President Vladimir Putin has backed Xi Jinping’s China against the West’s allegation that the virus originated from a lab in Wuhan. But he has also recently sent medical aid to the US. Is he really backing China, or adhering to some other narrative?
International politics in the 21st century is not a straight game. With the black-and-white era of global competition having receded into history, and issues pertaining to bilateral and multilateral affairs becoming more multi-layered and complex, the analysts’ job of assessing and analyzing developments taking place at a meteoric pace becomes all the more challenging. And Russia’s growing support for China, in the face of global accusations that Beijing is responsible for the spread of the Covid-19 pandemic, is another such instance. As the US has escalated its opposition to China, accusing it of allowing the coronavirus to leak from a biohazard lab in Wuhan, and even cut off funds to the World Health Organization, accusing it of bias towards Beijing, and of not effectively guiding the world’s response, Moscow has stood by Beijing, insisting it is inappropriate to blame the latter for the pandemic which has killed more than 279,000 people worldwide.
Russian President Vladimir Putin talked with his Chinese counterpart, Xi Jinping, by phone on Friday, May 8, during which he stated the Kremlin “opposes the attempts by some forces to use the epidemic as a pretext to blame China and will stand firmly by China’s side.” Putin also thanked Xi and China for medical assistance to Russia. He said his country is eager to learn how Beijing has controlled the epidemic and jointly work on the development of potential vaccines for the disease. Before the discussion between the leaders, the Kremlin hit out at the US, stating it is wrong to accuse China of responsibility for the COVID-19 pandemic without producing any proof. US President Donald Trump and his officials have claimed, time and again, that the virus originated from a Wuhan lab; yet top media outlets, such as the Wall Street Journal, have urged that such allegations be backed-up with evidence.
Is Russia’s support of China against the US for real? Reports have also emerged in recent times that US warships have entered the Barents Sea region, effectively Russia’s backyard, the first incursion since the 1980s. Russia has also accused the US of plotting a shock nuclear attack against it, and of lining up missiles close to the US-Russia border in the Arctic Ocean zone. In response to America’s alleged designs, Moscow has accordingly ordered newly developed Avangard and Sarmat missile systems, among those that Putin unveiled in March 2018, days before he won the presidential election. In his version of a national address, Putin — in a typical nationalist voice — warned that any nuclear attack on Russia’s allies would be considered one on Russia itself. To observers across the globe, the speech evoked the hot rhetoric of the Cold War.
Does Russia’s stand, supporting its southern neighbor, lead logically to the conclusion that Putin is hell-bent on renewing the rivalry with the US, especially when Washington’s efforts in the fight against the coronavirus have exposed vulnerabilities? Have the US’ old enemies, Russia and China, decided to gang up and push the Americans back from the global theater, even at the risk of military escalation? The US has also accused China of conducting a low-level nuclear test last month; an allegation Beijing refuted, as explicitly as it trashed America’s lab-origin theory of the coronavirus.
A Russia-China nexus against the US? Not so simple
There is more to the story than meets the eye. It is true that Russia and China have seen their relationship boom in recent times; albeit more economically and strategically than ideologically, as it was in the 1950s. Their undisputed leaders — Putin and Xi Jinping — have embraced each other a number of times in recent years. From ice-cream to panda diplomacy to each leader bestowing on the other their respective country’s top honors — there have been many instances where the two leaders have exhibited their personal bond.
In reality, the Sino-Russian relationship has deeper incentives: the politics of the great game. Russia and China are, after all, neighboring countries, and have several reasons to differ with each other. Russia was no less worried than many other nations when the pandemic originated from China. At the outset of the coronavirus outbreak, it was compelled to close its long border with the latter and expel Chinese citizens who have not yet been received by China, leaving them stranded without any aid. The Chinese regime has been blasted because of its indifference towards its own people seeking to return from another country.
Russia and China have problems in various other spheres. Though Russia is much larger than China geographically, its economy is that much lesser than the Asian powerhouse, preventing it from wielding substantial leverage. The two countries are thereby not aligned over the question of attaining equal power status, and it all comes down to the personal goodwill of the two leaders to maintain their relations. Russia thinks itself to be a more prominent international power; but China’s rise on the global stage makes it equally ambitious. In matters related to Central Asia, the Kremlin never feels comfortable with the notion of China exploring its backyard. In platforms like the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, Russia banks more on India to balance out China’s influence.
Russia and China continue to see the future of the world order in different ways yet have a common aim of ending US dominance. This shared objective allows Moscow and Beijing to overlook their varied tensions. Following the 2014 crisis in Ukraine for instance, an under-pressure Russia signed a 30-year gas deal with China to establish a second market, and it was China which gained. Similarly, Moscow has paid more lip service to the idea of aligning Xi’s pet Belt and Road Initiative project with the Eurasian Economic Union.
Coronavirus has hit Russia’s trade gains with China
Bilateral trade between China and Russia, at record levels in recent years under Xi and Putin, has been impacted by the restrictions Russia has placed on its border with China in response to the pandemic outbreak. The slowing of the Chinese economy also poses a threat to Russia’s oil sector, and the restrictions on Chinese footfalls have threatened Russia’s tourism industry. Putin’s National Projects program involving investment worth $400 billion to revive his country’s economy, also remains under threat due to the pandemic. The recent tussle over oil prices with Saudi Arabia has further worsened things for Russia.
What is Putin trying to achieve by backing China against US Coronavirus charge?
As Foreign Policy Magazine Editor-in-Chief Jonathan Tepperman said, Russia’s alliance with China is ‘limited’ since they do not share much in common apart from finding an enemy in the US. But to expect that Russia would selflessly side with China, were the Washington-Beijing conflict to escalate into a military confrontation, is a little extreme. Firstly, Russia doesn’t have the war power to realistically challenge the Americans. Secondly, Putin himself is under tremendous pressure to contain the pandemic in his own den. The virus has struck just when he planned to extend his rule by a decade and a half; and understanding the array of challenges he now faces, the wily leader has also been seen making some moves to safeguard his legacy.
Russia and China reached out to help countries like Italy, which has left NATO deeply worried. Since most of the Western powers are struggling with the spread of Covid-19, Russia’s gesture has met with little resistance, and there is concern it could lead to polarization in the West’s backyard. Russia even sent military aid to the US in late March, which President Trump accepted whole-heartedly. Putin also accepted a reciprocal gesture from Trump. American experts have been especially suspicious of this move because Russia has a serious shortage of infrastructure. But Putin knows that having a personal ally in Trump makes it easier for him to call the diplomatic shots and divert attention from his problems at home.
Putin’s two-pronged approach
In the pandemonium caused by the pandemic, the escalation in the Arctic Zone between the US and Russia is seen as a further extension of the US versus China and Russia narrative. It is actually not the case. Moscow is playing a wise two-pronged game, to realize Putin’s dream of overcoming the pandemic challenge and emerging as Russia’s undisputed leader long into the future. Putin is mixing doses of nationalism and populist diplomacy to survive another day, and his rapport with both Xi and Trump is proving, at the moment, to be very handy.