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Russia’s Transformation Into China’s Vassal: Has Putin or Xi Blundered?

Pundits have interpreted Chinese leader Xi Jinping’s recent visit to Moscow in one of two ways: as cementing an alliance between two great powers or as confirming Russia’s transformation into China’s junior partner.

Thus, Harvard University’s Graham Allison called the Sino-Russian relationship the “most consequential undeclared alliance in the world.” In a similar vein, Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin said, “I believe Xi’s visit to Putin and his multi-day stay there sends an alarming message, a message of support” for Russia. In contrast, the Carnegie Endowment’s Temur Umarov said that “Russia was given no other choice” than to “subordinate its interests to China’s interests.” And ex-New York Times correspondent James Brooke claimed that “Russia is emerging as an economic satellite of China.”

Both sides are right, because their positions are complementary. China’s relationship with Russia has become stronger, while its unequal nature also has become more pronounced, leading many Russians to argue that their country has become a “vassal” of China. Some are critics of the regime. But some are regime propagandists who welcome their country’s transformation into a vassal state.

Two of them, Mitya Olshansky and Yegor Kholmogorov, explained “why Russia in the 21st century should become a vassal of China and not the USA.” According to them, “China, in contrast to America, aspires to acquire our resources, but not to change our identity.” The two Russian “imperial nationalists,” as one site describes them, don’t question Russia’s degradation to vassalage. They just prefer China’s being Russia’s lord to America’s, even though Chinese overlordship is likely to make Russia significantly poorer.

Another pro-regime Russian commentator, Mariya Degtereva, said, “If we call things by their names, then it’s obviously not China that is joining Russia, but Russia that is joining China. And there is no other choice at this historical moment.” The last sentence — about not having another choice — is remarkable in its implied criticism of the Kremlin’s suicidal policies. Early last year, Russia could be considered, and arguably was, China’s genuine partner. Now, after a disastrous war that has exposed the Russian military and leadership as incompetent, Russia really has no choice but to be second fiddle.

Inferiority may help Russia survive the impending double catastrophe of defeat and regime collapse, but permanent vassalage will only harm Russia in the long run — and Chinese policymakers are known for thinking in the long run. That’s another way of saying that Russian strongman Vladimir Putin has maneuvered his country into a dead end from which there is no obvious egress.

But here’s the irony: Russia’s transformation into China’s vassal is also harmful to Beijing’s interests — in the short, medium, and long terms. In that sense, Xi’s triumphant visit to Moscow could prove to be disastrous for China.

Xi has hitched his fortune to that of his “good friend” Putin. Having Xi’s backing helps Putin, but Putin’s increasingly precarious political condition does nothing to help Xi. The war against Ukraine is going badly, elite opposition to Putin is growing, and the Russian economy is going into a tailspin. Moreover, China’s ability to extort low prices for Russia’s energy resources may keep the Russian economy afloat, but just barely and only temporarily. And if, as some Russian regime critics predict, Putin soon may be ousted or weakened to the point of impotence, Xi’s judgment, and perhaps even legitimacy, could be questioned at home.

More worrisome is the fact that Putin’s Russia is a loose cannon. As international relations experts could tell Xi, having an unreliable junior partner with a penchant for getting into needless trouble — such as starting an unwinnable major land war in Ukraine — can get China embroiled in armed conflicts that undermine the global stability so necessary for its pursuit of economic hegemony. One such armed conflict could even be initiated by an irate Russia resentful of vassal status and determined, as vassals have been in the past, to reassert its sovereignty. China should remember that Muscovy eventually did reject the “Mongol yoke.”

Most worrisome is the possibility that Putin’s genocidal war against Ukraine could undermine the Russian Federation’s stability and possibly even bring about its disintegration. Given China’s lengthy border with Russia, it’s hard to see just how a Russia on the brink of collapse could possibly be in China’s interests.

One suspects that the Russian propagandists who welcome Russia’s vassal status are fully aware that vassalage could be far more advantageous for Russia than for China. Seen in this light, it’s tempting to conclude that Xi may have committed a strategic blunder. Perhaps he, like Putin, isn’t quite the grandmaster in chess that he’s reputed to be.

Unless, of course, Xi is a super grandmaster playing a deviously clever game: loudly extolling the partnership with Russia and supporting his pal now, while silently being fully willing to sacrifice both when realpolitik requires an about-face later.

Such a double-cross is perfectly plausible for one simple reason: Unlike Russia, which really has no other choice but vassalage, China has many choices, of which a “consequential” alliance with Russia may be least desirable and most temporary. In that case, the strategic blunder would be the incorrigible Putin’s — yet again.

Alexander J. Motyl is a professor of political science at Rutgers University-Newark. A specialist on Ukraine, Russia and the USSR, and on nationalism, revolutions, empires and theory, he is the author of 10 books of nonfiction, as well as “Imperial Ends: The Decay, Collapse, and Revival of Empires” and “Why Empires Reemerge: Imperial Collapse and Imperial Revival in Comparative Perspective.” 

Source : The Hill