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Will China Keep Russia Afloat?

China and Russia
Xi Jinping and Russian President Putin.

Why China Why Won’t Help on the Ukraine War – Ukrainian resistance in the war against Russia has surprised everyone. There is now a growing chance Ukraine may stalemate the Russian army. And even should Ukraine be defeated – which is still likely given the sheer amount of force Russian President Vladimir Putin can bring to bear if he chooses – a Ukrainian insurgency seems increasingly likely. Western support of that insurgency also seems increasingly likely.

In short, Putin will not win the quick war he appears to have expected. Russia will be badly isolated and increasingly dependent on China as an escape hatch from the pressure of sanctions.

Sanctions cooperation/enforcement puts China in a quandary. The global opinion is running heavily in Ukraine’s favor. China will be morally isolated if the war drags on, increasing global suspicions of China’s own intentions. Beijing likely expected the quick-in/quick-out blitzkrieg Putin himself appears to have expected of the war. Now Beijing is stuck with a weak ally, militarily embarrassed by its poor performance, and likely to punish Ukrainian civilians in response. One can see this tough spot for China in the way its spokesmen have aggressively danced around calling this a ‘war’ or ‘invasion.’ That would blatantly violate China’s own oft-proclaimed commitment to the sovereignty and inviolable borders.

So there is a chance China will abandon Putin over sanctions, especially if the civilian death toll rises and the war turns into a quagmire. But there are powerful incentives for China to resist Russia sanctions, just as it does not much enforce the sanctions it ostensibly voted for regarding North Korea.


China is an autocracy. Indeed, under President Xi Jinping, it has become more autocratic and repressive than at any time since Mao Zedong’s rule in the 1970s. It stands out in a world which has broadly become more open and liberal since the Cold War. Indeed, China today stands in contrast to its own recent, more open past.

China is threatened by the ideological momentum of democracy, especially since the end of the Cold War. It forcefully opposes the notion of democracy as a norm, or the ‘default’ mode of governance against which China varies. It, therefore, has a deep ideological interest in propping up closed dictatorships like itself.

China does not want to stand out as weird or different or strange, as one pronounced dictatorship in a world filled with democracies. Hence it has a record of supporting dictatorships around the world, even where that might damage its material interests. This serves the valuable national narrative that there are many different types of government in the world, that China is just one of many and not unique, and that some places, like North Korea, are worse. Sanctioning Russia and North Korea help single out China as the last strong autocracy in the world. Beijing will likely never agree to policies generating that outcome.


China has a clear strategic interest in propping up countries like Russia, North Korea, Pakistan, or Myanmar (in the past) to play spoiler against the democracies. These countries and their antics distract and unbalance democratic efforts to build a liberal world order. And they distract the democracies, especially the United States, from focusing on China. Every time the North Koreans test a missile or Putin bullies his neighbors, the US and other democracies get turned away from China’s own bullying of its neighbors and encroachments in the South China Sea. If Pakistan competes with India, then India is not focusing on China.

So these relationships may be expensive, but there is good strategic value in subsidizing rogue state troublemakers. Indeed, there has been anxiety that the Ukraine war might derail the US pivot to Asia, a huge strategic victory for China if it happens.


Finally, there is a direct material incentive behind sanctions-busting – it is lucrative.

If no one else will buy the exports of, or sell to, a sanctioned state, then the sanctions runner can buy low and sell it. It is both a monopsony buyer and monopolist seller. China has much experience with this in North Korea. Over 90% of North Korean trade goes through China, and it has long been rumored that Chinese middlemen take generous premiums from that. North Korea, in desperation for cash, sold fishing rights in the Yellow Sea to China at bargain prices.

In the case of Russia, China will now be able to pay very low prices for Russian carbon exports. Moscow will have little choice to take it as it is being sharply and rapidly cut off from its traditional energy markets in the West.

It is still possible China might abjure these gains. Its resistance to terming this conflict an ‘invasion’ or a ‘war’ will become an increasingly absurd fiction which will eventually breakthrough the ‘Great Firewall,’ especially if Putin resorts to indiscriminate bombing and shelling of Ukrainian cities. But the benefits of keeping Russia afloat, if only just, are enormous.

Robert Kelly is a professor in the Department of Political Science at Pusan National University in South Korea and a 1945 Contributing Editor. Follow his work on his website or on Twitter.

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Dr. Robert E. Kelly (@Robert_E_Kelly; website) is a professor of international relations in the Department of Political Science at Pusan National University. Dr. Kelly is now a 1945 Contributing Editor as well.