An increasingly unequal relationship

Think of a giant pendulum that’s swinging, ever so slowly, to and fro. It’s been happening for centuries here.

It swings one way and Russia looks west towards Europe, and the country sees itself as an undeniable part of European civilisation.

Other times, the pendulum swings in the opposite direction and Russia looks east. Its rulers slam Western civilisation, Western values and declare that Russia’s future lies with Asia.

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An increasingly unequal relationship

With Vladimir Putin, the Russian pendulum has firmly swung to the east.

That’s hardly surprising: his decision to invade Ukraine has left Russia a pariah in the West and his country battered by Western sanctions. US President Joe Biden has called Putin a “murderous dictator”; UK Prime Minister Liz Truss previously dubbed him “a desperate rogue operator.”

China’s president, however, uses quite different language.

“My dear old friend!” exclaimed Xi Jinping. The two leaders met on the sidelines of a regional summit in Samarkand, Uzbekistan.

For his part, President Putin lauded the “friendship between China and Russia” and their “strategic comprehensive partnership”.

The two leaders share a similar world view. Both promote the idea of an alternative world order: a “multi-polar world” in which their countries act as a counterweight to the West, in particular to the United States.

So, is it a case of Putin and Xi “best friends forever”?

Not quite. First, BFF rarely exists in global politics. And second, this is an increasingly unequal relationship.

Mr Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, which has not gone according to plan, has weakened Russia. The Kremlin admits that the Russian army has suffered “significant losses”, while Western sanctions are putting the economy under intense pressure. In the Russia-China relationship, it feels more and more that Russia is the junior partner.

In their meeting, Mr Putin conceded that China has “questions and concerns” about the situation in Ukraine. It was an unexpected admission, by the Kremlin, that Russia’s so-called special military operation is causing some anxiety in Beijing.

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