Vladimir Putin may have dug himself a hole with the West, and it may in fact be too deep to easily get himself out. However, that may be missing the point. This whole time, as Western observers have focused on how the Russian leader is alienating himself from the West, they have failed to notice that perhaps Putin is digging to China.
On Tuesday, the world’s most eligible dictator tried to make renewed inroads to China. This has been seen as a direct reaction to the tensions that have been caused over the current Ukraine crisis, with Russia moving to annex territory and the West slapping Russia on the wrist with sanctions.
As a result of these sanctions, and threats of more economic punishment against Putin’s regime, Russia has found itself distanced from the West. Clearly, the world is not going to wake up to more Russian gas deals tomorrow morning, and Russia is going to awaken to a scenario in which nations reliant on Russian energy begin to look elsewhere.
This puts Putin in a rough spot economically. With the Russian economy expected to recede in the coming quarters and with the potential for waning approval at home as a result, the Russian President knows that his current situation is tight to say the least. This has led some analysts to argue that he is likely going to back down from Ukraine and work to reheat relations with the West.
But that rosy image of the future is riddled with naivety. Vladimir Putin is digging to China, and by doing so, he is looking to entirely circumnavigate sanctioning. In this sense, he will have his cake and eat it too.
Rather than stepping away from gobbling up Ukraine, it seems more likely that Putin is making sure he has a partner in this venture. As things are progressing, it seems as though he might get this partner. China has its own bone to pick with the West and, by being much more economically crucial to the West, it does not have to fear the negative repercussions of Western sanctions.
Recently, President Obama spoke in support of Japanese interests while on a trip to Asia. It does not take a PhD in geopolitical theory to know that China and Japan are bitter rivals. Thus, with the United States reaffirming its commitments to the island nation, the Chinese government has taken issue with its Western counterparts.
Moreover, with the United States’ most recent allegations of Chinese officers hacking American businesses and government facilities, relations have become palpably cooler. Combining this with territorial disputes that China is pressing on with in regards to many of its neighbors, the Chinese are less than thrilled that the US is piling on problems to that tested relationship.
As a result of the combined distance that China and Russia have from the West, they seem to be natural allies. Putin has been pursuing gas deals with China and further economic co-operation between the two nations. Furthermore, the former and current communist states are formalizing more military co-operation with their planned naval drills that will take place in the disputed South China Sea.
But what is truly interesting, and what should be truly concerning, is the amount of cohesiveness the two nations have in regards to foreign interests. China and Russia plan on controlling Africa more with neo-imperialistic investment strategies and they intend on making inroads into Latin America by building a Panama-style canal through Nicaragua. But where Vladimir Putin is most clearly digging to China is in their joint rhetoric over Ukraine, with both nations releasing a joint statement essentially telling the West to stay out. Now the question is, will he be able to keep digging?
Opinion by Brett Byers-Lane