Moscow’s Failed Pivot to China

And How It Benefits Europe

Russia's President Vladimir Putin and China's President Xi Jinping at a meeting at the Kremlin in Moscow, Russia, May 8, 2015. Sergei Karpukhin / Reuters

Ever since Europe imposed sanctions on Russia for its invasion of Ukraine, Moscow has held high hopes of countering them by strengthening its alliance with China on energy, defense, and agricultural trade and investments. Such partnerships would have made up for the loss of Russian energy exports to and food imports from key European countries, dampening the effects of the sanctions, and would have also shown the West how easily it can be replaced.

Unfortunately for Moscow, this strategy has failed. Russia has been unable, despite its efforts, to sufficiently step up trade and investment with China in its hydrocarbons, nuclear, and defense industries, among other things. To be sure, Russia has made several deals with China that, when implemented, could see oil and gas trade skyrocket. But the construction of two gas pipelines—the “Power of Siberia” and “Altai”—intended to bring gas from Siberia to parts of China have been postponed to the 2020s. To make matters worse for Moscow, low oil and gas prices have cast doubts over these projects’ profitability, and Russian energy companies, constrained by the Western sanctions regime, are also struggling to develop oil and gas fields in eastern Siberia.

Russia is thus finding itself as one of many producers—including Angola, Equatorial Guinea, Iraq, Turkmenistan, and perhaps, soon, Iran—that are helping China diversify its energy sources, while Beijing continues to maintain its deals with traditional suppliers on the Arabian Peninsula and in Southeast Asia. In essence, rather than playing Europe by engaging with China, Russia is getting played by China. All the while, the bulk of Russian energy exports continues to flow west and Sino–Russian energy ties, toothless as they are, pose no threat to EU energy security.

Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev and his Chinese counterpart Li Keqiang at a ceremony at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, China, December 17, 2015. Kim Kyung-Hoon / Reuters

Russia had also hoped to increase its exports of weapons and defense technology to China or

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