The rise of China – strategic allies II: Russia

Brian M Downing 

China’s most important strategic partner, by far, is Russia. They share borders, opposition to democracy at home, and the desire to weaken American hegemony. Their combined land mass and military power have no parallel in history and pose a challenge to the role order. Russia and China have had a checkered past since World War Two, even while both were communist.

Stalin encouraged the N Korean invasion of the south in 1950. Mao opposed it for bringing war and instability to his borders. He felt it necessary to intervene when American and UN forces neared the Yalu. In 1969, Soviet and Chinese troops engaged in sharp clashes along the Amur and Ussuri rivers, leaving scores of dead on both sides. The Nixon administration took note and the overture to China soon followed.

The world has turned many times since Nixon and Chou clinked glasses in Beijing and caused shudders in Moscow. Today, Russia is resentful over the decline in power prestige since the fall of communism and livid over NATO’s expansion into Eastern Europe. China wants to become major global power and sees American hegemony as the obstacle. Russia is of course a key source of hydrocarbons, lumber, and ores, but it also serves Chinese geopolitical objectives. How formidable is this alignment stretching from the Baltic to SE Asia? And how stable is the alliance between the two powers?

The military 

China has long benefited from Russian military hardware and technology – from small arms to tanks and jet fighters. Despite China’s manufacturing sophistication, the country has relied on Russian jet engines until very recently when it began development of an engine for the J-20 fighter.

Aside from its technology, the Russian military itself has a role in China’s ambitions. It has a large number of troops, tanks, ships, and planes, and can project power across its immense periphery. Russia has had a naval base in Syria for several decades and in the last year it built an airfield there too. Iran allowed Russian fighters to fly sorties into Syria from an airbase near Hamadan. The operations were ended, however, when Russia boasted of its presence, which upset Iranian sensibilities about foreign presences.

The quality of the Russian military is uncertain. Some units are well-trained and amply-equipped, but this is after all the country that gave us the expression “Potemkinism”. Many garrisons, especially those across the Urals, lack the training and armaments of the more visible ones.

The army has many conscripts and retains a harsh regimen that includes harshness and beatings. No surprise, then, that hostility toward NCOs and officers is widespread. This undermines unit cohesion which effective units must have. The military environment may have brightened in recent years as Putin has ended the weakness that followed communism’s collapse and restored the nation’s power prestige. Nonetheless, the army is almost certainly much less coherent and effective than American and Chinese counterparts.


Russia has a relatively modest youth cohort. While many countries in the Middle East have 50% or more of the their population under the age of 25, Russia has only about 27%. Russia is not facing the impending problems of accommodating a large younger generation’s aspirations for work and political participation.

Russian youth today is certainly more western-oriented than the generations that came of age under Brezhnev and even Gorbachev. Their attire and music would appall those communist chiefs. Russian youths are not, however, insistent on democratic reform, at least not in numbers, at least not yet. For them, democracy connotes weakness, directionlessness, and economic decline.

Russian culture prizes strong leaders who defend the nation and silence internal confusion. There are no similar feelings toward Kerensky or Gorbachev. Putin has placed himself in the tradition of Peter the Great and Joseph Stalin. He ended the drift and despair of the post-communist decade, stood up against NATO encroachments, and restored power prestige in the world.

Economic vitality will shape the country’s political stability in coming years and that will present problems. Export revenue is mainly from hydrocarbons and oil prices collapsed a few years ago. They’ve risen sharply off lows – the result of production limits by exporting countries, including Russia and Saudi Arabia. But this may be short-lived. American producers have driven costs down and are exporting more and more oil and gas onto world markets.

Russian exports to Europe will face competition from the US, Israel, and Egypt. Europeans will prefer to deal with those countries rather than with Russia, which acts aggressively in the world, stifles dissent, and cuts back on supplies to countries that irk the Kremlin.

Putin’s restoration of national power has been accompanied by crackdowns on private ownership of many large businesses, especially in oil and metals. Most of the barons whose property he seized obtained their wealth through rigged auctions of state businesses after communism’s demise. In other words, he expropriated the expropriators. It may be in keeping with Karl Marx but is has a chilling effect on private businesses. Entrepreneurs are wary, capital is getting out.

Another looming problem is the matter of succession. Putin has accrued great power and wealth but it rests in his person not in established institutions and procedures. A smooth transfer of power to a successor is unlikely. This of course is a recurring theme in Russian history. Powerful rulers such as Ivan the Terrible, Peter the Great, and Joseph the Georgian left turmoil and intrigue when they died. Putin may be emulating them more than he knows.

Copyright 2018 Brian M Downing

Brian M Downing is a national security analyst who has written for outlets across the political spectrum. He studied at Georgetown University and the University of Chicago, and did post-graduate work at Harvard’s Center for International Affairs. Thanks to Susan Ganosellis.