Fragile fraternity

Vladimir Putin’s recent state visit to China was practically a mirror image of Mao Zedong’s visit to Moscow 75 years ago

Fragile fraternity

Souvenir shop in central Moscow, 16 May 2024. Photo: MAXIM SHIPENKOV


In December 1949, Mao Zedong flew to Moscow to meet Joseph Stalin. The leader of the new People’s Republic of China, which had been created just a few months earlier, was eager to join his fellow leader of the world proletariat to celebrate both the victory of communism in China and the Soviet premier’s 71st birthday. But, for Stalin, Mao was no equal. How times have changed.

Nina L. Khrushcheva

Professor of international affairs at The New School in New York

In Stalin’s view, Mao was useful because he would help spread communism across Asia. So, in February 1950, the two leaders signed the Sino-Soviet Treaty of Friendship, Alliance and Mutual Assistance. Mao wanted more — security guarantees against the United States and direct military backing — but Stalin was “noncommittal”. In his view, Mao was not only beneath him — a needy neighbour with delusions of grandeur — but also a liability. Closer ties with the PRC, he feared, could jeopardise the Soviet Union’s gains in Asia and lead to US intervention.

Today, it is Chinese President Xi Jinping who is looking down on his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin. In fact, Putin’s state visit to Beijing earlier this month — his first trip abroad since being inaugurated for a fifth term — was practically a mirror image of the Stalin-Mao encounter 75 years ago.

Today, it is Chinese President Xi Jinping who is looking down on his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin.

Xi welcomed Putin in Tiananmen Square for a ceremony with all the pomp one would expect. As Putin’s motorcade pulled up in front of the Great Hall of the People, a thunderous artillery salute rang out. The People’s Liberation Army orchestra performed not only the Russian anthem, but also the Moscow Nights melody, long beloved by elderly Chinese. The crowd cheered.

The visit did not skimp on symbolism — or propaganda. Beyond marking 75 years of diplomatic relations, the event kicked off the China-Russia Years of Culture, during which 230 “cultural and artistic” events will be held in dozens of cities in both countries. Touting such people-to-people ties, Putin declared that the Russians and the Chinese are brothers forever — a reference to a song that was composed for Mao’s visit to Moscow — and claimed that this has become something of a catchphrase in Russia.

Vladimir Putin visits China, 16 May 2024. Photo: XINHUA / RAO AIMIN

Vladimir Putin visits China, 16 May 2024. Photo: XINHUA / RAO AIMIN

Even for the Kremlin’s propagandists, the claim was rich. In fact, the song has long been ridiculed in Russia, given repeated failures in China-Russia relations, starting with the Sino-Soviet split. Some may argue that Nikita Khrushchev, my great-grandfather, was responsible for destroying the bilateral relationship by denouncing Stalin in 1956. But Stalin was never a loyal ally to China. As Khrushchev recalled at home, in 1951, when the Korean War had reached a stalemate, the Soviet dictator derided Mao as a talentless guerilla fighter.

In any case, Putin was not in Beijing just for the show. Since he launched his full-scale invasion of Ukraine two years ago — and the West responded with unprecedented sanctions — Russia has become highly dependent on China. So, when Putin landed in Beijing, his hand was practically already outstretched.

But Xi, like Stalin 75 years ago, has reservations. Yes, Russia has its uses. As Xi noted at the recent summit, he views the bilateral relationship as a “factor in maintaining global strategic stability and democratisation of international relations”. That helps to explain why, as Putin pointed out, the two countries have created a “weighty portfolio” of 80 major investment projects. There are, however, clear limits on what China is willing to sacrifice for Russia.

Start with the economy. In recent months, Xi has met with several Western leaders, including German Chancellor Olaf Scholz, French President Emmanuel Macron, and US Secretary of State Antony Blinken. All of them relayed the same message: if China keeps supplying “dual-use” materials and technologies that can bolster Russia’s war effort, its firms will face secondary sanctions.

Xi made sure to come across as unmoved. But it is probably no coincidence that Chinese exports to Russia have declined, falling by 14% in March alone. Moreover, since the beginning of this year, China has steadily reduced direct deliveries of machinery, equipment (including electrical equipment), mechanical parts, and accessories to Russia. Given that China is Russia’s largest source of imports — accounting for about 45% of the total last year — this is a major cause for concern in the Kremlin.

Russian President Vladimir Putin visits China, 15 May 2024. Photo: SERGEY BOBYLEV / SPUTNIK / KREMLIN POOL

Russian President Vladimir Putin visits China, 15 May 2024. Photo: SERGEY BOBYLEV / SPUTNIK / KREMLIN POOL

In addition, China has been dragging its feet when it comes to the Power of Siberia-2 gas pipeline, which will transport Russian gas to China. Well aware that he has the upper hand, Xi expects Russia to foot the entire bill for the pipeline’s multi-billion-dollar construction, while continuing to offer China steep discounts on energy. This year, China paid just $300 (€275) per 1,000 cubic meters of gas pumped through the Power of Siberia-1 pipeline, while Europe and Turkey paid more than $500 (€460) per 1,000 cubic meters.

Progress on the Power of Siberia-2 pipeline is so important to Putin that he brought Russian Deputy Prime Minister Alexander Novak, who is responsible for energy relations, with him to Beijing. But all Novak could offer after the meeting was a vague assurance that a contract will be signed “in the near future”.

Well aware that he has the upper hand, Xi expects Russia to foot the entire bill for the pipeline’s multi-billion-dollar construction, while continuing to offer China steep discounts on energy.

Putin’s Mao-like bid for a full-fledged military alliance, including commitments to mutual defence, also seems to have failed. Though China has held joint military exercises with Russia, it has sought to position itself as a proponent of “win-win cooperation,” in contrast to the “Cold War mentality” that assumes the world’s division into competing blocs. Why would Xi jeopardise his position as a kind of conduit between Russia and the West?

Xi is not interested in quarrelling, at least not overtly, and Putin’s agenda includes nothing but quarrels. With the two leaders’ interests diverging so sharply, one wonders whether the Chinese-Russian relationship is doomed to fall apart yet again. China and Russia may indeed be “brothers forever”.

This article was first published by Project Syndicate. Views expressed in opinion pieces do not necessarily reflect the position of Novaya Gazeta Europe.

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