Though China and Russia’s cooperation is at a 70-year high favorability, the Russia advance on Ukraine is an area the two powers will not approach with mutual views, say experts. This competitive outlook is not observed as outright rivalry by political experts. However, there are opportunities in China’s self-interest that Russia will forfeit to them as the Kremlin proceeds with its high-pressure campaign against Ukraine.
The Wall Street Journal writes that the U.S. “looks to make China pay for close ties to Russia in the Ukraine crisis.” The U.S. intends to “make Beijing feel discomfort,” economically over its ties to Russia. As its competition with the US continues to scale, Beijing is poised to preserve its own self-interests, according to experts. Experts state that this is a historical pattern for China.
Western Narrative Vs. Realistic Sino-Russian Ukraine Outlook
There are those in the Western press who see China and Russia as unified partners advancing anti-Western economic opportunity.
The Economist, for example, wrote a piece which notes that, over Ukraine, “China has come close to Russia but is cautious.” The piece focuses attention on a speech made by British Foreign Secretary Liz Truss. Truss describes “China and Russia” as aligned “in a way we’ve not seen since the Cold War.” The Economist also pointed to some comments in Washington suggesting that China and Russia “see a shared interest in a Russian armed adventure in Ukraine that tests Joe Biden’s resolve and finds it wanting.”
However, political experts of the Balkan region have pointed out the likelihood that, with Ukraine, China will seek only its advantages.
China’s nature as a protectionist state makes it favor the political support of domestic leaders. As Russia risks destabilization in the region to reach its own goals, China has the opportunity to advance as a friendly ally of low-impact involvement.
Dr. Ana Krstinovska noted the differences between Western messaging and reality. Kristinovska is the founder and president of the ESTIMA research and consultancy service and former state secretary of European Affairs for Macedonia.
“I would define China’s role at the moment rather in terms of a bystander waiting to see how things may unfold and how it may affect its own interests,” said Krstinovska.
“Instability in Eastern and South-Eastern Europe, in general, is not in China’s interest since it jeopardizes the trade routes used to transport its goods to Central and Western Europe, as well as the operations of Chinese banks and companies in this part of the world,” she added.
Despite the risks Kristinovska notes for China in support of Russia’s aggressive adventure, the Sino-Russian bond “alarms” the United States still, writes The New York Times.
Western leaders continue to focus on “the risks and implications” from the Sino-Russian “unholy alliance,” writes The Hill opinion contributor Douglas E. Schoen, a political consultant, and former Clinton advisor.
Western narrators continue to point to the ideological similarities between Xi Jinping and Vladimir Putin, as autocrats. Steven Lee Myers of The New York Times referred to this building relationship as “an alliance of autocracies.”
Schoen pointed out the need for a stronger influence by the United States, an emboldened autocratic push forward by said autocratic axis, and the clear position that Russia and China are looking to seize the opportunity to advance on the smaller democracies they seek to seize.
Schoen likewise points out that the Biden administration is sending mixed, weak signals to both Russia and China by deploying troops only to areas outside of NATO territory.
It is Schoen’s opinion that Biden is essentially signaling to Russia and China that the U.S., as the leader of NATO, would not involve itself in a military sense to protect democracy in Ukraine or Taiwan, the two nations Russia and China appear poised to seize. Schoen reminded his readers that, with the messy U.S. exit from Afghanistan, the U.S. has shown itself to be an unreliable ally.
An Echoed Western Narrative Might Be Oversimplification
Schoen’s opinions show a commonly repeated narrative across the Western landscape. The U.S. influence has walked back, and, in its wake, the Sino-Russian collusion will manifest to trample democracy. Yet, in the case of Ukraine, this perception may be an oversimplification of the risks to both Russia and China.
“Given that (China) officially abides by the principles of non-interference, non-aggression, and respect for territorial integrity, it lacks in-depth understanding of these countries and does not yield as much as influence as the USA, the EU, or Russia, China will not interfere overtly and will support peaceful and diplomatic solutions over conflict,” said Krstinovska
“Picking (the wrong) side would further deteriorate Chinese relations with the West and would be utterly against both its interests and its foreign policy principles,” she added.
Krstinovska’s view positions China as an autocracy with a will to attend to its own interests. Russia, while a closely allied nation to China, will not likely receive support from China that would jeopardize its own global agenda.
In Hindsight: Ukraine a Fool’s Errand For Russia?
Should Russia plow ahead with its Ukraine pursuit, it may not meet the weakened nation the Western world anticipates, writes Illia Ponomarenko, a defense reporter with The Kyiv Independent. Ponomarenko notes that, while the prospects of the Russian invasion are horrifying for the whole world, the Russian campaign may prove to be a “nationwide catastrophe” for Russia.
Ponomarenko notes that the situation in Ukraine is not the same as in 2014 when Russia took the nation by surprise. Today, Ukraine’s defense forces are ready to meet the challenge of a Russian onslaught.
As they are prepared, Ponomarenko also pointed out the treacherous country the Russian land invasion will have to cross between Belarus and the Chernobyl zone. Upon arriving through a rough climate of forests and swamps, Ponomarenko notes that Russian forces will be met with Ukraine’s brigadiers.
Ponomarenko gives many other reasons for why the Russian invasion is likely to come at a horrific cost to Russia itself. Soldiers will be plucked, he estimates, from the Far Eastern front of Russian forces. Ukrainian forces, however, will be fighting on their own home soil, in terrain that they are familiar with and equipped to navigate.
Ukrainian forces have also received munitions from trade with the West that would increase the likelihood of high Russian casualties, and costly destruction of Russian military equipment.
For all of these reasons, Ponomarenko points out that Russia’s inner circle of wealth, and the citizens of Russia itself, are not likely to back such a horrific prospect. Russian morale toward the conflict, which Ponomarenko believes would result in tens of thousands of casualties for Russia, will not likely be high.
The cost and the political backlash of Putin’s agenda were described by Ponomarenko as “the last mistake of the Kremlin lunatic.” Putin’s folly, Ponomarenko, would have terrible outcomes for Russian oligarchs, who enjoy wealth worldwide, for world food and oil supplies, and so many more implications.
These world food and oil resources are found in Ukraine, a country replete in agricultural and energy industry infrastructural value. Even if Russia were to invade Ukraine, Ponomarenko reasons that no Russian force would be final.
The Russian occupation of Ukraine would necessitate a domestic Russian response, a local Ukrainian response, and a worldwide response that would highlight the folly of the entire campaign.
Russia’s Fool’s Errand May Be China’s Gain
Regional experts reason that China is likely to see opportunity amid the conflicted influence of its peers.
“China’s presence in the Western Balkan region presents an alternative to many of the values and principles put forward by the U.S. and the EU. China’s development assistance is not conditioned by the implementation of governance and democratization reforms. Its cooperation with domestic political elites goes on regardless of their track record related to corruption or human rights,” said Krstinovska.
“This opportunistic approach is a wind in the back for irresponsible or authoritarian politicians who use the cooperation with China to show the West that they have other options and that if the EU or the USA press too hard on some reforms, they will simply not comply and will pursue an even closer cooperation with China,” she added.
Where Western Influence Could Position Itself
Krstinovska highlighted an important part of the propaganda from Russia and China that further crowds out the influence of NATO.
“They tell the voters that the West has failed them—especially the EU with the standstill in the enlargement process towards the Western Balkans and that China can help them fill in many developmental gaps. The USA could focus more on demystifying such statements,” Krstinovska said.
Different Approaches, But Democratic Erosion Still at High-Risk
Even though China and Russia are not completely aligned in the future of the Ukraine assault, a political paradox exists. Even with the precaution and different approaches used by China and Russia, democratic policies are still eroded in a sense.
Krstinovska explained the nuances of these different approaches:
“The objectives that Russia and China pursue in this part of the world, as well as their tools and capacities are not the same. While for Russia it is imperative that as many of these countries stay out of NATO and the EU, even at the price of destabilization, China seeks stability to conduct business, export its goods, provide infrastructure loans and occasionally invest,” she said.
“While Russia puts forward religious and cultural similarities and traditional historical ties, China uses predominantly economic tools. Russia has a much more emphasized security influence and an already developed local influence network, while China started only recently to secure allies and supporters,” she added.
Kristinovska then explained that, while there are some commonalities, they do not appear aligned:
“The only thing they have in common is that they both present an alternative to the West, which resonates well with a more nationalist audience. Apart from that, there does not seem to be any mutual support or interaction between the two in the Balkans to further common goals.”
What We Observe
As Russia’s resolve appears to carry on at a steady pace, the world does not yet know what the ripple effect will be. Observations by regional spectators, however, look at a more nuanced, complex problem than the Western media has to date dictated with the doomsday focus of recent Ukraine headlines.
While not yet fully realized, the future of Russia and Ukraine’s military engagement will have consequences on the trajectory of geopolitics. We observe that these consequences extend beyond the future of Ukraine’s democratic identity. They are expected to test the durability of Western democratic influence, provide opportunities for the courtship of the rise of China’s global enterprise, and challenge the future of the pro-Kremlin establishment.