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  • Writer's pictureThe Red Line

Episode 120. The Forced Friendship: Russia's Uneasy Alliance with China

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As economic sanctions continue to tighten their grip on Russia, the nation is forced to seek assistance from whoever it can, turning to China not out of mutual interest but as a necessity. Yet, this support comes at a steep price, heightening concerns in Moscow that it's inadvertently solidifying a new, skewed power dynamic. As China capitalizes on Russia's vulnerabilities, one has to wonder if this is merely business or if there's a deeper play to settle historical grievances. Can Russia untangle itself from this precarious alliance? What are the obstacles in broadening their so-called "no-limits" friendship, and what implications will these have on future Sino-Russian energy deals? We ask our panel of experts:



EPISODE SUMMARY: PART I: Bearing the Cost - (04:07)

with Keir Giles

- Snr Consulting Fellow for the Russia and Eurasia Program at Chatham House - Lead the Conflict Studies Research Center - Fmr Snr Member of the BBC Monitoring Service

  1. Strategic Leverage: China benefits strategically by observing the conflict between the West and Russia, which drains their resources and weakens Russia, enhancing China's global strategic positioning. However, China's tolerance for Russia's actions, such as nuclear threats, is limited, suggesting a cautious but opportunistic approach to maintaining a balance between keeping Russia as an ally while not fully endorsing its aggressive tactics.

  2. Economic Fallout and Arms Trade Dynamics: Economic relations between China and Russia have been characterized by periods of mutual exploitation and strategic trade, particularly in arms. China's history of reverse-engineering Russian technology and its selective support during Russia's economic needs post-sanctions illustrate a complex relationship that shifts between cooperation and competition. The current low level of arms trade between China and Russia indicates a strategic recalibration by China, possibly due to diminishing returns from Russian technology and arms.

  3. Dual-Use Technology and Sanctions Bypassing: Despite public declarations of non-support in Russia's conflicts, China has been a critical supplier of dual-use technologies that assist Russia in circumventing Western sanctions. This support is pivotal for Russia's continued military operations, indicating a deeper level of strategic collaboration that is not overt but significantly impactful.

  4. Geopolitical Implications of Dependence: The increasing economic and military dependence of Russia on China, exacerbated by Western sanctions, has tilted the power balance. This dependence could potentially limit Russia's strategic autonomy and influence in the region, making it more susceptible to Chinese influence and terms in their bilateral relations.

  5. Future Trajectory of Sino-Russian Relations: The relationship between China and Russia is likely to evolve with China continuing to gain the upper hand. Russia's reliance on China for economic and military support, especially under the pressures of international sanctions, positions China as the dominant partner. This dynamic could lead to more assertive Chinese policies in the region, possibly at Russia's expense, depending on the geopolitical landscape post-Ukraine conflict.

PART II: The Pipeline Prisinor - (23:47)

with Gavin Wilde

- Snr Fellow at the Carnegie Endownment for International Peace

- Fmr Dir for Russia, Baltic and Caucuses at the National Security Council

- Fmr Various Snr Roles within the National Security Agency

  1. Strategic Subordination: Russia is increasingly positioned as a junior partner to China, a scenario that Russian national security strategists have dreaded for over a decade. This dynamic is exacerbated by China's expansive global strategies, such as the Belt and Road Initiative, which aim to extend its influence and economic footprint worldwide.

  2. Economic Dependence and Trade Imbalance: The trade relationship between Russia and China is highly asymmetrical, with China constituting a significant portion of Russia's trade turnover while representing only a minor share of China's global trade. This imbalance underscores Russia's growing economic dependence on China, especially in the context of sanctions and restricted access to other markets following its actions in Ukraine.

  3. Energy Sector Exploitation: In the wake of the Ukraine conflict and subsequent sanctions, Russia found itself in a weakened bargaining position, forced to sell its oil and gas to China at significantly discounted prices. This situation highlights not only the economic leverage China holds over Russia but also the strategic use of economic policy by China to maximize benefits from Russia's geopolitical vulnerabilities.

  4. Infrastructure and Geographic Challenges: Russia faces significant logistical and infrastructural challenges in reorienting its energy exports from Europe to Asia, compounded by its vast geography and inadequate transport infrastructure. These challenges are critical as they increase the costs and complexity of delivering energy resources to China, further diminishing Russia's economic returns and reinforcing its subordinate position.

  5. Long-term Strategic Implications: The evolving relationship suggests that Russia is settling into a long-term alignment with China, characterized by economic subservience and strategic concession. This partnership, though asymmetric, seems set to continue as Russia has limited alternatives, and China benefits from discounted resources and a weakened competitor adjacent to its borders.

PART III: The Two Front War and the One Front Store - (38:46)

with Temur Umarov

- Fellow Carnegie Endownment for International Peace

- Renowed Expert in the International Policy of Russia, China and Central

- Ass to the Dep Dir for the Lifan Group

  1. Strategic Imbalance in Sino-Russian Relations: The Sino-Russian relationship, often romantically termed as a "strategic bromance," starkly underscores Russia's lack of alternative allies compared to China's extensive global partnerships. This disparity highlights Russia's increasing strategic isolation and dependency on China, especially after the West's imposition of sanctions post-Crimea annexation.

  2. Economic and Energy Dependency: Following the sanctions due to its aggressive actions in Ukraine, Russia has been compelled to pivot its energy exports from Europe to China, using extensive pipeline projects like the "Power of Siberia 1 & 2". However, these shifts underscore not just a change in trade direction but also a significant leverage shift towards China, which benefits from discounted Russian energy while maintaining a diversified portfolio of global energy sources.

  3. Infrastructure and Logistic Challenges: Russia's strategic pivot to Asia faces substantial logistical and infrastructure hurdles, notably in redirecting energy flows from European to Chinese markets. The geographical vastness and the infrastructural inadequacies add to the costs and complexities of this realignment, further straining Russia's economic standing.

  4. LNG and Pipeline Politics: The discussion around the Power of Siberia pipeline and potential expansions like Power of Siberia 2 illustrates the complexities of Russia-China energy agreements. China's cautious approach and the delayed negotiations reflect its advantageous position, being able to dictate terms and timelines due to Russia's urgent need to fill the void left by reduced European demand.

  5. Long-term Strategic and Economic Consequences: The evolving dynamics suggest a solidifying pattern where Russia's economic decisions are increasingly dictated by Chinese interests, potentially leading to a future where Russia could be forced to support China's geopolitical stances, such as in conflicts like the South China Sea. This dependency is likely to translate into political concessions, aligning Russia more closely with Chinese foreign policy priorities.

The Forced Friendship: Russia's Uneasy Alliance with China (Released May 4th)



I: Russia's War on Everybody: And What it Means for You

- By Keir Giles

II: Putinomics: Power and Money in Resurgent Russia

- By Chris Miller

III: Economic War: Ukraine and the Global Conflict Between Russia and the West

- By Maximilian Hess


For episode transcripts, monthly geopolitics Q&A’s, member-only videos and to support the show, check out our Patreon here:


This episode is dedicated to our Patreon members: Joenososlow, Mathieu Sarran, Robert Miner, Mike Fish, Lauri Hallila, Vinh Thăng Hoàng, Jacob Kelly and Carl Söyseth


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