China will probably seek to take advantage of Russia’s geopolitical and economic decline. As well as try to exploit the resource-rich Russian Far East.

Where it’s useful for China, it’ll probably partner militarily with Russia to further intimidate Asia Pacific nations, most specifically, Japan and Taiwan, and indeed, for this new emerging era that will probably come after this war. The partnership between China and Russia will remain until there’s some sort of change inside of Russia after Russian forces retreat from Ukraine—eventually, they will. If Putin’s authoritarian regime is replaced by one that is democratic and Western facing, I don’t expect that this relationship between China and Russia will be sustained in the same way. But for now, this strategic partnership is convenient and will continue to be convenient for the Chinese government and for Chinese interests.

Russia repeated its assertion in the joint statement between China and Russia, released after the summit, that Taiwan is Chinese territory and added that it “firmly supports China’s measures to safeguard its sovereignty and territorial integrity.” What role would Russia play in a potential kinetic conflict over Taiwan?

Marcus Kolga: Military partnership between China and Russia in the context of these rising tensions in the Pacific will probably benefit China. They’ll use this partnership, and joint military exercises to further intimidate Japan and Taiwan, and other nations in the region. China will also use this partnership to counter growing Western resistance against China’s now-imperialist ambitions in the region. But, should China choose to ignore the global outcry over Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and risk a typhoon of economic sanctions and potential isolation by invading Taiwan, I suspect it would count on Russian support for that.

I also believe quite strongly in Western resolve. The unity that we’ve demonstrated against Russia over the past fourteen months is probably causing China to think twice about acting against Taiwan. Western support for Ukraine and our sanctions against Russia have clearly demonstrated to China the types of costs that we are willing to impose, and the costs that China would face, quite frankly, if it should act out on those neo-imperialist ambitions—anywhere in the Asia Pacific—but specifically in Taiwan. China is obviously keeping a very close eye on how we have reacted. We will continue to support Ukraine during this invasion.

Could you elaborate on what you believe President Xi’s calculations are here? He seems to be attempting to straddle the line between trying to present China as a “peacemaker”, yet supporting and refraining from condemning Putin’s war.

Marcus Kolga: Unlike Vladimir Putin, Xi is a highly strategic leader. He’s not stupid. Unless he has some sort of insights into Russian capabilities that might turn this war around for Vladimir Putin, Xi probably sees the same set of possible outcomes that we in the West are seeing. The likelihood of the kind of victory that Putin hoped for 14 months ago is extremely low. The ICC indictment, again, is unlikely to be the first one. We know that Russia’s economy is teetering and is on the verge of possible collapse. The Kremlin’s rhetoric about the resilience of Russia’s economy against Western sanctions has also ended. Vladimir Putin recently admitted that our sanctions are causing significant damage to Russia’s economy. Of course, President Xi is hoping for a possible Russian victory. But I’m sure that he’s aware that under the current circumstances, that looks more and more like an impossibility without significant military support from China.

As I mentioned earlier, the cost for China to do so may be far too high for China to tolerate. I believe that the ideal outcome for China is a frozen conflict, a multi-year or even multi-decade ceasefire that keeps Russia and the West on edge, and on the verge of war but not actually warring. Keeping that focus on Europe would be ideal for China. This would free up the Chinese government to act and move more freely in the Indo-Pacific region.

In such a scenario, China would maintain the upper hand in its relationship with Russia, and cheap energy would continue flowing into China. In the long term, a peaceful resolution to this conflict, one in which Ukraine benefits, and whereby the war completely ends, would not benefit China much at all. While it may be trying to position itself as a “peacemaker”, peace and stability in Europe, are not specifically, I don’t think, China’s goals.

To what extent is the ICC warrant further constraining Russia’s ability to be a player on the global stage? What could the international community do to ensure the warrant for Putin’s arrest becomes a genuine step towards meaningful justice?

Marcus Kolga: The indictment against Vladimir Putin has probably permanently damaged his reputation. Even before those charges were announced, the UN’s independent investigation into Russian war crimes in Ukraine found that Russian soldiers had raped young children as young as four years old, and women as old as eighty. This, in addition to countless other atrocities. The barbaric nature of Russia’s invasion has been well documented. The evidence of this is quite abundant.

I think that the global community is turning its back on Vladimir Putin and Russia. The ICC indictment is just the first step towards justice and accountability. A few weeks ago, I actually helped organise and host an international dialogue on the creation of an international tribunal for Russian war crimes in Ukraine—sort of like the one that was held in Nuremberg, after WWII. That would hold the Putin regime to account for this crime of aggression. This is being supported by a number of our NATO allies, including Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, and of course, Ukraine.

If such a tribunal were organised, it’s almost certain that the Russian government would be found guilty of the crime of aggression. Any effects of that sort of verdict would be felt for generations in Russia and would force, I think, a change in the direction that the government is taking. For the current government and its apparatchiks, this is the accountability that they would need, just as it was in Germany after the Second World War. If the international community does not hold Putin to account for this war and doesn’t demand that Russia pays for all of the costs of the destruction, death, and chaos that it’s caused, this would be also a green light for other totalitarian dictators to continue acting with impunity. It’s really critically important that we hold Putin and his kleptocratic regime to account for this.

How aware is Putin of the fact that China is the dominant partner in this relationship? Do you think this power asymmetry is or could become a point of friction?

Marcus Kolga: There’s nothing equal in the relationship between Russia and China or Putin and Xi. President Xi knows exactly who he is dealing with. I’m frankly surprised that he even made that trip to Moscow at all because it lowers China’s and Xi’s stature. They’ve come off as though they’re bowing to a fugitive leader, who’s accused of kidnapping children and dragging his country into a bloody and probably unwinnable war that is leading to Russia’s economic ruin. For China, maintaining the current state of the conflict and continuing to benefit from cheap Russian energy, and advancing its hegemonic aspirations in the Asia Pacific region are probably worth the price of partnering with what is clearly a criminal government.

But eventually, the Putin regime and this relationship between Russia and China will probably come to an end. This will happen when Ukraine wins this war and when Russia is forced into a period of political transformation afterwards. There will likely be changes in the geopolitical alignment and those changes may also disrupt the status of China’s relationship with Russia. for the time being, the Chinese government will seek to exploit and benefit from this conflict and it will continue to act strategically and likely avoid exposing itself to unnecessary risk, which will mean not getting directly involved in it by supplying Russia with any sort of arms or supplies to help it in its invasion. Aside from pumping discounted gas into China, and superficial political support, Russia will just continue to fight its illegal war against Ukraine primarily on its own.

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