Russia losing the new Great Game

Map of Central Asia with rail and pipeline connections
China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) is building a network of railroads, pipelines and highways in an area that Russia considers its own backyard (macpixxel for GIS)
  • Beijing’s investment strategy has broken Moscow’s stranglehold in Central Asia
  • Russia’s military and cultural hold on the region is also weakening
  • Kazakhstan, the linchpin of regional security, may soon face a succession crisis

Last month’s meeting in Moscow between Russian President Vladimir Putin and his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping provided yet another opportunity to showcase Sino-Russian relations. Since President Xi’s accession to power in 2012, the two have now met more than 20 times, and mutual relations are currently said to be the “best in history.” The July 4-5 event was marked by the usual signing of deals, including a $10 billion investment fund for cross-border infrastructure projects. Mr. Xi also collected the highest award that can be bestowed by the Russian Federation, the Order of St. Andrew the Apostle.

To the casual observer, Mr. Putin may seem to be well on track toward realizing his own version of a pivot to Asia, reorienting the economy away from Western sanctions to catch Chinese wind in its sails. But closer inspection reveals that the Sino-Russian “strategic partnership” is neither strategic nor a real partnership. Russia is not among China’s top 10 trading partners, and Chinese enterprises have little appetite for investment in Russia. The relationship remains what veteran observer Bobo Lo once called an “axis of convenience.”

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