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The Russian Situation Under Prolonged Warfare


Feng Yujun, a leading scholar of China-Russia relations, outlines Russia’s evolving geopolitical posture and outlook two years into its war in Ukraine. Feng explores how Russia is adapting diplomatically and economically to war-induced isolation from West, including by expanding its relations with the Global South. Moscow’s relations with Beijing remain strong, Feng argues, although framings of the partnership as “limitless” have ceded from official Chinese discourse.

Key takeaways
  • Feng Yujun, a top expert on China-Russia relations and director of the Fudan University Center for Russia and Central Asia Studies, explores the current state of Russia’s economy, political system, and society at the second anniversary of its war in Ukraine. Feng also takes stock of Russia-China relations.
  • Feng suggests Russia is seeking to mitigate the economic effects of Western sanctions by finding new export and import markets, and as a result, China-Russia trade has grown significantly over the past two years.
  • Feng suggests that amid international backlash to its war in Ukraine and fractured diplomatic relations with countries in the West, Russia is seeking to reduce its diplomatic isolation by deepening ties with countries in the Global South.  Despite Russia’s diplomatic outreach, however, Feng suggests many of these countries are hesitant to unconditionally support Russia’s actions in Ukraine in international bodies.
  • Feng suggests that China-Russia relations are no longer described as "limitless” in official discourse but remain strong and strategically oriented. The past years have seen new bilateral agreements signed, alignment on many issues between Beijing and Moscow in international bodies, and substantial diplomatic engagement.

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Editor’s Note: On January 5, 2024, the Institute of International Studies at Fudan University officially released the Turbulence and Transformation: Fudan International Strategic Report 2023. The article promoted in this release was written by Professor Feng Yujun, Vice Dean of the Institute of International Studies at Fudan University and Director of the Center for Russia and Central Asia Studies.


Since February 24, 2022, the conflict between Russia and Ukraine has persisted for nearly two years. The war has not ended with the swift victory Russia anticipated but has degenerated into a brutal war of attrition. Amidst this prolonged conflict, the Russian economy has shifted from recession in 2022 to growth, temporarily repelling Ukraine’s counteroffensives on the battlefield. However, domestic political risks in Russia have increased, and the international environment remains perilous. Despite this, Russia has neither altered its course nor conceded. On one hand, it continues to advance its military operations against Ukraine; on the other, it employs various means to alleviate economic pressure, maintain political stability, and seek diplomatic breakthroughs. In 2023, high-level exchanges between China and Russia continued their momentum, economic and trade relations achieved historic breakthroughs, and bilateral relations returned to normalcy.


1. Political and Economic Pressure and Russia’s Response


Following the outbreak of the Russia-Ukraine war, the United States and Europe imposed comprehensive economic sanctions on Russia, subjecting its economy to unprecedented external pressure and accelerating the severance of economic ties with developed economies. In July 2023, the monthly trade volume between Russia and the United States was only $277 million, equivalent to 9% of the pre-sanction level. In the first half of 2023, Russia’s imports from the European Union decreased by 31%, and exports to the EU decreased by 76%, reducing the EU’s share of Russia’s total foreign trade from 38% in the same period of 2022 to 18%. The EU’s share of Russia’s imports and exports decreased from 9.6% and 3.8% in February 2022 to 1.7% and 1.4% in June 2023, respectively.


In the energy sector, the G7 and the EU imposed bans and price caps on Russia’s maritime exports and refined oil products, leading to a rapid shrinkage of the EU’s energy imports from Russia. From the outbreak of the war until October 2023, the EU reduced its coal and natural gas imports from Russia by 90% and 75%, respectively, with the aim of completely eliminating its dependence on Russian fossil fuels by 2030.


To circumvent sanctions, Russia actively utilized a “shadow fleet” not insured by Western companies and increased its energy exports to Asian markets through discounted sales. After a brief decline from December 2022 to February 2023, Russian oil exports gradually returned to normal from March 2023. By early May 2023, Russian oil export volumes had returned to pre-war levels and reached new highs, with export prices occasionally breaking through the price caps set by the G7 and the EU, and export revenues experiencing significant recovery. Additionally, Russia has been mitigating the difficulties caused by Western sanctions through parallel imports, import substitution, and other measures, strengthening its “war economy” by increasing investment and orders in the military-industrial sector, addressing the devaluation of the ruble and inflationary pressures through fiscal and financial measures, and reducing its dependence on developed country markets by strengthening economic ties with other countries. However, the United States and Europe are attempting to close the sanctions loopholes by targeting the “shadow fleet,” extending extraterritorial jurisdiction, and enhancing cryptocurrency regulation.


On December 14, President Putin stated at the “Year in Review” event that Russia’s GDP was expected to grow by 3.5% in 2023. However, other institutions and individuals in Russia are not optimistic about the prospects for economic growth. In April 2023, the Russian Academy of Sciences predicted that Russia’s annual GDP growth rate would remain at 1% over the next 10 to 15 years. Economists believe that Western sanctions are unlikely to be lifted in the short term, and the potential for rapid economic development is almost exhausted. According to the latest forecast by the Central Bank of Russia on December 15, the economic growth rates for 2024, 2025, and 2026 are expected to be 0.5%-1.5%, 1%-2%, and 1.5%-2.5%, respectively. With the world economy’s average growth rate expected to remain at 3%, this means that Russia’s position in the world economic system will continue to decline.

12月14日,普京总统在 “年度盘点”活动上称2023年俄国内生产总值预计增长3.5%。但俄其他机构和人士对经济增长前景并不乐观。2023年4月,俄科学院预测,未来10年至15年俄GDP年均增幅将维持在1%的水平。经济学家们认为,西方对俄制裁短期不会解除,而可以支撑经济快速发展的潜力几乎已经用尽。按照俄央行12月15日的最新预测,2024、2025和2026年俄经济增幅将分别为0.5%-1.5%、1%-2%和1.5%-2.5%。在世界经济平均增速将保持在3%的情况下,这意味着俄罗斯在世界经济体系中的地位将继续下降。

The war and sanctions have stirred undercurrents within Russian domestic politics. The Wagner Group, once highly regarded by Putin and playing a significant role on the Russia-Ukraine battlefield, launched a mutiny directly targeting Moscow. Although the rebellion was quickly quelled, it highlighted the many contradictions within Russia and the significant divisions between high-level interest groups against the backdrop of an unfavorable war situation. At the same time, although the authorities continue to suppress anti-war voices with heavy-handed measures, this has forced anti-war forces to change their methods of expressing their demands. In 2023, several extreme warmongers in Russia were eliminated by anti-war forces through poisoning and bomb attacks. Thousands of Russian citizens formed the “Russian Liberation Army” and “Russian Freedom Legion,” collaborating with Ukrainian forces to conduct raids on Russian territory.


At the same time, it must be recognized that traditional political culture, the hierarchical power system reshaped over the past two decades, and the constant stirrings of populism have enabled “Putin to win public support for the war by leveraging societal indifference and nostalgia for the grandeur of the Russian Empire’s past history.” Recent surveys by the independent Russian polling agency Levada Center show that if Putin decided to end the conflict now, 70% of Russians would support him; however, if ending the war required Russia to return the Ukrainian territories it occupied and annexed during the conflict, only 34% would support such a decision. This confirms the assessment of Russian political analysts: “Most Russians may not agree with the authorities, but they have rallied around the Kremlin, believing that the authorities are fighting tit for tat against the West, which is trying to destroy Russia. Although such a narrative does not match reality, many Russians have accepted it as the most logical explanation for this prolonged nightmare.”


On December 8, 2023, Putin announced his candidacy for the 2024 presidential election. It is foreseeable that Putin will continue to hold Russia’s reins of power after 2024, fully reflecting the long-term inertia of the Russian national mentality and political culture. However, it should also not be forgotten that in Russian history, major military defeats have often led to revolutionary changes in the state. In the deep, turbulent waters of Russia, any sudden mutation would not be surprising.


2. International Quagmire and Russia’s “Diplomatic Breakthrough”


The nearly two-year-long Russia-Ukraine conflict has significantly worsened Russia’s international environment.


Relations between Russia and developed countries such as the United States and Europe have fallen to their lowest point since the end of the Cold War and the dissolution of the Soviet Union. Russia’s high-level interactions with Western countries have almost completely ceased, and official diplomatic contacts are maintained at a minimum level. Cooperation mechanisms like the Russia-EU Summit and the “Russia-NATO Council” have been nearly abandoned; land, sea, and air connections between Russia and Europe have been “physically severed,” with a sharp decline in personal exchanges, essentially turning Russia into an “island” in Europe; military control agreements like the Conventional Armed Forces in Europe Treaty have become invalid, traditionally neutral countries Finland and Sweden have joined NATO, and security relations between Russia and Europe have deteriorated comprehensively.


Russia’s international image has collapsed further, and its strategic influence has been impacted. The four United Nations General Assembly sessions following the outbreak of the Russia-Ukraine conflict all passed resolutions by overwhelming majorities demanding that Russia withdraw its forces from Ukraine immediately, completely, and unconditionally. The International Criminal Court in The Hague issued an arrest warrant for Putin, an unprecedented move against a nuclear power and a permanent member of the Security Council. As a result, President Putin finds it difficult to visit countries party to the Rome Statute. More importantly, dissatisfaction is growing among an increasing number of countries over Russia’s “abuse” of its veto power, preventing the Security Council from fulfilling its role in maintaining international peace and security, leading to louder calls for UN reform, including the Security Council. This will undoubtedly have a significant impact on the future structure of the United Nations and Russia’s international status.


The Russia-Ukraine conflict has further divided the “post-Soviet space,” accelerating the decline of Russia’s regional influence. Ukraine and Moldova are about to start “membership” negotiations with the EU, and Georgia has also become a candidate country for the EU; Central Asian countries have taken more determined steps in their “multi-vector foreign policy,” continuously replicating the “5+1” model with China, the United States, the EU, and Japan, further distancing themselves from Russia; Armenia, feeling let down by Russia’s failure to fulfill its ally obligations in its geopolitical conflict with Azerbaijan, has expressed strong dissatisfaction with Russia, significantly reduced its participation in integration mechanisms such as the CIS, the Eurasian Economic Union, and the Collective Security Treaty Organization, and quickly strengthened comprehensive cooperation with the United States and Europe.


Amid worsening international conditions, Russia has not only refused to submit but has also attempted a desperate counterattack. Russia fully exploits the skepticism and dissatisfaction of developing countries towards the West, actively stirring populism, conservatism, and anti-Western sentiment that has risen amid global turmoil. Through comprehensive use of information warfare, psychological warfare, and economic warfare, Russia seeks sympathizers and “fellow travelers,” making the “Global South” a main axis of Russian diplomacy.


Politically, Russia strives to divide the “anti-Russian democratic coalition” that Ukraine and the West are trying to build. Although Ukraine and the West are concerned about Russia’s destruction of the liberal democratic order, most Global South countries focus primarily on economic development and food security. Moreover, “even if the Global South countries have reservations about Russia’s actions, they are rarely willing to see a victorious West.” Therefore, although most Global South countries acknowledge “Russia’s invasion of its neighbor as wrong,” they prefer to take a neutral stance between Russia and Ukraine, avoiding excessive involvement and even attempting to maintain good relations with Russia.


Economically, Russia actively expands its markets in the Global South, attempting to break through the economic sanctions imposed by the United States and Europe. The Asian market has become Russia’s most important breakthrough in circumventing Western energy embargoes and price caps. In 2022, nearly 40 million tons of oil and petroleum products were redirected from Western to Eastern markets. By November 2023, this number had reached 140 million tons. India and China absorbed nearly 80% of the loss in Russia’s oil exports to Europe. Additionally, Russia is also advancing “parallel imports” through Central Asian and Middle Eastern countries in various ways to circumvent Western export controls, obtaining products and technologies that are difficult to import from developed countries.


On the security front, Russia has focused on strengthening its military-technical cooperation with North Korea and Iran to acquire more military resources to continue the war in Ukraine. In July, Russian Defense Minister Shoigu visited North Korea to explore obtaining military support. In mid-September, Kim Jong-un visited Russia and had in-depth discussions with Putin. International independent military analysis agencies reported that North Korea supplied Russia with over 2,000 containers of military equipment and ammunition during this period. Iran and Russia have cooperated in the military field in recent years, supporting and depending on each other based on mutual interests. Iranian-produced drones have become an important weapon for Russia on the Russia-Ukraine battlefield, compensating for its own shortcomings and launching attacks on Ukraine. Additionally, Russia has been using all means to escalate other international hotspots to reduce its strategic pressure. The intensification of the Serbia-Kosovo dispute, coups in African countries like Niger, changes in the situation in Myanmar and the South China Sea, especially the flare-up of the Gaza conflict in the past two years, all bear Russia’s long “shadow.”


It should be noted that despite some effectiveness in Russia’s diplomatic breakthrough, the overall trend of the worsening international environment has not fundamentally eased, and its diplomatic actions in the Global South cannot fully meet its expectations. A clear example is that only 17 African country leaders attended the second Russia-Africa Summit held in August 2023, a significant decline from the 43 African leaders who participated in the first summit in 2019. A study by the Russian Valdai Discussion Club showed that African countries’ stances were not consistent in voting for seven anti-Russian resolutions passed by the UN General Assembly over the past year, with 11 countries voting in favor 1 to 3 times, 24 countries voting in favor more than 4 times, and only 19 countries never voting in favor of anti-Russian resolutions. This reflects Russia’s actual influence in the Global South from one side.


3. China-Russia Relations


During the prolonged Russia-Ukraine conflict, Sino-Russian relations have maintained their longstanding cooperative momentum.


In the political domain, head-of-state meetings, regular prime ministerial meetings, parliamentary exchanges, ruling party exchanges, and cooperation mechanisms at various levels, including energy, investment, humanities, economy and trade, local, strategic security, and law enforcement security, have essentially resumed offline interactions after the pandemic. From March 20 to 22, Chinese President Xi Jinping made a state visit to Russia, his first trip abroad after being re-elected as president, continuing the tradition of making Russia the first visit destination. During the visit, the two heads of state signed the Joint Statement on Deepening the Comprehensive Strategic Partnership of Coordination for a New Era between China and Russia and the Joint Statement on the Development Plan of Key Areas of China-Russia Economic Cooperation Before 2030, planning and deploying the next stage of bilateral relations and cooperation in various fields. The two sides also signed a number of bilateral cooperation documents in agriculture, forestry, basic science, market regulation, media, and other areas. In October 2023, President Putin attended the third Belt and Road International Cooperation Summit Forum in China, praising the tremendous success of the Belt and Road Initiative proposed by President Xi Jinping ten years ago, which has become a significant international public good recognized worldwide. President Xi stated that President Putin’s attendance at the Belt and Road International Cooperation Summit Forum for the third time reflects Russia’s support for the initiative, emphasizing that Russia is an important partner for China in jointly building Belt and Road international cooperation.


In the economic domain, from January to November 2023, China-Russian trade volume increased by 26.7% year-on-year, reaching a record $218.18 billion, achieving the leaders’ target of reaching $200 billion in trade volume by 2024 ahead of schedule. Among this, China’s exports to Russia reached $100.34 billion, up 50.2% year-on-year, and imports from Russia reached $117.84 billion, up 11.8% year-on-year. From January to November 2023, Russia supplied 97.46 million tons of crude oil to China, up 22.17% year-on-year, with transaction values reaching $55.018 billion. Russia has once again surpassed Saudi Arabia to become China’s largest crude oil supplier, exporting 17.49 million tons more crude oil to China than Saudi Arabia. Russia’s crude oil exports to China are expected to surpass 100 million tons for the full year of 2023. In the first three quarters of 2023, Russia’s natural gas supply to China increased by 46.6% year-on-year, with annual export volume to China expected to exceed 30 billion cubic meters and set a new historical record. In the first ten months of 2023, Russia exported more than 100,000 tons of flour to China, up 2.7 times year-on-year, making China the third largest export destination for Russian flour. The data indicate that China-Russian economic and trade relations have not only been unaffected by the Russia-Ukraine conflict and Western sanctions against Russia but have also grown against the trend, achieving unprecedented breakthroughs in multiple areas. On December 19, 2023, the 28th regular meeting between the Chinese and Russian Prime Ministers was held in Beijing. The prime ministers of both countries agreed that both China and Russia are committed to development and revitalization. The two sides will further enhance the endogenous dynamics of Sino-Russian relations, expand bilateral trade and agricultural cooperation, create a better business environment for each other’s companies to invest in their respective countries, jointly maintain energy security, strengthen connectivity, enhance people-to-people exchanges and local cooperation, and ensure the security and stability of product and supply chains.


In the international domain, China and Russia share similar or identical positions on a series of major international and regional issues, maintaining close communication and cooperation. In 2023, the two sides continued to closely coordinate within the framework of multilateral mechanisms in which they both participate, such as the United Nations, G20, BRICS, APEC, SCO, CICA, China-Russia-India, China-Russia-Iran, China-Russia-Mongolia. In July, Iran formally joined the Shanghai Cooperation Organization. In August, the 15th BRICS Summit decided to invite Argentina, Egypt, Ethiopia, Iran, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE to join the BRICS cooperation mechanism.


Military exchanges between China and Russia remained active in 2023. Russian Defense Minister Shoigu visited China, and Zhang Youxia, Vice Chairman of China’s Central Military Commission, visited Russia. The Russian military participated in the “Northern Joint-2023” exercises organized by the People’s Liberation Army Northern Theater Command in the Sea of Japan in July. The navies of China, Russia, and South Africa held the 2nd joint maritime exercise in South African waters in February. The navies of China, Russia, Iran, and other countries conducted the “Security Bond-2023” joint military exercise in the Gulf of Oman in March.


On February 24, 2023, China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs released “China’s Position on the Political Settlement of the Ukraine Crisis,” proposing 12 points, including respecting the sovereignty of countries, abandoning Cold War mentality, ceasefire and cessation of hostilities, initiating peace talks, addressing the humanitarian crisis, protecting civilians and prisoners of war, ensuring the safety of nuclear power plants, reducing strategic risks, guaranteeing food exports, stopping unilateral sanctions, ensuring the stability of industrial and supply chains, and promoting post-war reconstruction. In May, Li Hui, China’s Special Representative for Eurasian Affairs, visited Ukraine, Poland, France, Germany, the EU headquarters, and Russia to diplomatically mediate a political solution to the Ukraine crisis. In August, Li Hui attended the 2nd International Peace Conference on the Ukraine Issue in Jeddah.


China opposes economic sanctions as a go-to measure and has not participated in the sanctions against Russia. At the same time, Chinese enterprises and banks have not systematically violated the sanctions orders imposed by the United States and Europe against Russia, avoiding secondary sanctions.


As the Russia-Ukraine conflict drags on, the notion of Sino-Russian relations being “limitless, without forbidden zones, and without ceilings” has faded from the official discourse. The basic principles of “non-alignment, non-confrontation, and not targeting any third party” have returned, positioning Sino-Russian relations more clearly as “permanent good-neighborliness and friendship, comprehensive strategic coordination, and mutually beneficial cooperation for a win-win situation.”


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Cite This Page

冯玉军 (Feng Yujun). "The Russian Situation Under Prolonged Warfare [战争延宕下的俄罗斯时局]". CSIS Interpret: China, original work published in Fudan University Institute of International Studies [复旦大学国际问题研究院], January 5, 2024

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