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Opinion: Putin's China visit was another battle in Russia's war of economic endurance

Putin's China visit last week signaled a shift in Russia's approach to its war in Ukraine as a battle of economic endurance. For Beijing, the visit was yet another attempt at balancing Russia and the West.

May 21, 2024 2:40 PM 6 min read
Russian President Vladimir Putin (L) and Chinese President Xi Jinping (L) attend a concert in Beijing, China, on May 16, 2024, marking the 75th anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic relations between Russia and China. (Sergei Guneyev/POOL/AFP via Getty Images)

Putin's China visit last week signaled a shift in Russia's approach to its war in Ukraine as a battle of economic endurance. For Beijing, the visit was yet another attempt at balancing Russia and the West.

May 21, 2024 2:40 PM 6 min read
Timothy Ash
Timothy Ash
Associate Fellow at Chatham House
This audio is created with AI assistance

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Russian President Vladimir Putin sent a clear signal to the West last week: China stands firmly behind Russia. Putin made his first foreign trip since his inauguration to Beijing to meet with President Xi Jinping on May 16. The visit came after a cabinet reshuffle in Russia the week prior, the most significant move of which saw Russian economist Andrei Belousov replace Sergei Shoigu as Russian defense minister.

Belousov's appointment signals that Putin now views the outcome of the war against Ukraine as being determined by which side can mobilize the most resources in a longer run battle of economic endurance. Putin's trip to Beijing signals that Putin is lining up the external component, with economic backing from China.

Putin has a point in thinking that Russia's war against Ukraine will be determined by which side can outspend the other. At face value, one might think that Russia has little chance given its $1.8 trillion GDP is set against the West's $40 trillion plus. Add in China's $17 trillion powerhouse economy and the balance of economies begins to look a little different.

Unfortunately, the West appears not to have realized that the war is now all about economy and resources. The data shows that Ukraine is being under-financed and under-resourced. Annual Western support to Ukraine is running at around $100 billion per year – enough for Kyiv to hold the line, but not to push Russia back (as evidenced by recent weeks in Ukraine's Donetsk and Kharkiv oblasts).

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And with U.S. support delayed by Congress, Western support for Ukraine has ebbed and flowed. It peaked at around $8.5 billion in the first half of 2023 to coincide with the much-touted Ukrainian counteroffensive, but then dropped back to just $3.7 billion per month between October 2023 to February 2024. This decline in Western funding came in parallel to Ukraine being pushed onto the back foot in its defense against Russia. No surprises there.

Western funding to Ukraine is insufficient, poorly coordinated, and lacks long-term plan or strategy. It's ad hoc, drip fed. There is no comprehensive long-run funding strategy for Ukraine, and particularly not for a scenario where Donald Trump wins the U.S. presidential election. Putin has, by contrast, tried to deliver that long-term war resourcing vision for Russia. It's sad that the West does not really comprehend what's at stake here.

Fortunately, China's support for Russia is hardly wholehearted. China is not providing direct military support and only giving limited equipment and munitions – hence Russia's reliance on Iran and North Korea. Why isn't China going all in?

Essentially, China isn't eager to damage its pre-eminent global relationship with the U.S. It isn't eager to intensify the trade war, and it's mindful of avoiding heavy Western sanctions. So while Moscow might view China as its main international counterparty, the feeling is not really reciprocated by Beijing. While Russia is useful to China for sure, it's something of a bit player for now.

Chinese President Xi Jinping (L) and Russian President Vladimir Putin attend an official welcoming ceremony in front of the Great Hall of the People in Tiananmen Square in Beijing, China, on May 16, 2024, on the first day of Putin's state visit to China. (Sergei Bobylyov/POOL/AFP via Getty Images)

China is instead trying to toe a line between Russia and the U.S. Where it can, Beijing is taking advantage of Moscow's weakness and increased dependency to buy cut-price Russian commodities, diverted from traditional markets for Russia in Europe, and increasingly selling non-military exports to Russia at top dollar – or Yuan. As a result, bilateral trade between China and Russia increased by around a quarter in 2023 to a record $240 billion – the balance being to China's advantage.

The West has been nervous about the growth of this trade, and particularly by the increase in Chinese exports of dual-use technology to Russia. But China is mindful of not further damaging relations with key Western trade partners, and threats of secondary sanctions on Chinese entities are now showing signs of moderating this trade – with Chinese exports to Russia falling year on year in March and April 2024.

Xi's visit to Europe last week affirmed for Europe that Russia's war against Ukraine is a direct threat to European security. It also affirmed that, if China wants European allies on its side in the China-U.S. trade war, it will have to carefully manage its relations with Russia not to push Europe toward Washington.

It's also important to recognize that China-Russia relations have their stress points. First, tensions and border disputes in eastern Russia remain. While the Xi-Putin meeting this week appeared to recognize the situation with a new agreement, the tensions run deep. Many Russians see China as the biggest long-term security threat to Russia.

Second, while China's decision not to arm Russia has forced Moscow to look to North Korea, Beijing is increasingly nervous and irritated about this deepening bond in its backyard. China worries that the price of North Korea supplying munitions to Russia will be deeper cooperation between Moscow and Pyongyang to further enhance the latter's nuclear and ballistic weapons programs. A more militarily potent North Korea that is less dependent on China is not in Beijing's interest.

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Third, Russia has signaled through its invasion of Ukraine that it's a global disrupter – a literal loose canon that wants to change the global status quo and is willing to act in a rash manner that risks disrupting global markets. By contrast, China has long appreciated the rules-based international order that delivered globalization, free markets and trade, and what it saw as the inevitable accent to the global economic hegemony over the U.S.

Notable also is that China appears to have set some guardrails for Russian actions in Ukraine, clearly signaling that it would not support the use of nuclear weapons, for example. See therein China's 12-point peace plan on Russia's war against Ukraine. But China, which was likely initially surprised by the onset of the full-scale war, now appears more comfortable with a longer war as long as the guardrails are kept in place by Russia.

A long war ultimately weakens Russia, making it more dependent on China and allowing China to buy cheap commodities and charge top dollar for key exports to Russia. Russia's struggles in Ukraine underline where it might not have been clear in 2022 (for Putin, at least) that Moscow is the junior partner in the China-Russia relationship.

China favors Russian weakness, but not defeat. So Xi gave Putin the visit he so desired and both signaled different points to the elephant in the room: Washington. Putin signaled that Russia is preparing for a long economic struggle for Ukraine; Xi signaled that, if the U.S. wants to avoid a bad outcome in Ukraine, it needs China to play ball and limit its support to Russia – the price for which are concessions on issues such as trade.

Editor’s Note: The opinions expressed in the op-ed section are those of the authors and do not purport to reflect the views of the Kyiv Independent.

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