Want to understand Russia?
Think of a giant pendulum that’s swinging, ever so slowly, to and fro. It’s been happening for centuries here.
It swings one way and Russia looks west towards Europe, and the country sees itself as an undeniable part of European civilisation.
Other times, the pendulum swings in the opposite direction and Russia looks east. Its rulers slam Western civilisation, Western values and declare that Russia’s future lies with Asia.
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With Vladimir Putin, the Russian pendulum has firmly swung to the east.
That’s hardly surprising: his decision to invade Ukraine has left Russia a pariah in the West and his country battered by Western sanctions. US President Joe Biden has called Putin a “murderous dictator”; UK Prime Minister Liz Truss previously dubbed him “a desperate rogue operator.”
China’s president, however, uses quite different language.
“My dear old friend!” exclaimed Xi Jinping. The two leaders met on the sidelines of a regional summit in Samarkand, Uzbekistan.
For his part, President Putin lauded the “friendship between China and Russia” and their “strategic comprehensive partnership”.
The two leaders share a similar world view. Both promote the idea of an alternative world order: a “multi-polar world” in which their countries act as a counterweight to the West, in particular to the United States.
So, is it a case of Putin and Xi “best friends forever”?
Not quite. First, BFF rarely exists in global politics. And second, this is an increasingly unequal relationship.
Mr Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, which has not gone according to plan, has weakened Russia. The Kremlin admits that the Russian army has suffered “significant losses”, while Western sanctions are putting the economy under intense pressure. In the Russia-China relationship, it feels more and more that Russia is the junior partner.
In their meeting, Mr Putin conceded that China has “questions and concerns” about the situation in Ukraine. It was an unexpected admission, by the Kremlin, that Russia’s so-called special military operation is causing some anxiety in Beijing.
Having burned bridges with the West and sparked an energy war with Europe, Mr Putin is attempting a pivot east (he’s left himself little choice). He’s hoping to reorient the Russian economy and find new markets for Russian oil and gas. It’s quite a challenge.
“The hope is that this pivot will work and will have credible dividends for Russia. But I don’t see this happening,” believes Sergey Radchenko, a professor at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies. “What Russia needs is ultimately in the West: its technology, its markets.
“Russia requires Western technologies to develop oil and gas fields off shore and there’s a big question mark about whether Russia will be able to do that without Western support.
“It’s very difficult to change the direction of gas flows. The Soviet Union and Russia spent decades building networks of pipelines to Europe and that’s where the physical infrastructure is. It’s very difficult to reorient Russian energy markets towards Asia.”
The summit Mr Putin and Mr Xi are attending is a meeting of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation, or SCO. Along with Russia and China, members include four Central Asian states – Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan – as well as India and Pakistan.
For President Putin the event is an opportunity to demonstrate that, despite international sanctions and attempts by the West to isolate Russia for the invasion of Ukraine, Moscow still has powerful friends.
“Russia likes to point out that its isolation by the West is only in the West and that the world is very multi-polar,” notes Prof Radchenko. “But what’s interesting is that the whole balance of power in the SCO and in Central Asia is changing and moving away from Russia.
“Putin is in Samarkand at a time when the Russian leader is in the middle of a war he is losing.
“Meanwhile, for the first time, countries in Central Asia are pursuing their own policy. This is most noticeable with Kazakhstan, which has been very assertive in its relations with Russia. Kazakhstan hasn’t been nearly as supportive as Putin had hoped for since Russia invaded Ukraine. There are interesting shifts in the balance of power.”
As the Kremlin promotes its pivot east, it’s worth remembering a key point about Russia. This country – the biggest in the world – spans two continents, Europe and Asia.
Instead of letting the pendulum swing, perhaps it makes more sense for Russia to look both ways.