It has become increasingly clear that Russia is on the inexorable path toward restoring its territory on the old map of the USSR. Whether Moscow will be able to achieve such a grandiose scheme to recreate another Soviet Union-size Rodina has been traditionally believed to depend on the strength and willingness of NATO and Europe to counter such Russian ambition. The assumption is that if the counterthrusts from the West are robust enough, Moscow will fail in its attempt, otherwise Russia’s territorial map will look like the Soviet Union in 2030.
This dichotomy of thrust and counterthrust by Russia on the one side and the West on the other is for the most part inadequate largely because there is also another crucial factor in deciding the outcome of Russia’s territorial expansion, namely, China and its own territorial ambition that goes against Russia’s objectives in much of Central and East Asia.
The Soviet Union was a Eurasian empire with the European portion of it accounting for only a quarter of the entire nation. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s, China has steadfastly thwarted Russia’s effort to maintain dominance and influence in the Central Asian nations that were formerly parts of the USSR.
China’s methods have been subtle but highly effective, rendering Russia increasingly irrelevant in most of these countries, some even hostile to Moscow at China’s encouragement. These Chinese steps have made it highly unlikely that Moscow will be able to take back these Central Asian countries which now have China’s strong military and economic backing.
In 2001, China took the initiative by creating the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) that now includes Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Russia, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, India, and Pakistan, with China as the dominant player and the indisputable leader of the pack. In the annual SCO military exercises, China normally contributes about 70 per cent of all forces involved and dictates much of the agenda.
China’s economy is five times larger than Russia’s and Beijing has never shied away from using its staggering $3.9 trillion foreign currency reserve to buy influence and loyalty from the former Soviet republics in Central Asia.
In 2005, in an effort to sabotage Putin’s Eurasian Economic Community that would include Russia, Ukraine, and Kazakhstan, Beijing doled out $4.2 billion and bought PetroKazakhstan, the largest oil company in Kazakhstan. In 2009, China gave Astana another $10 billion to gain a dominant stake in the country’s largest gas company the MangistauMunaiGas. In reality, China, not Russia, has become Kazakhstan’s new economic master and Astana has joined Beijing in acting together in he SCO and other venues against Russia’s lingering influence in the country.
In 2013, China rolled out an ambitious $100 billion (and growing) “One Belt, One Road” project, with massive trade deals and investments in infrastructure and economic assistance to countries in Central and South Asia, gaining further footholds in what were traditionally Russian spheres of influence. This Chinese move has effectively dashed any hope or significance for Putin’s dream of forming the Eurasian Economic Community.
China and Russia share the world’s longest border. But the two countries also have the deepest distrust over territorial claims. In China’s official history books, Russia illegally grabbed 580,000 square miles (twice the size of Texas) from China in the nineteenth century and forced China to give up Mongolia in 1924 (another 580,000 square miles). Putin and China’s leader Jiang Zemin signed a treaty in 2001 to renounce any remaining border disputes. But the treaty was never published in China for fear of the uproar it might cause among China’s throngs of angry nationalists. The Sino-Russian border issues remain highly contentious in both countries today.
However, to guarantee China’s inroad into former the Soviet republics in Central Asia, Beijing has been actively encouraging Russia to expand into the former Soviet republics in Europe, especially in Ukraine and the Baltic states.
For the past two decades, Ukraine has been crucial in providing China with sophisticated, Russian-designed, modern weapons, ranging from an aircraft carrier, missile technology, turbofan bomber engines, to LCAC landing craft, and advanced shipbuilding know-hows. But Kiev’s usefulness to Beijing has been exhausted as all Ukraine could sell to China has already been sold. That’s why China has supported Putin’s gambit in Ukraine and acknowledged Moscow’s annexation of Crimea.
China wants Russia to become the target of the world’s wrath as its bad behaviors in Europe take the heat off China. In China’s own words, Mr. Putin “is taking a bullet for China,” as Beijing calculates that since the national security establishment in the West is overwhelmingly anti-Russia, Moscow could be a convenient cover for China’s far more ambitious and powerful revisionist schemes in gobbling up spheres of influence in Central, South, and Eastern Asia.
In sum, with China in the way, it will be unlikely that Russia’s territorial restoration by 2030 will include the former Soviet republics in Central Asia.