khrushcheva147_WANG ZHAOAFP via Getty Images_putin WANG ZHAOAFP via Getty Images

Putin Is No Nixon

By deepening ties with China, Russian President Vladimir Putin seems to think that he has secured an invaluable ally in his struggle against the West. In fact, it is China that wanted to get Russia on its side – and not as an equal partner.

MOSCOW – Russian President Vladimir Putin appears to think that, by signing an apparent alliance agreement with Chinese President Xi Jinping on February 4 in Beijing, he has pulled off the equivalent of US President Richard Nixon’s historic visit to China in 1972. But just as the Soviet Union was the big loser of the Sino-American rapprochement of 1972, Russia is likely to turn out to be the big loser from the new Putin-Xi agreement.

Nixon’s visit with Mao Zedong was a pivotal moment in the history of the Cold War, with a greater impact on its course than even the Cuban Missile Crisis. At the time, relations between China and the Soviet Union had become far more embittered than most of the world, including most Americans, ever realized.

Relations between the two communist giants began to decay significantly after Nikita Khrushchev’s 1956 “secret speech,” delivered to a closed session of the 20th Congress of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, in which he denounced Stalin. That speech, together with Khrushchev’s broader de-Stalinization campaign, riled Mao, who decried it as revisionism – likely fearing that one day he might face similar condemnation.

Ideological and policy differences led to a breakdown of political relations, culminating in the Sino-Soviet split of 1960. Nine years later, Soviet and Chinese forces engaged in seven months of savage fighting along the Ussuri River, near Manchuria. All-out war was barely averted.

When Nixon headed to China, he sought to exploit this antagonism between the world’s two leading communist powers. But neither he nor his national security adviser, Henry Kissinger, could have predicted just how successful he would be. To Leonid Brezhnev’s stagnant and stodgy Kremlin, China seemed to have switched sides in the Cold War.

Faced with the Bismarckian nightmare of a two-front war against NATO in the West and an embittered China in the East, Brezhnev quickly warmed to Kissinger’s notion of détente between the United States and the USSR. He even went so far as to sign the Helsinki Accords, which enabled the West to challenge Soviet totalitarianism on human-rights grounds.

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Kissinger, it is worth noting, deserves less credit for these achievements than he would repeatedly claim; Nixon was calling for an opening to China since before he became president in 1969. In any case, Putin may well believe that he has replicated America’s diplomatic coup. By deepening ties with China, Putin seems to think that he has secured an invaluable ally in his struggle against the West.

But China’s alienation from the US had been intensifying for almost a decade – a trend that former US President Donald Trump accelerated, and that President Joe Biden has done little to mitigate. Amid growing antagonism with the West, it is China that wanted to get Russia on its side, not vice versa – and not as an equal partner.

To be sure, despite its oft-repeated mantra that national sovereignty and territorial integrity are sacrosanct, China has now effectively backed Putin’s military build-up along Ukraine’s borders, urging the West to take Russia’s “security concerns” seriously and affirming its opposition to NATO enlargement. But this probably does not mean that China will back Russia in any struggle with the US and NATO.

Instead, Xi did what was needed to lock Russia into a vassal-like dependency on China. And Putin chose to walk straight into his trap, thinking that partnership with Xi would help him in his confrontation with the West.

What could be better for China than a Russian economy completely cut off from the West? All the natural gas that does not flow westward to Europe could flow eastward to an energy-hungry China. All Siberia’s mineral wealth, which Russia has required Western capital and expertise to exploit, would be available only to China, as would major new infrastructure projects in Russia.

Anyone who doubts the abandon with which Xi will exploit Russia’s isolation need only look to the actions of Xi’s predecessors, Hu Jintao and Jiang Zemin. At first, relations appeared warm. Putin signed a Treaty of Friendship with China in 2001. And with Russia financially isolated, China provided a $6 billion loan in late 2004, so that Russia’s state-owned oil company Rosneft could finance the purchase of the largest production unit of Yukos Oil Company (a firm that Putin’s government would succeed in bankrupting in 2006).

In 2005, however, in a move many believe was directly tied to the Yukos loan, China used its leverage over Russia to compel the Kremlin to return some 337 square kilometers (130 square miles) of disputed lands, in exchange for China’s withdrawal of other territorial claims. But Putin seems to be ignoring that China’s leaders and people view Russia as a corrupt country which stole more Chinese territory in the nineteenth century than any other. Just two years ago, I witnessed their disdain firsthand when taking a ferry across the Amur river from Blagoveshchensk in Russia to Heihe, a small Chinese town. The local Chinese merchants openly mocked the Russians as they sold them cheap phones and knockoff furs.

China will neither risk its own prosperity by openly challenging the US in defense of Russia, nor prop up Russia’s economy by investing on the scale needed to offset the impact of the mighty sanctions the West will impose if Putin launches an invasion of Ukraine. Instead, China will do the bare minimum to enable Russia to sustain its confrontation with the West, and thus divert the West’s attention from the strategic challenge posed by China itself. That bare minimum of Chinese assistance may be just enough to keep Putin in the Kremlin, which is all he cares about. But the Kremlin’s master will be ruling over a Russian economy that is slowly being bled white.