Russia, China, and the West After Crimea

May 13, 2016
Angela Stent
3 min read
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On May 13, 2016, the Transatlantic Academy published a paper by Senior Fellow Angela Stent entitled "Russia, China, and the West After Crimea," the eighth in its 2015-16 Paper Series.

Since the onset of the Ukraine crisis, Vladimir Putin has enthusiastically promoted ties with China as an alternative to Russia’s adversarial relationship with the United States and Europe. Presidents Putin and Xi have lavishly praised each other and criticized U.S. “unilateralism.” They have stepped up their military cooperation — conducting joint naval exercises in the Mediterranean last year — and signed major energy deals, such as the $400 billion Power of Siberia Gas pipeline project. In 2015, they attended each other’s military parades commemorating the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II, when no Western leader attended either. The rhetoric and optics stress close ties between two leaders who share a conviction that their countries were unfairly treated in the past. They are also uncomfortable with the current international political and financial order, which, they believe, denies them equal treatment in setting the agenda and determining the institutional rules.

Despite the intensification of Sino-Russian ties since the annexation of Crimea, however, this remains a pragmatic and instrumental partnership, not a prelude to a closer alliance. For Moscow, the partnership is designed to reinforce Russia’s role as an independent center of global power, one of Putin’s key foreign policy goals. It is also intended to confer success by association from a rising China to a Russia experiencing serious economic problems. China’s support for Russia has served to legitimize Moscow’s actions in Ukraine and Syria. Russia is a useful partner for China because it supplies China with hydrocarbons and advanced military hardware, supports China on all major foreign policy issues, and pursues a policy of noninterference in China’s domestic affairs. While Chinese experts may privately express criticism of Russia’s actions in Ukraine, publicly officials have adopted a policy of neutrality. In return, Russia has not commented publically on China’s military activities in the South China Sea, although these actions have irked Russia’s other Asian partners such as Vietnam.

China protects Russia from the full impact of Western sanctions and gives it continuing international legitimacy at a time when the West has sought to isolate it. Beijing has remained neutral as Russia has destabilized Ukraine used military force to keep the Assad regime in power in Syria. Nevertheless, China is unlikely to take actions that would contravene Western sanctions against Russia. Its economic interests in both the United States and Europe are significantly greater than are its economic interests in Russia. Ultimately, while the Kremlin seeks to overturn the U.S.-led global order and promote a tripolar world order, Beijing prefers to reform the existing order to suit its economic and geostrategic interests, and it regards the United States as its only true global counterpart.