Vladimir Putin just had a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad week. And it wasn’t just about losses in Ukraine or having to announce conscription at home. A series of meetings—and what was said and wasn’t said at them— has revealed just how much Russian influence is weakening even in its once spheres of influence, and how China is taking advantage.
Start with Sept. 7, when the No. 3 man in China’s Politburo Standing Committee, Li Zhanshu, visited Russian officials on a previously planned tour of the country. Following the meetings, the Russian State Duma reported that Li said that “China understands and supports Russia on issues that represent its vital interests, in particular on the situation in Ukraine.” But Chinese state media told a different story, omitting any mention of Ukraine and declaring that Moscow firmly supports China on the Taiwan question. Much to China’s chagrin, a video soon emerged of Li saying that Beijing understands Russian “measures” taken to safeguard the country’s “core interests” from pressure by the U.S. and NATO.
In short, it seems that both sides stated at the meeting that they understood the other’s main areas of contention with the West, but neither were willing to publicly admit their mutual support to the international community.
Just a week later, it was a different story. China’s leader Xi Jinping met with Putin on the sidelines of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization summit in Uzbekistan. As the Russian leader arrived to meet his counterparts, Ukraine was retaking the city of Izyum and gearing up to boot Russian forces from Kharkiv Oblast in a disordered and humiliating retreat.
At this meeting, the Russian position had shifted. This time, Putin went out of his way to express support for China’s actions in the Taiwan Strait against “provocations by the United States,” while also openly accepting Chinese “concerns” about his own conflict in Ukraine. The Chinese side, noticeably, did not reciprocate. Far from offering public support for Russia’s war, Xi didn’t even use the word “Ukraine” in his remarks.
It was just one part of a larger series of losses for Putin at the event. Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who to this point has been relatively friendly, denounced Russia’s action in unusually direct language. And after years of flexing his power by making leaders await his arrival in public, Putin was twice forced to awkwardly wait around for other regional leaders.
The visual theatrics underscore how Putin’s failed invasion is reshaping the balance of power. The effects are rippling out beyond the losses inside Ukraine itself and the embarrassing performance of the Russian military. While the Russian economy has avoided complete collapse in the face of sanctions, its exports of refined oil products has fallen 25 percent since February; more than 1,000 businesses have halted their operations in Russia; and imports have been cut in half, including those of semiconductors and other essential components. Russia’s economy is not expected to recover for at least eight years.
While Beijing publicly expresses its continued friendship with Russia, actions speak even louder. China is taking every opportunity to make Russia more dependent on it, and extracting further concessions from its strategic partner.
Part of this is a clear move for influence in regions where Russia has long held sway, going back to the Tsarist-era conquests of Central Asia. A key in this is promoting a variety of diplomatic, economic, and security initiatives that now have Beijing, not Moscow, in the power position. By promoting China’s Shanghai Cooperation Organization (an economic and security initiative centered in Asia), Xi is hoping to expand China’s influence and opportunity in a region where Russia is struggling to maintain its relevance.
On the diplomatic front, Xi was clearly the most important player at the Shanghai Cooperation Organization. Articles under his name were published in Uzbek and Kazakh newspapers lauding their relationships, while also “upgrading” China’s bilateral relations with Belarus.
Economically, Central Asia is already a major center for Belt and Road Initiative projects, with China investing almost $70 billion into the region between 2005 and 2020. These projects mostly employ Chinese laborers; expansion of these projects is valuable domestically as well but aiding China in infrastructure-related employment levels even amidst a collapse of its housing market.
On the energy front, China is buying Russian energy, but at bargain-bin prices, and Russia has even agreed to start selling its oil to China using the Chinese RMB. Central Asia may also offer more resilient routes for oil and natural gas resources to shore up China’s energy portfolio, allowing it to avoid the geostrategic headache of shipping Middle Eastern oil through chokepoints in the Indian Ocean. Perhaps most importantly, Russia, Mongolia, and China informally agreed at the event to move forward with improving a major rail route and establishing a new natural gas pipeline through Mongolia to help a desperate Russia supply China with energy.
The countries of Central Asia appear to see the writing on the wall, inching away from Russia even as they move closer to China. The government of Kazakhstan, which accepted the help of Russian troops in quelling a January uprising, curtly refused to assist Putin in Ukraine and has even joined the international sanctions against Russia. In one of the clearest signs of Russian decline yet, Xi further promised to support Kazakh “sovereignty.”
Most notably, the past week may have seen the death knell for the 30-year-old, Russian-dominated Collective Security Treaty Organization, or CSTO. Its members are theoretically obliged to come to the defense of any member under attack, but has seen member state Armenia attacked without any CSTO response. In the very same week, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan, both CSTO members, began fighting with one another, with Russia impotently looking on. Meanwhile, China is increasingly willing to replace Russia as a security guarantor; Xi pledged that China would train 2,000 personnel to fight “color revolutions” in SCO countries, mostly likely in reference to Kazakhstan’s near-revolution in January.
Russia and China still have shared interests in a broader perceived strategic competition with the United States and agreements at the meeting pledged cooperation in a range of areas. For instance, China continues to promote its CIPS payment system in Central Asia as a challenge to SWIFT and agreements at the meeting pledged cooperation at reducing the power of the U.S. dollar on their economies. But what was said and not said at the recent meetings is an illustration of how power in Russia’s former empire is drastically shifting in China’s favor.
Thomas Corbett is a research analyst with BluePath Labs. His areas of focus include Chinese foreign relations, emerging technology, and international economics.