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Putin’s Russia is already learning the cost of becoming a vassal state of Xi’s China - 16.09.22

It could well turn out that, in the long run, the biggest threat to Moscow’s territorial integrity isn’t the West but the East says Juliet Samuel for the Telegraph.

No one is quite sure whether he meant to admit it or not, but there it is. China, said Vladimir Putin after his first tête-a-tête with Xi Jinping since the war started, has “questions” and “concerns” about Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. I’ll bet it does.

A year ago, Xi was pleasantly contemplating the West’s inevitable decline and eyeing a decade as chief of the ascendant dictators’ club. This year, China is facing a renewed sense of purpose in the democratic world and, with gritted teeth, obeying a barrage of American sanctions.

What is really revealing about Putin’s comments, however, is not how badly wrong his war has gone (we already knew that), but what they reveal about Russia’s subservience to China. What started as a beautiful friendship is already turning sour.

It was just a month before Putin’s invasion when the two countries affirmed this undying “friendship”. It soon became clear that Moscow had quietly tipped off Beijing about its intentions. This was a worrying sign for the West. Since the days of Henry Kissinger, it has been received wisdom that we should try never to be at odds with Russia and China at the same time.

You only have to look at a map to see why. A long-lasting authoritarian alliance between the two main empires of the Eurasian continent is a stomach-churning prospect.

Ukraine’s vigorous resistance and potential victory have, however, complicated the picture. If, as Putin had expected, Kyiv had fallen into his hands within days or even weeks, the Russo-Chinese pseudo love-in could have gone on for years. Instead, with every Ukrainian breakthrough, the inevitable, unpalatable implications of Russia’s dependence upon China become clearer.

“Friendship”, you see, is such a slippery word. You might think it means military aid, sanctions-busting and sharing technology, but it might turn out that your “friend” just thought it meant buying a lot of cheap assets and resources off you while you’re weak.

Just like the West, Russia has always tried to have a hedging strategy when it comes to foreign relations. One of Putin’s major projects of the past decade has been to build pipelines to the east as well as west, to give Russian gas more routes to market. After all, despite soaring prices, Moscow’s budget slipped into deficit in August because of its European gas embargo. Russia needs options.

The first east-facing pipeline, Power of Siberia 1, began shipping gas to China in 2019. But an agreement over the second, Siberia 2, which would link up China to the same gas fields that supply Europe, ran into the sand in 2015 after the two sides couldn’t agree on gas prices.

In February, Xi and Putin declared the pipeline was back on, though it still wouldn’t start flowing until 2030.

That didn’t stop Russia’s energy minister declaring this week that Siberia 2 could entirely replace European exports. What he didn’t mention is that now is not a brilliant time to negotiate. Moscow has marooned most of its gas inside Russia without a buyer. While that continues, Russia is a forced seller and Xi knows it.

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Vladimir Putin speaking today to Xi Jinping in Samarkand, Uzbekistan Credit: SERGEI BOBYLYOV/AFP

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