Russia-China Nexus Dulls Western Efforts to Hamstring Putin

COMMENTARY Global Politics

Russia-China Nexus Dulls Western Efforts to Hamstring Putin

Feb 21, 2023 5 min read

Commentary By

Daniel Kochis @dankochis

Research Fellow, Margaret Thatcher Center for Freedom

Erin Walsh

Senior Research Fellow for International Affairs

Russian President Vladimir Putin speaks to China's President Xi Jinping during the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) leaders' summit in Samarkand on September 16, 2022. SERGEI BOBYLYOV / SPUTNIK / AFP / Getty Images

Key Takeaways

While bloodied, Russia is far from defeated, due primarily to Putin’s patron in Beijing and renewed arms trade with Tehran and Pyongyang.

While China isn’t the only nation helping Russia skirt western sanctions, it is the key enabler.

Irresolution in the face of Putin’s naked aggression will be read by Beijing as an invitation to attempt armed aggression in its own neighborhood.

February 24 will mark one year since Vladimir Putin launched an all-out, country wide assault to decapitate Ukraine’s democratically elected government. Having withstood the initial onslaught, Ukrainian forces have now retaken large swaths of its territory from the invaders and remain resolute in the face of widespread destruction, and atrocities targeted at civilians by Putin’s army. 

Ukraine’s successes are due to the courage and skill of their soldiers and military planners, the nation’s whole-of-society mobilization, a fierce sense of purpose, and an acknowledgement of the sky-high stakes. The United States and Europe have been indispensable to Ukraine’s war effort providing ammunition, economic and humanitarian assistance, intelligence, and weapons systems. U.S. allies including Japan and Australia imposed sweeping financial sanctions against Russia and have collectively provided unprecedented support. 

President Zelensky’s recent visit to London underscored the substantial and strengthening bonds between his nation and the West. It also sent a clear message to Russia: Ukraine is not alone.

Yet the war is far from won, Russia is massing for an imminent offensive, and new western weapons systems are only just starting to make it to the field. While bloodied, Russia is far from defeated, due primarily to Putin’s patron in Beijing and renewed arms trade with Tehran and Pyongyang.

The lifeline that Xi Jinping has thrown Putin has partially stymied Western sanctions aimed at reducing Putin’s ability to wage war and has undermined efforts to diplomatically isolate Moscow. This critical reinforcement is fundamentally restructuring the Sino-Russo relationship to the clear advantage of Beijing.  For instance, China is happily purchasing Russian energy at bargain basement prices. (Russian oil today sells for around half of what it did a year ago.) In addition to crude, China is also getting natural gas, and coal. Beijing has become the most important, indeed, indispensable market for Moscow’s critical hydrocarbon exports. 

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China isn’t merely a purchaser; Chinese owned tankers are continuing to help transport Russia’s fuel exports. One Chinese executive recently estimated that Chinese- owned vessels had the potential to “transport 15 million tonnes a year or about 10% of total Urals exports” in 2023. Despite the shifting of Russian oil eastward to China (and India), Western price caps on Russian crude and refined petroleum products are taking a significant bite, costing Russia an estimated $280 million a day in lost revenue. To circumvent the tightening screws on its energy industry, Russia is turning increasingly to a ghost fleet of 100 vessels it has assembled to move its exports. Furthermore, many ghost vessels which formerly moved Iranian oil are now transporting Russian oil in hopes of selling the products above the price cap.

Despite a weakened economy, China’s voracious demand for energy will allow funding to continue to flow into the Kremlin’s coffers. Trade between the two nations hit an all-time high in 2022 ($190 billion), with Russia recently expressing hopes for $200 billion in trade this year with China. These new realities will shape not only America’s relationship with Russia for decades to come, but also its relationship with China.

Just weeks prior to Russia’s second invasion of Ukraine, Putin and Xi announced a strategic partnership which promised “no 'forbidden' areas of cooperation.” While Chinese support hasn’t quite lived up to the hype, Beijing certainly hasn’t been sitting on the sidelines. Recent analysis shows that China is shipping critical components including “navigation equipment, jamming technology and jet-fighter parts to sanctioned Russian government-owned defense companies.” While China isn’t the only nation helping Russia skirt western sanctions, it is the key enabler.

One analyst recently explained, “Despite international scrutiny and sanctions protocols, reliable global trade data shows that Chinese state-owned defense companies continue to send military-applicable parts to sanctioned Russian defense companies.”

It is not only semiconductors and military parts that China is exporting to Russia. Chinese consumer goods, to say nothing of western products, often make their way to Russia via neighboring countries including China.  China and Russia also continue to conduct regular military exercises together, including last year’s “Vostok 22” iteration which saw the participation of 2,000 Chinese soldiers, 300 vehicles and 21 aircraft.

From overall trade numbers to selling critical components to Russia’s defense industry, diplomatic support, or military to military cooperation, China is the key player enabling Putin to continue prosecuting his war against Ukraine. Western policymakers should not make the mistake of believing you can disaggregate the two. While their tactics may not always align, Beijing and Moscow are working hand in hand to support each other's core interests and ultimately diminish the dominance of their mutual adversary, the United States.  

While Xi no doubt has “concerns” over the incompetence of the Russian military in Ukraine, he has no interest in seeing Putin fail in his planned conquest much less fall from power. The pair have had 40 one-on-one meetings, a testament to dictatorial staying power but also their amity. After all, Xi’s father “managed the program under which thousands of advisers and teachers from the Soviet Union arrived to bolster China’s building of communism.”

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In addition to its energy needs, China retains key dependencies on Russia’s defense industry, particularly as it relates to jet engines. Similarly, while Russia harbors deep antagonism towards its eastern neighbor, it has shelved these concerns out of necessity and the convenience of shared enemies. China is closely studying the response of the U.S. and its allies to Putin’s war. Irresolution in the face of Putin’s naked aggression will be read by Beijing as an invitation to attempt armed aggression in its own neighborhood.

A China which attacks Taiwan won’t merely be a U.S. problem, but a collective western one. As NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg recently remarked:

We see their assertive behavior, …where China tries to assert control of the South China Sea. Then we see the threats against Taiwan. All of this matters [And…] we see that China is coming closer to us. We see them in cyberspace, we see them in Africa, in the Arctic, but also trying to control the critical infrastructure in Europe. So, this idea that we can say that China doesn’t matter for NATO is wrong, it doesn’t work. Security is global; security is not regional.

The U.S. cannot pick and choose whether to confront China or Russia. Our interests and principles dictate we must do both. The U.S. has allies which have and should continue to aid Ukraine and push back against Putin’s revanchism. At the same time, for the collective west, underestimating or overlooking the symbiotic relationship between China and Russia risks failing to stop Putin and further emboldening Xi.

The China-Russia nexus is alive and well. Putin can only succeed if that lifeline remains intact. The West should adjust its responses accordingly.

This piece originally appeared in RealClear Defense