Global Memos are briefs by the Council of Councils that gather opinions from global experts on major international developments.
Russian President Vladimir Putin turns to his right and Chinese President Xi Jinping turns to his left as they enter a room with a golden door before talks at the Kremlin in Moscow, Russia on March 21, 2023. Sputnik/Mikhail Tereshchenko/Pool via REUTERS
Sputnik/Mikhail Tereshchenko/Pool via REUTERS

The Russia-Ukraine war is the most debated topic among international relations scholars in the United States, China, and around the world. They have struggled to reach a consensus on the nature of the conflict, positions to take, or how to resolve it. Viewpoints vary on whether it is a Russian invasion of Ukraine or a conflict between Russia and Ukraine, and on whether it should be analyzed from a historical perspective or solely on its immediate context.

The views of Chinese and U.S. scholars diverge the most. The underlying reasons are complex, but one major factor is the two countries’ bilateral relations with Russia. As is widely recognized, China-Russia relations are at their best in history, as both countries deeply respect each other’s legitimate demands in terms of security, sovereignty, and national unity—for example, Russia supports China’s position on national reunification, and China supports Russia’s opposition to the unjustified expansion of exclusive military blocs, such as the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), on the grounds that such behavior embodies a Cold War mentality. The Russia-Ukraine war and its historical context are usually analyzed within such a framework in China.

Furthermore, Chinese scholars place greater emphasis on Russia’s historical narratives compared to their U.S. counterparts. Under the banner of “Eurasianism,” Russia does not deny its Asian identity, but its European identity is absolutely prioritized.

Following the dissolution of the Soviet Union, Russian foreign policy focused on a general goal of returning to the family of Western civilization and a specific goal of joining the Group of Seven (G7). This strategy is also known as Euro-Atlanticism. Well-known Russian scholar Dmitri Trenin refers to it as “Plan A” for Russia’s integration with the outside world.

The Primakov Doctrine

Yevgeny Maksimovich Primakov assumed the position of Russian foreign minister as the honeymoon period for Russia-West relations gradually gave way to Russia’s sense loss, humiliation, and resentment. His appointment in 1996 illustrated the profound influence of Neo-Slavism on Russia’s strategic visions and its initiatives to foster integration within the post-Soviet space. Neo-Slavism emphasizes the uniqueness of Russian civilization, the independence of Russia as a major power, and a sense of historical mission for the Russian state. Trenin refers to this approach as “Plan B” for Russia’s integration efforts.

Since Russian President Vladimir Putin’s third term started in 2012, Russia has responded more proactively to China and other booming economic and technological forces in the Asia-Pacific region. Capitalizing on China’s economic strength, Russia organized the Eastern Economic Forum with great enthusiasm, while Russian think tanks and research reports proposed ambitious blueprints for a pivot to the East. Actions such as these signal that Russia is determined to translate Eurasianist ideas into practice and implement its Greater Eurasian strategy. Thus, Russia’s Plan C for integration is poised to emerge.

However, the ambiguous prospects for the Russia-Ukraine war indicate that Russia’s eurocentric mindset and strategic thinking continue to hold sway. They remained unchanged, despite the “one hundred years of solitude” argument put forth by the well-known Russian politician and political commentator Vladislav Surkov, or the fact that Russian foreign policy papers refer to the collective West as a hostile bloc.

Russia’s Identity Concerns

Chinese scholars base their opinions on the following facts: The Russia-Ukraine war certainly involves Russia’s strategic security. For instance, if Ukraine were to join NATO, the alliance’s missiles could fly from the Russia-Ukraine border to Moscow in only a few minutes. Meanwhile, it cannot be denied that if Russia were to lose influence in Ukraine, its ties with Europe would be substantially weakened (competition for influence over the former Soviet Union’s sphere of influence is also a kind of connection). As Ukraine shares borders with Hungary, Poland, Romania, and Slovakia, Russia’s strategic space would automatically shift further away from the heartland of Europe, resulting in Russia becoming more like an Asian country.

In a nutshell, many Chinese scholars would argue, Russia believes it needs to retain Ukraine, whether in its entirety or in fragments, to keep its sought after foothold in the West, specifically in Europe, which has historically been the center of the world in terms of history and civilization. In this sense, Russia is bound to be more determined regarding Ukraine compared to other actors such as the United States and Europe.

Chinese scholars also tend to align with Russian narratives regarding the international energy landscape: that the United States is mainly interested in promoting its energy interests in Eurasia. Some believe that the United States is manipulating the Russia-Ukraine war with the intention to drive a wedge between Russia and Europe in terms of natural gas dependence, thus promoting the interests of U.S. energy companies in Europe. U.S. think tanks and scholars have indeed enthusiastically discussed how Europe can do without Russian gas. Some observers may ask whether the Russians would not just shift the bulk of their natural gas exports to China instead of Europe, but this has so far not occurred.

It is not difficult to see that the ideal customer for the Russian oil and gas industry is Europe. Not only does Europe possess strong purchasing power, but it also has religious traditions, culture, and historical memories close to those of Russia. These create an effect in which energy exports make economic gains while enhancing the affinity between Russia and Europe. This explains why, according to Russian scholars, the French company Total was the first to invest in and receive the most favorable terms and conditions from some Arctic liquefied natural gas projects jointly developed by China and Russia, which have shown remarkable results.

Where China and Russia Diverge

China, despite having good relations with Russia and understanding its sentiments toward Europe, has chosen to adopt a more balanced position on the Russia-Ukraine war for several reasons:

First, China has long adhered to principles of mutual respect, peaceful coexistence, common development, and political settlement of disputes among nations. The Russia-Ukraine war clearly contradicts these principles and China’s consistent stance.

Second, China advocates for noninterference in the internal affairs of other countries and for respect for their sovereignty and territorial integrity. For China, unilaterally changing a country’s territorial status through so-called referendums is unacceptable. Certainly, China also hopes that the rest of the world, particularly countries that have sanctioned Russia, will enact the same sanctions when it comes to infringements of China’s sovereignty, territorial integrity, and national unity.

Third, China is cautiously optimistic about Russia’s pivot to the East. The sound development of the China-Russia comprehensive strategic partnership is in line with the well-being of the two peoples and is made possible by factors such as mutual political trust between the countries’ two leaders and evolving global power dynamics. Meanwhile, it is uncertain whether Russian elites have realized that, amid great global changes unseen in a century, shifting focus from Europe to Asia and strengthening ties with China rather than Europe is the best and most rational option for Russian diplomacy.

In fact, the observed trend appears to be quite the opposite. Russian scholars who are extremely pro-West, such as Vladislav Inozemtsev, director of the Centre for Research on Post-Industrial Societies, and even Alexander Lukin, a senior lecturer at the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs’ Moscow State Institute of International Relations, who interacts closely with his Chinese counterpart, are questioning China’s evolving diplomatic style and strongly emphasizing the need for “de-Sinicization” in Russia’s Eastward policy.

Fourth, China and Russia do not share the same approach and pace of change in the existing international order. Russia is more adept at pursuing its strategic interests amid disorder and chaos.

China and Russia uphold the central role of the United Nations in promoting world peace and security governance; emphasize the equal rights of sovereign states; call for the abandonment of Cold War mentalities; and oppose actions that provoke and intensify confrontations, trigger conflicts, or even lead to wars through the establishment and strengthening of military blocs. Both countries have sharply criticized wars waged by the United States and U.S.-led NATO forces without UN authorization in various regions since the end of the Cold War (e.g., in Afghanistan, Iraq, and the former Yugoslavia).

China indeed advocates for changes to the existing international order and proposes plans for more legitimate and effective global governance. However, China has never had the strategic impulse to demolish the current order and start over with a new one. This is also reflected in Chinese President Xi Jinping’s statement during his meeting with U.S. President Joe Biden in San Francisco in November 2023.

On the contrary, observing many instances where the United States’s pursuit of hegemony have faced challenges, Russia hopes that China will also reject unreasonable demands on various issues from the United States and openly raise its own more reasonable demands—for example, China finds it unreasonable for the United States to breach global trading rules and reject World Trade Organization (WTO) rulings, and it demands that they instead settle trade disputes under the auspices of the WTO. The Russia-Ukraine war can be seen as a manifestation of similar strategic thinking by Russia.

Order or Disorder?

Russia has been immersed in the European international system for hundreds of years and has rivaled the United States globally for half a century. Compared to China, Russia is clearly more adept at using chaos to gain momentum or succeed in strategic tasks that are difficult to accomplish during times of stability. This strategy is reflected in the fact that Russia (and the Soviet Union) became a dominant power on the European continent after it was forced to fight the two Patriotic Wars of 1812 and 1941. Strong evidence of it can also be found in Russia’s three quick reaction operations (with a counteroffensive nature) in 2008, 2014, and 2015 and the results they yielded.

To succeed in such situations requires strategic reserves including resources, geographical depth, intelligence support, and coordination between diplomacy and hybrid warfare. For instance, Russia could use the issue over Donetsk and Luhansk as a check on Ukraine, and then leverage the critical state of war to exert pressure on European Union (EU) members. Russia’s significant share in the European natural gas market has also allowed it to exploit Europe’s inelastic demand for natural gas to compel certain EU member states to take a distinct stance on sanctions against Russia.

Russia’s strategic flexibility is also based on a military force maintained and effectively modernized following the dissolution of the Soviet Union. In addition, Russia’s expectation for the survival of the existing international order, as well as its dependence on the effectiveness of the existing order, has diminished significantly. At the Valdai Discussion Club, a think tank in Moscow, many Chinese and Russian scholars have disagreed on whether the world is in a state of order or disorder.

Regardless of how the Russia-Ukraine war ends, Russia’s ambition to remain a great power rooted in Europe will remain unchanged. Russia will not be deterred by strong powers when it comes to its core interests, and it will not relent in integrating a security zone in its neighboring region. How China handles intricate bilateral and multilateral relations involving Russia will be a test for the diplomacy of this major power.