Despite their differences, a strong binding factor is personality. Both Xi and Putin have identical, hyper-nationalistic images of themselves and their nations, and want to take their nations back to their former glory.

When Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping met at the beginning of the Winter Olympic Games in Beijing, it was the 38th personal meeting between the two leaders. That meeting, coupled with the shadows of war in Europe, had more than just symbolic value. It was the bonding of two similar powers in an alliance “which is superior to the political and military alliances of the Cold War; in a friendship that has no limits.” It is significant that a fortnight after the meeting (and conveniently, just after the Olympic Games had ended) Putin launched his invasion of Ukraine.

At a time when both Russia and China find themselves alienated from much of the world, this coming together is essential for both. Sino-Soviet relations had hit an ideological high in the Mao-Stalin era, but collapsed soon thereafter and remained frosty for most of the Cold War Era. The two sides fought a bitter seven-month long border war in 1969 but their growing closeness has now enabled Russia to transfer troops from their Siberian border towards the West.

When the Soviet Union imploded and Putin sought to take Russia back to its former glory, he turned to China and signed the Treaty of Good Neighbourliness and Friendly Cooperation in 2001 (which was extended in this meeting). But the political convergence developed after Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014. Faced with a sharp downturn of ties with the US and the EU, Putin turned towards China. This period also marked the ascendency of Xi Jinping and China’s increased belligerence. As the world pushback began in the form of trade embargoes, criticism of Chinese human rights and its actions in Xinjiang, the two leaders—who shared the same autocratic views for themselves and their nations—became drawn closer together.

China and Russia now share trade of over $147 billion annually. Russia is one of the prime providers of gas and oil to energy starved China and their economic and ideological bonds could be further strengthened by the linking of Russia’s Eurasian Economic Union and China’s BRI. Both sides also share a similar vision of expanding their domains. Russia seeks dominance in Europe, and China in the Indo-Pacific, but both support each other’s claims—be it in Ukraine or in Taiwan. Russia has extended into arenas such as Syria and the Middle East, and is inching towards the Central Asian Republics and Afghanistan. China’s projections are more subtle, and uses its BRI projects to get footholds in Sri Lanka, Pakistan and East Africa, which can later be developed into bases. This could see a convergence of interests in Central Asia, Eastern Europe and Africa. Plus, global warming is helping open up the Arctic Route, and with this, the shipping route between Europe and Asia will reduce by almost 12 days, reducing the geographical distance between China and Russia. This could lead to greater economic and political convergence and enable the two sides to cooperate even more strongly.

Things have taken a dramatic turn with Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. At one stroke, Russia has distanced itself, perhaps irrevocably, from the United States and much of Western Europe. With the spectre of the new Cold War, it will turn even closer to China. Russia is economically dependent on Europe, and vice versa. 27% of Russia’s exports go to the European Union, accounting for over $188 billion of trade. Russian oil and gas provide Europe with much of its energy requirements and is vital for both. Shorn of the European relationship, Russia could face the same economic collapse that USSR did 30 years ago, unless it finds other partners. Although the US and its allies have proposed a set of sanctions that will hurt, Russia seems to have already sought economic alternatives in China. The greatest weapon in the “arsenal of sanctions” was the blocking of Nord Stream 2—the 1,222 km long undersea gas pipeline that was to funnel Russian gas to Germany and Europe. Its certification has been blocked now, but Russia has already embarked on its Power of Siberia gas pipeline to supply gas to China for the next 30 years—something which will offset the losses in Europe. Also, in spite of sanctions, China has gone ahead with the purchase of Russian wheat and grain. With China not coming on board, western sanctions will no longer have the same effect (not that sanctions have much effect, anyway). Russia is also aware of the hand it has on Europe’s energy tap. It supplies 40% of its gas at a cost which is one third of what it would be had it been shipped from elsewhere (the US or the Middle East). Putin knows that the sanctions will not last, and till then he has found a hedge and an alternative with China.

With Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, Europe has slipped back to the days of the Cold War. Russian equations with the US and Europe will no longer be normal—as was hoped—but will remain hostile and belligerent. That will turn Russia even more towards China. Around 50 years ago, at the height of the Cold War in 1972, Nixon turned to China to tilt “the triangulation of power” against the Soviet Union and hasten its collapse. If Russia tilts to China now, it will upend global power equations similarly in their favour.

There are many who scoff at the growing Russia-China closeness, citing the historical and cultural differences between them. There are differences, the most important being the fact that Russia would have to play a junior partner in this relationship, which it may not accept. But a strong binding factor is the personalities of their two leaders. Both Xi and Putin have identical, hyper-nationalistic images of themselves and their nations, and want to take their nations back to their former glory. Russia’s actions in Georgia and Crimea, and Chinese acts in the China Sea, Ladakh and Taiwan were just the first phase. With Ukraine, Putin seems to have pushed the envelope and challenged the world directly. Will China do the same—maybe in Taiwan—now that both sides are bolstered by each other?

Countering The Axis

The growing China -Russia closeness has a sense of inevitability, which many predict could define a new world order. Already we are at a stage where the US is seen as a superpower in decline—one which is increasingly inwards looking and reluctant to be drawn in external wars. Europe is divided in itself and unlikely to put up a unified front in world affairs. Amongst the major power centres—the US, China, Europe and Russia—there exists a rough balance of power. All that could change if Russia and China form an axis. That would give them dominance not only geo-politically, but in forums such as the United Nations (where they both have veto powers) and other world bodies. In a way it will also hasten the decline of the US as the leading superpower and supplant the role to China.

Another nation desperately trying to enter the embrace is Pakistan, which is also isolated from the rest of the world. Imran’s visit to Moscow to discuss ties and a gas pipeline is significant. Pakistan is a key player in Afghanistan and could help Russia and China strengthen their influence there, and by extension towards Central Asia. With Iran also willing to come aboard, it could form a formidable Eurasian coalition.

Russian actions have aided China, which is emerging as the prime beneficiary of the events in Europe. Ever since the US and most of the world began closing ranks against the Chinese threat around 2019 or so, the focus had shifted towards the Indo-Pacific. US-led alliances—Quad and AUKUS being the major ones—emerged. European nations and NATO also began to swing towards the region where they saw the main threat. Unfortunately, the focus has shifted back to Europe now, which suits China best as it divides Western forces between the two arenas, and diverts attention from the Indo-Pacific.

Although the Putin-Xi closeness signals a coming together, it is by no way an alliance—as yet. The US has tried to develop “a coalition of democracies”—a loose US led grouping, along with India, European and Asian democracies—which could provide an ideological counter. But the very idea of democracy has its own internal contradictions and interpretations. Why, Russia and China themselves profess to be a champion of democratic norms in the uplift of its own people. But a grouping of democratic nations could provide an economic and security platform on which Quad, AUKUS and NATO could base themselves on. Perhaps Quad could coalesce into Quad Plus incorporating France, UK and Germany and become a European and Indo-Pacific alliance, which could balance both spheres.

The recent Russian actions in Ukraine and its growing closeness with China will test Indian foreign policy. We have to balance relations with Russia, which has traditionally been a good friend, with the US, with whom we hope to form the defining partnership of the 21st Century; Europe, which is a major economic and security partner; and China, whose adversarial relations have to be managed and kept in check. Our present stance of not taking sides in this conflict is a good one. We have to maintain independent equations with each one, based on national interest. It is significant that the Xi-Putin joint statement mentioned “Indian-Chinese-Russian cooperation”. This cooperation can be pursued—independently and trilaterally—even as we develop closer ties with the US, Japan, Europe, Australia and other allies in the region. It would involve a very fine balancing act, but could be the stance which offers the greatest economic and strategic benefits for us in the long run.