Under Vladimir Putin, Russia has pursued an increasingly assertive — even aggressive — foreign policy. In addition to rebuilding Moscow’s influence over most, if not all, the non-Russian republics of the former Soviet Union, he has also revived Moscow’s great power role not just in the Middle East, but even in Africa and Latin America, which it had lost at the end of the Cold War. Putin has also gained friends in many European countries that have been American allies since World War II. Finally, Putin has arguably gained a greater influence for Moscow in the domestic politics of the United States than the Soviets ever had. Yet despite the general success of Putin’s assertive foreign policy approach toward so much of the world, there is one country that has not received this treatment: China.
When it comes to Russia’s relations with China, Putin has been remarkably deferential and respectful. Putin has even described Chinese President Xi Jinping as “a good and reliable friend.” An important reason for this, of course, is Russia’s increasing economic dependence on China, which has partly been brought about by Western economic sanctions on Russia over Crimea and other issues. But being the hard-headed realist that he is, Putin must surely see that China has been growing more and more powerful economically while Russia has been stagnating, and that China’s greater economic strength as well as population size could soon result in Beijing becoming stronger than Moscow militarily. And a China that Russia is increasingly dependent on could serve to limit Moscow’s — indeed, Putin’s own — freedom of action internationally.
Putin, though, does not even seem to acknowledge the possibility that China could ever pose a threat to Russia. Why is this?
One explanation might be that Putin is so focused on what he is convinced is the principal threat from America and the West that he is not paying sufficient attention to the threat potential from China. Sitting in Moscow with his gaze focused westward, he is not looking back over his shoulder to the southeast. But given Putin’s reputation for being sensitive to the possibility of any kind of threat, this seems highly unlikely.
Another possible explanation is that Putin actually understands that China is becoming more powerful than Russia, but sees it as better for Moscow to be subordinate to Beijing than to Washington. For whatever else China wants from Russia, it is not trying to democratize it through “color revolution” like Putin seems to fear that the U.S. has sought to do. Yet while the “color revolutions” in Georgia and Ukraine during the Bush years and again in several Arab countries and Ukraine during the Obama years may have, however unrealistically, contributed to such a fear, it is difficult to believe that Putin sees Donald Trump, with his great admiration for strongmen in general and Putin in particular, as posing any such threat. Even if a Democrat becomes president, the U.S. and the West are in such disarray internally — thanks in part to Putin’s actions — that Putin himself must see that the West is hardly in a position to organize a democratic revolution against him.
Yet another possible explanation for Putin’s continuing deference to Xi is that he believes that China will never threaten Russia so long as Beijing regards Washington as its principal threat. Further, if and when China does pose a threat to Russia, it will also pose a threat to America and the West. And if and when that occurs, it will be very much in American and Western interests to ally with a weaker Russia against a stronger China — no matter how difficult Russian relations with America and the West may have been earlier.
It is this cynical logic that appears more in keeping with Putin’s personality. And if this is indeed what he thinks, he may well be right. No matter how much they loathe him, Western leaders engaged in a global competition with China may well prefer Russia on their side rather than on Beijing’s.
On the other hand, Western leaders long at odds with Russia may not recognize that Putin or his successor is no longer hostile to them right when Moscow wants or needs them to. It is also possible that if and when Moscow turns to the West for support against China, Western leaders may cynically prefer to stand aside and let Moscow and Beijing focus on their rivalry with each other instead of their rivalries with the West.
Is this destined to occur? Not at all. But the possibility that it could should encourage even an anti-Western Russian leader like Putin to hedge against it through balancing between China and America instead of siding with the former against the latter in the expectation that Moscow can switch alliances whenever it chooses to. The fact that he is not doing this suggests that animosity and cynicism play a greater role in Putin’s calculations than rationality.