Can Russia Get Used to Being China’s Little Brother?
In 1949, a new tune hit Soviet airwaves in honor of Chinese leader Mao Zedong’s first visit to Moscow. “Moscow-Beijing” was a hearty military march sung by an all-male choir, with a catchy opening line—“Russians and Chinese are brothers forever”—capturing the spirit of socialist solidarity. The Soviet Union was cast as a big brother to the newly emerged People’s Republic of China, weakened by the devastating Japanese invasion and the civil war. And while Beijing was happy to take Soviet aid, resentment at being cast as the younger sibling would be one of the factors that eventually led the relationship to curdle.
This week, as Chinese President Xi Jinping and Russian President Vladimir Putin meet in Moscow, the power dynamics are reversed. Today, China is the big brother—and Russia is increasingly, if not completely, playing the role of supplicant.
China, the world’s second superpower, is a senior partner to a Russia now enfeebled and isolated by its war on Ukraine and more dependent than ever on China for economic, technological, and diplomatic support. If Russian trade data is to be believed, in January and February Chinese exports to Russia grew by nearly 20 percent to a total of $15 billion, and imports from Russia climbed by more than 31 percent to $18.65 billion. The yuan has surpassed the U.S. dollar as the most traded currency on the Moscow stock exchange. Russia overtook Saudi Arabia as China’s largest oil supplier, with nearly 24 percent year-on-year growth in the first two months of this year.
China is clearly the top dog in the relationship, with an economy more than 10 times larger than Russia’s, a rapidly modernizing military, technological superiority, and global diplomatic weight.
But it is premature to call Russia a vassal state to China, as some analysts have done. Dependency does not equal subservience. Russia remains a major nuclear power and globally significant exporter of energy, resources, and food. The Russian economy—while damaged—has so far demonstrated a remarkable resilience in the face of Western sanctions. Russia has a strategic bulk that China needs as it prepares for long-term competition and potential conflict with the United States. China and Russia share one of the longest land borders between nation-states, one that has been peaceful for decades, giving both countries a breathing space to face their respective adversaries in the East and West.
So while diminished and lonely on the world stage, Russia still has agency and heft in its relationship with a more dominant and powerful China.
China—facing a hostile United States, disillusioned Europe, and slowing economy at home—also needs Russia in its corner in its quest to become a global rule-setter and the dominant power in Asia.
Top of the agenda is Ukraine. Xi’s briefing pack is China’s “peace initiative” for Ukraine—a summary of Beijing’s official positions on the conflict. None of its 12 points offer anything specific to end the bloodshed. All of them promote—albeit only rhetorically—Beijing’s credentials as a responsible and peace-loving global power.
Xi seeks quick wins and Russia’s endorsement of the plan to show the world that China has the capabilities to resolve a global conflict.
“Show” is the key word here. The audience is Europe, China’s second-largest trading partner but increasingly skeptical about Beijing’s friendship with Moscow, and the global south, agnostic about the Russia-Ukraine conflict but wary of its impacts on their economies.
Russia is publicly supportive of China’s plans. On Tuesday, Putin announced that China’s peace plan could be the basis of the resolution of the war, when and if Kyiv and its Western backers are ready. This is a win for China. But it does not entice either Moscow or Beijing to do anything else. We will see this tension between rhetoric and reality in the final leaders’ statement after the visit. Russia is highly unlikely to follow through, given that Moscow and Kyiv are gearing up for the decisive spring and summer offensives.
China does not want Russia to lose the war and descend into chaos—or worse, face regime change—from which a different Russia, less sympathetic to China, might emerge. But neither does Beijing want to be seen as an accomplice to a brutal invasion. China’s support for Russia is unwavering, but its messaging to other countries is much more neutral and moderate.
Xi is also in Russia to reap the economic rewards of Russia’s global isolation. China has now solidified its status as the main supplier of basic but critical technologies, electronics, telecommunications, machinery, and cars—the sectors most severely affected by Western sanctions. China also ramped up purchases of Russian energy and commodities at a discounted price. The cornerstone of Russia’s forced diversification strategy is economic connectivity with China. Xi’s visit has delivered: Among the outcomes are agreements on clearing the final hurdles in the Power of Siberia 2 gas pipeline, ramping up food and agricultural trade, a joint commission to develop cooperation on the Northern Sea Route in the Arctic, and a greater use of the yuan in Russia’s trade with countries in Africa, Asia, and Latin America.
For Putin, the visit is an opportunity to ensure the critical lifeline that China provides to an embattled Russia is intact and can be expanded.
Putin’s big ask is for political-diplomatic and technical-military support of his war. The former was already forthcoming—China has been consistent in its messaging of support for Russia. Xi even went further in his first press conference in Moscow, where he flattered Putin by endorsing him for next year’s presidential election—even before Putin himself announced his candidacy.
The latter is more problematic. Unless China sees an imminent collapse of Russia on the battlefield and ensuing chaos in the Kremlin, it is not in China’s interests to lift its support for Russia so dramatically, at a time when Beijing is trying to play peacemaker. But other forms of dual-use assistance are not out of the question, especially if Russia makes an offer of more preferential deals in energy or access to military technologies, the Arctic transport corridors, or the space program that so far have been out of reach to China.
Putin’s and Xi’s agendas are not quite aligned on Ukraine. Putin will not stop his war in the next few months. More importantly, it’s impossible to imagine Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky accepting an offer to negotiate, let alone on the current status quo of territorial control.
Beyond the immediate theatrics of the visit, China and Russia keep getting closer.
The Russia-Ukraine war has been the single-most powerful accelerator of the Russia-China strategic and economic complementarity. For Russia, a deepening dependence on China is a forced choice. For China, it is an opportunity to expand its market share, secure critical energy supplies, and entrench Russia as its strategic backyard while watching and learning from Russia’s blunders on the battlefield and in its rapid decoupling with the West.
Russia and China are in lockstep in their opposition to the U.S.-led global order. While both are committed to strategic autonomy, it is possible that they may be deepening their defense cooperation, as the United States strengthens its own alliances and deterrence strategies in Europe and Asia.
And Russia is just part of the agenda. Despite its slowing economy and dented reputation, China is set on becoming a global rule-setter and power broker. In the last few weeks, China has managed to facilitate a minor but symbolic diplomatic deal between Saudi Arabia and Iran, released its Global Security Initiative and Global Civilization Initiative, and engaged in intensive diplomacy in Europe and Russia.
It all may seem futile and insincere to the West, but to China it is a preparation for a protracted competition with the United States and its allies. That’s why we should not dismiss China’s peace efforts altogether. China remains interested in resolving the Russia-Ukraine conflict, if more for the sake of its own image than any concern for Ukrainians, and may still play a useful role. Xi is expected to speak with Zelensky after his Moscow visit—the first time the two leaders will speak since Russia invaded. The outcome of that call will show if China is serious about peace.
Few Russians would have made much of the line in “Moscow-Beijing” that declares: “This is the mighty Soviet Union / And marching alongside it is China.” But to many Chinese, it was yet another example of Russia’s condescending imperial attitude to China, resented by the Chinese Communist elite.
It was partly because of this inequality and Russia’s patronizing policies toward China that the Sino-Soviet split in the late 1960s put an abrupt end to this communist bromance. With the roles reversed in 2023, China is marching across the globe, and its more dependent younger brother is shuffling behind.