Growing inequality between Xi Jinping and Vladimir Putin

Growing inequality between Xi Jinping and Vladimir Putin

Growing inequality between Xi Jinping and Vladimir Putin
Getty Images

Need to comprehend Russia?

Consider a massive pendulum swinging gently back and forth. It's been going on for ages here.

It swings one way, and Russia looks west towards Europe, seeing itself as an indisputable component of European culture.

At times, the pendulum swings the other way, and Russia looks east. Its authorities criticize Western civilization and ideals, and say that Russia's future belongs in Asia.

Do they remind you of anyone?

The Russian pendulum has firmly swung to the east with Vladimir Putin.

That's hardly unexpected given that his decision to invade Ukraine has turned Russia into a pariah in the West, and his country has been pummeled by Western sanctions. US Vice President Joe Biden has described Putin as a "murderous despot," while UK Prime Minister Liz Truss has described him as a "desperate rogue operator."

China's president, on the other hand, speaks in a completely different language.

Xi Jinping cried, "My dear old friend!" The two presidents met in Samarkand, Uzbekistan, on the fringes of a regional meeting.

President Putin, for his part, praised the "friendship between China and Russia" and their "strategic comprehensive collaboration."

Both leaders have a similar worldview. Both advocate for an alternative world order: a "multi-polar world" in which their respective countries serve as a counterbalance to the West, particularly the United States.

So, are Putin and Xi "best pals for life"?

Not exactly. First, BFF is uncommon in global politics. Second, this is becoming an increasingly unequal relationship.

Mr. Putin's invasion of Ukraine, which did not proceed as planned, has damaged Russia. The Kremlin recognizes that the Russian army has suffered "major casualties," while Western sanctions are exerting enormous strain on the economy. Russia appears to be the junior party in the Russia-China partnership.

Mr Putin admitted during their discussion that China had "questions and worries" about the situation in Ukraine. The Kremlin's surprising acknowledgment that Russia's so-called special military operation is raising concern in Beijing.

Mr Putin is trying a pivot east after burning bridges with the West and sparking an energy war with Europe (he's given himself little alternative). He hopes to reposition the Russian economy as well as discover new markets for Russian oil and gas. It's a difficult task.

"The expectation is that this shift will be successful and yield credible rewards for Russia." But I don't see that occurring," says Sergey Radchenko, a Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies professor. "What Russia eventually requires is in the West: its technology and markets."

"Russia wants Western technologies to develop offshore oil and gas reserves, and it is unclear if Russia will be able to do it without Western assistance."

"Changing the direction of gas flows is quite difficult." The physical infrastructure is where the Soviet Union and Russia spent decades developing networks of pipes to Europe. Reorienting Russian energy markets toward Asia is extremely tough."

Growing inequality between Xi Jinping and Vladimir Putin
Mr Putin (far left) and Mr Xi (far right) met in Samarkand for the Shanghai Cooperation Organization conference. (Reuters Image)

Mr. Putin and Mr. Xi are in Shanghai for a meeting of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, or SCO. Members include four Central Asian governments - Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan - as well as India and Pakistan, in addition to Russia and China.

President Putin sees the event as an opportunity to show that, despite international sanctions and Western efforts to isolate Russia for its invasion of Ukraine, Moscow still has significant allies.

"Russia prefers to emphasize that its isolation by the West is limited to the West and that the globe is highly multi-polar," Prof Radchenko observes. "What's striking is that the entire balance of power in the SCO and Central Asia is shifting away from Russia.

"Putin is in Samarkand at a time when Russia's leader is fighting a losing struggle.

"Meanwhile, Central Asian countries are following their own policies for the first time. This is especially obvious in Kazakhstan, which has been proactive in its dealings with Russia. Since Russia's invasion of Ukraine, Kazakhstan has not been quite as helpful as Putin had planned. The power balance is shifting in fascinating ways."

As the Kremlin pushes its shift east, it's important to remember one important fact about Russia. This world's largest country spans two continents, Europe and Asia.

Instead of allowing the pendulum to swing, perhaps Russia could look both ways.

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