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Russia’s Diplomatic Dilemmas and “Bright Spots” Pertaining to the Russia-Ukraine Conflict


Feng Yujun, a senior Russia expert at Fudan University, argues that while Russia’s relations with the West have deteriorated precipitously since its invasion of Ukraine, China-Russia ties have been characterized by regular diplomatic contact, increased trade, and alignment in international organizations. Feng argues that strong and stable ties with China are increasingly critical for Russia as its international status and influence decline.

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The escalating conflict between Russia and Ukraine in 2022 led to the large-scale deterioration of Russia’s international environment. As such, the country’s space for diplomatic maneuvering was substantially reduced. Given that Russia’s relationship with the West fell to a freezing point and that there is a possibility relations will remain in this state for an extended period of time, Russia had no choice but to shift its diplomatic focus to the “East” and “South.” During these momentous changes, Sino-Russian relations were not substantially impacted. Momentum towards stable development was maintained, and this momentum became a rare “bright spot” for Russia’s diplomacy in 2022.


1. The Large-Scale Deterioration of Russia’s International Environment


After launching a “special military operation” against Ukraine on February 24, 2022, Russia suffered extensive political isolation and severe economic sanctions from the international community.


On March 2, 2022, the Eleventh Emergency Special Session of the United Nations General Assembly adopted a resolution that was jointly proposed by 96 UN member states (141 votes in favor, 35 abstentions, and 5 votes against); the resolution “reaffirmed the United Nations’ commitment to Ukraine’s sovereignty, independence, unity, and territorial integrity. The resolution also unequivocally condemned Russia’s aggression against Ukraine in violation of the UN Charter and demanded Russia to immediately stop its invasion of Ukraine. Russia should unconditionally withdraw all troops from Ukraine and immediately and unconditionally reverse its February 21 decision related to the status of the Donetsk and Luhansk regions of Ukraine.”1 On October 12, the United Nations General Assembly adopted a resolution (with an overwhelming majority of 143 votes in favor, 5 votes against, and 35 abstentions) which “condemned the illegal so-called referendum organized by Russia in some states in Ukraine, and declared that Russia’s illegal actions have no basis in international law. The resolution demanded Russia immediately and unconditionally rescind its decision to violate Ukraine’s territorial integrity and sovereignty.”2 On November 14, the UN General Assembly held an emergency meeting on Ukraine and adopted a resolution (94 votes in favor, 14 against, and 73 abstentions) concerning remedies and reparations (for aggression against Ukraine) and demanded “Russia to take responsibility for violating international law during the war,” including the payment of reparations to Ukraine.3


In addition, the International Court of Justice in The Hague issued a ruling that required Russia to immediately stop its military operations against Ukraine. Russia was expelled from the Council of Europe—a pan-European multilateral cooperation institution, and its membership in the UN Human Rights Council was suspended. Furthermore, a series of Western countries expelled Russian diplomats on a large scale. Many countries proposed to expel Russia from the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, the G20, and other multilateral international institutions.


After the war broke out, neutral countries such as the United States, those in Europe, and even Switzerland imposed unprecedented and severe sanctions on Russia such as freezing assets, restricting financing, export controls, canceling most-favored-nation treatment, and removing a series of important Russian banks from the SWIFT system. More than 1,000 multinational corporations announced the withdrawal of capital from or suspension of services to Russia. Even in the important energy field where Russia was once considered rock-solid, its status has suffered a huge blow. The United States and Canada have already imposed an energy embargo and completely stopped the import of oil, gas, and coal from Russia. The European Union (EU) also made the important decisions to reduce 2/3 of its natural gas imports from Russia in 2022, reduce 90 percent of its offshore oil imports, and to basically eliminate its dependence on Russian energy by 2027.


Russia originally wanted to use military action to prevent the further expansion of NATO and subvert the European security structure dominated by the United States and NATO after the Cold War, but the result was counterproductive. The security environment on Russia’s western front has not only failed to improve, but it is instead rapidly deteriorating. Negotiations that were launched in mid-January 2022 concerning the provision of “security guarantees” to Russia by the United States, NATO, and the Organization for Security Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) have come to an end. Fear, wariness, and hostility towards Russia have risen rapidly in the EU and NATO. Additionally, Finland and Sweden have applied to join NATO. An “iron curtain” that isolates Russia is being reintroduced in Europe.


For a long period of time in the future, Russia will probably fall into a relatively isolated state, and its status and influence in international politics and the global economic system will further shrink.


2. Russia’s Diplomatic Space has been Greatly Suppressed


Diplomacy inevitably takes a backseat when wars are raging; military operations against Ukraine have greatly suppressed Russia’s diplomatic space.


As a permanent member of the UN Security Council, Russia spent 2022 in the UN basically justifying, exonerating, or criticizing other countries for sanctions against it. Russia’s behavior has produced a decline in the efficiency of the UN Security Council in maintaining global and regional security and has caused many countries to strongly question Russia’s “abuse of veto power” during the past few years. Ukraine and other countries have even proposed to cancel Russia’s status as a permanent member of the Security Council.


In November 2022, the G20 Summit and the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) Summit were held successively in Indonesia and Thailand. Russia’s senior leaders were absent from these meetings, and only the foreign minister and deputy prime minister were sent to attend. Declarations from both summits “reaffirmed positions expressed in the UN Security Council, the UN General Assembly, and other forums; these declarations condemned in the strongest terms Russia’s aggression against Ukraine and demanded Russia’s complete and unconditional withdrawal from Ukrainian territory. Most members strongly condemned the war in Ukraine and stressed that it is causing enormous human suffering and is exacerbating existing vulnerabilities in the global economy—restricting growth, aggravating inflation, disrupting supply chains, exacerbating energy and food insecurity, and exacerbating financial stability risks.”4


The conflict between Russia and Ukraine shows that Russia and the West have very different views on international strategy, national security, and moral values. The relationship between Russia and the West has completely regressed since the outbreak of the war. Politically, the two sides not only accused and slandered each other, but also expelled each other’s diplomats on a large scale. A series of cooperative agreements that were signed have basically become waste paper, and cooperation mechanisms have been completely destroyed. Economically, the West has imposed multiple rounds of severe sanctions on Russia, and even did not hesitate to cut off energy ties with Russia, without regard for cost. With regards to security, the “security dilemma” that the two sides have fallen into is difficult to escape; mutual worries, fears, and hostility will keep the security relationship between the parties in a frozen state for a long time. This situation has caused individuals in Russia’s strategic circles to lament that “Russia abandoned its diplomatic tradition—that began with Peter the Great and lasted 300 years—which positioned Russia as a European power, a part of the balance of power in the European continent, and as an integral part of pan-European civilization.”5


The sharp deterioration of the international environment has forced “Moscow to prove that it is not isolated.” Therefore, Russia is trying its best to maintain its influence in the “post-Soviet space” by leading multilateral institutions such as the Eurasian Economic Union and the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), as well as via bilateral channels. In June 2022, President Putin visited Tajikistan and Turkmenistan to attend the Sixth Caspian Sea Summit. In September Putin went to Uzbekistan to attend the Shanghai Cooperation Organization Summit. In October he paid a working visit to Kazakhstan and attended the Sixth Conference on Interaction and Confidence-Building Measures in Asia (CICA) Summit. Finally, in November Putin went to Armenia to participate in the CSTO Summit.


However, when Russia used force against Ukraine, Eurasian countries worried that the same tragedy would happen to them in the future. As such, they displayed extremely complex mentalities and adopted different methods to hedge against Russia. For instance, although they basically abstained or were absent during voting in the UN General Assembly’s condemnation of Russia, they did not recognize the “referendum on joining Russia” in four Ukrainian provinces. Although they did not participate in Western sanctions against Russia, they also stated that they “would not allow their territories to be used to evade sanctions.” The vast majority of Eurasian countries are more actively pursuing pluralistic and balanced diplomacy in order to avoid excessive dependence on Russia. Kazakhstan and other countries are making efforts to promote domestic political reform; they are trying to gradually get rid of the authoritarian system that is prevalent in the post-Soviet space, and they are exploring new development paths. Like Ukraine, Moldova and Georgia are actively demanding to be admitted to the EU. Armenia is dissatisfied with Russia’s failure to provide it with protection during the “Nagorno-Karabakh ​​Conflict” and has recently strengthened its interactions with the United States and Europe. At the Russia-Central Asia Forum, Tajikistan’s President Rahmon took the unprecedented step to express to Putin that “we hope to receive respect.”


During this period of international isolation, Russia is trying to propagate the trend of “global north-south division” in order to realign the world into new camps, and thereby weaken its “sense of isolation” and the strategic pressure it receives. On June 24, 2022, at the BRICS Five Leaders’ Summit, Putin fiercely criticized Western countries for being the chief culprits of the global economic crisis; he called on the BRICS countries to give a unified response in the face of the West’s “selfish behavior.” Putin also emphasized the need to expand cooperation between BRICS countries and regional organizations such as the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), the African Union (AU), the Caribbean Community (CARICOM), the League of Arab States, and the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC).6 On December 9, at the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) and the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) member states Ministers of Defense Conference, Putin condemned “the West’s unscrupulous efforts to maintain its political, economic, financial, military, and ideological dominance, for deliberately provoking incidents, and for intensifying the international situation.” Putin emphasized that “Asia, Africa, and Latin America are in the process of forming new development centers, and they are increasingly proactive in defending their own national interests, sovereignty, and the right to pursue their own development path.”7 As for the Middle East, last July, Russia signed a memorandum with Iran to invest $40 billion in its oil industry, and received 1,750 military-use unmanned aerial vehicles from Iran. However, given Russia’s difficult economic circumstances, it is unknown whether the country’s huge investment will be honored. Russia and Turkey have frequent interactions; Russia proposed the establishment of an energy transfer center in Turkey due to obstacles in exporting energy to Europe. Turkey, seeing that the general trend is unfavorable to Russia, intensified its efforts to expand its influence in Syria, the South Caucasus, and Central Asia. Russia and India have a traditional strategic relationship; however, under the new situation, India’s attitude towards Russia has quietly changed. Simultaneously, while buying discounted Russian oil on a large scale, India’s Russian arms purchases have decreased significantly. At the SCO Summit in September, Indian Prime Minister Modi frankly told Putin that “it is currently no longer an era of war.” The annual meeting of the heads of states of Russia and India was canceled by New Delhi because of the “the pandemic.” At the same time, India is rapidly strengthening its strategic security cooperation with the United States.


It can be seen that although Russia is trying to improve the international environment that has deteriorated on a large scale due to military actions against Ukraine, insufficient comprehensive power, a deteriorating international image, and other factors have put Russia in an awkward situation where it is both powerless and helpless.


3. Sino-Russian Relations are Operating Smoothly


In 2022, Sino-Russian relations were basically not affected by the changing international landscape; the countries maintained smooth operations.


In the political field, the following items were carried out: meetings of the two heads of state, regular meetings of the premiers, parliamentary cooperation committees, exchanges and cooperation mechanisms at various levels (in sectors such as energy, investment, humanities, economics, trade, territory, strategic security, and law enforcement security), overcoming difficulties associated with the pandemic, and maintaining the ability to communicate offline or online. On February 4, 2022, Putin visited China and attended the opening ceremony of the Beijing Winter Olympics. During that time, the governments, relevant departments, and business enterprises from the two countries signed more than a dozen important declarations and agreements, such as the Joint Statement on International Relations and Global Sustainable Development in the New Era, the Cooperative Agreement on Anti-monopoly Law Enforcement and Competition Policy, the 2022 Consultation Plan of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and the Sino-Russian Far East Natural Gas Purchase and Sale Agreement.


In the economic field, during the first 10 months of 2022, the total trade volume between China and Russia reached 153.9385 billion U.S. dollars; this total was a year-on-year increase of 33 percent and exceeded the 146.87 billion U.S. dollars total from 2021. The Russian side forecasts that the bilateral trade volume between China and Russia may reach 165 billion to 170 billion U.S. dollars in 2022, a record high. The Heihe Highway Bridge and the Tongjiang Railway Bridge were respectively opened to traffic in June and November 2022. After being in a standstill for many years, China and Russia have opened two new land routes.


In the energy sector, China imported 47 million tons of coal from Russia during the first nine months of 2022, a year-on-year increase of 11 percent. During the first 10 months of 2022, Russia exported 72 million tons of oil to China, a year-on-year increase of 9.5 percent. The China-Russia East-Route natural gas pipeline is operating smoothly. From December 2, 2019 (when the pipeline was officially put into operation) to the end of October 2022, Russia’s accumulated gas supply to China exceeded 27 billion cubic meters. On December 21, 2022, Russia’s Kovykta condensate gas field and the “Power of Siberia” natural gas pipeline Kovykta-Chayanda section were put into operation, marking the completion of the China-Russia East-Route natural gas pipeline. In addition, China and Russia are currently accelerating the Sino-Russian Far East pipeline project and conducting exchanges on the China-Mongolia-Russia pipeline cooperation.


In the field of nuclear energy, the two sides have carried out extensive cooperation in the areas of nuclear power, fast reactors, nuclear fuel, and nuclear science and technology exchanges. With high quality and standards, the two sides have also promoted the construction of major nuclear energy cooperation projects such as Tianwan and Xudabao.


China and Russia hold the same or similar positions on a series of significant international and regional issues, and they maintain close communication and cooperation. In 2022, the two sides continued to conduct effective coordination within the framework of multilateral mechanisms that they jointly participate in, such as the UN, the G20, BRICS, APEC, the SCO, CICA, China-Russia-India relations, and China-Russia-Mongolia relations.


In the Russia-Ukraine conflict, China has always insisted that it upholds an objective, impartial, and neutral position. First, it advocates respecting and safeguarding the sovereignty and territorial integrity of all countries, and earnestly complies with the purposes and principles of the UN Charter. This position also applies to the Ukraine issue. Second, China advocates a common, comprehensive, cooperative, and sustainable security outlook. It believes that the security of a country cannot be maintained at the expense of the security of other countries, and that regional security cannot be guaranteed by strengthening or even expanding military blocs. The Cold War mentality should be completely abandoned. The legitimate security concerns of all countries should be respected. In the case of NATO’s five consecutive rounds of eastward expansion, Russia’s legitimate security demands should be taken seriously and properly resolved. Third, China has been continuously paying attention to the evolution of the Ukraine issue, and the most urgent task is for all parties to exercise necessary restraint to prevent the local situation in Ukraine from deteriorating or even getting out of control. The populace’s safety and property should be effectively guaranteed, especially to prevent a large-scale humanitarian crisis. Fourth, China supports and encourages all diplomatic efforts that are conducive to a peaceful resolution of the Ukrainian crisis. China welcomes Russia and Ukraine to hold direct dialogue negotiations as soon as possible. The evolution of the Ukraine issue has a complicated history. Ukraine should be a bridge between the East and the West rather than being reduced to the forefront of confrontation between major powers. China also supports equal dialogue between the European side and Russia concerning European security issues, adheres to the concept of indivisible security, and ultimately seeks a balanced, effective, and sustainable European security mechanism. Fifth, China believes that the UN Security Council should play a constructive role in resolving the Ukraine issue, and it must also prioritize regional peace and stability as well as the general security of all countries. Actions adopted by the Security Council should cool down tensions rather than fuel them, and it should be conducive to promoting a diplomatic solution rather than further escalating the situation.8


In the UN General Assembly votes on the Russia-Ukraine conflict on March 2, October 12, and November 14, 2022, China respectively abstained, abstained, and vetoed. China opposes the frequent launch of economic sanctions and has not participated in the sanctions implemented against Russia. At the same time, relevant entities such as Chinese enterprises and banks have not violated the sanctions against Russia imposed by the United States and Europe, thereby avoiding secondary sanctions. In the context of the deep evolution of the Russia-Ukraine conflict, the early 2022 expression of “boundless, unrestricted, and limitless” in Sino-Russian relations has also faded out of the official discourse.


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Cite This Page

冯玉军 (Feng Yujun). "Russia's Diplomatic Dilemmas and “Bright Spots” Pertaining to the Russia-Ukraine Conflict [俄乌冲突下俄罗斯外交的困境与“亮点”]". CSIS Interpret: China, original work published in The Paper [澎湃], January 11, 2023

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