Putin's power play: Russia makes geopolitical pivot to Asia

As Moscow navigates complex geopolitical terrain, Vladimir Putin's continued reign is pushing him to seek closer ties with India and China. But which relationship is more important to Russia?

Putin's approach to relations with China and India will continue to be dictated by Russia's strategic interests and influenced by regional dynamics and global power shifts. (photo: DW)
Putin's approach to relations with China and India will continue to be dictated by Russia's strategic interests and influenced by regional dynamics and global power shifts. (photo: DW)


Vladimir Putin has cemented his place in Russian history, with a controversial reelection victory securing him a fifth term as the country's president. With opposition nonexistent and the media completely under his control, the 71-year-old's win was no surprise.

Putin begins this next term at the helm facing huge challenges triggered by his 2022 invasion of Ukraine, which has made relations with the West increasingly belligerent.

Breakup with the West

As the war continues, Russia's break with the West seems unbridgeable. A new Putin term is likely to see increased emphasis on Moscow's ties with Eastern powers, experts have observed.

"As long as the war continues, and even if Ukraine is defeated, I don't think attitudes in the West will change. It is not like, 'OK, now the war is over and we have to restore our ties' with Russia," Rajan Menon, an expert on Russia and Putin at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, told DW.

Menon said the badly poisoned state of current Russian-Western relations leaves Putin with only one option: turn to India and China.

Blossoming bromances with Modi, Xi

Earlier this year, Putin held a call with India's Prime Minister Narendra Modi, with the two leaders wishing each other good luck in upcoming elections. India's general election is expected to take place in April and May.

According to the Kremlin, the two "expressed interest in further intensifying mutually beneficial bilateral ties."

Simultaneously, Putin and Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping have also forged stronger ties in the wake of Russia's war in Ukraine. One example: when the West applied sanctions in response, Russia redirected its European oil exports and sent half of its oil and petroleum exports to China instead.

India's share grew as well, to 40% in 2022 and 2023.

Russia needs China more than China needs Russia

According to Chinese customs data, China's two-way trade with Russia hit $240 billion (€219 billion) in 2023, setting a new record while surpassing the goal of $200 billion set in bilateral meetings last year.

Russia became China's fifth-largest single-country trading partner in 2023, up from ninth-largest in 2020.

"China and Russia are the closest neighbors in Eurasia and the growing trade turnover is something natural. But the speed of growth is abnormal. It's concerning," Russian sinologist Aleksei Chigadaev told DW.

Chigadaev stressed the fact that Russia needs China more than China needs Russia.

"Without China, the Russian economy will face a serious crisis. On the other hand, if there's no Russia, yeah, China will face a crisis, but not a big one," he said.

Chigadaev noted that oil and gas make up 90% of Russia's exports to China — a buyer that will need less and less of the fossil fuels as it pursues its aim of transitioning to a green economy.

Since the start of the war in Ukraine, the world has been closely watching the relationship between China and Russia as Beijing has extended Moscow a geopolitical and an economic lifeline.

Menon said one of Putin's biggest challenges now will be to reduce Russian dependency on China, both economically and strategically.

"Look around your apartment, you cannot find one thing that is made in Russia. You could probably find things that are made in China, or America or Germany. That's very telling. I think Putin sees the need to change that," he said.

India walking a fine line

India's unapologetic purchase of discounted Russian crude oil is one of the most notable aspects of the country's relationship with Russia.

Additionally, Moscow has continued to be a major arms supplier for India. According to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, Russia supplied 65% of India's weapons purchases of more than $60 billion over the last two decades.

But now India ― one of the world's biggest arms importers ― is slowly pivoting West. It's a step New Delhi is taking carefully, in order to not push Russia closer to China, since Moscow and Beijing growing closer could be bad for India, according to Menon.

Considering the existing border tensions between India and China, "if war breaks out between them, that will put Russia in a tough position," he said. "It would be forced to choose between two of its friends."

And if that came to be, Menon said, Moscow would likely choose Beijing, or try to delay the choice as much as possible.

"China has lot more to offer to Russia than India," he said.

Russia: Neither West nor East

Be it China or India, Menon said it's likely Putin will "further strengthen ties with Eastern powers."

Chigadaev pointed out, however, that "Russia's culture, religion, and history are more closely connected to Europe."

Russia, according to Chigadaev, doesn't see itself as fully belonging to either the West or to a triangle with India and China.

"We are not Europe," he said, referring to Russia's self-image. "We are not a part of the West. We are not a part of the East. We are the center."

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Published: 19 Mar 2024, 3:37 PM