Stephen Kotkin on China and Russia’s Wartime Partnership

Stephen Kotkin is the Kleinheinz Senior Fellow at the Hoover Institution and a senior fellow at the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies, both at Stanford University. He is also the Birkelund Professor of History and International Affairs Emeritus at Princeton University, where he taught for 33 years. At Stanford he directs the Hoover History Lab, which uses the past for the analysis of contemporary policy issues. He is at work on his final installment in the Stalin trilogy, this one titled "Totalitarian Superpower."
Anna Behuniak '26 interviewed Dr. Stephen Kotkin on October 23, 2023.
Photograph and biography courtesy of Dr. Stephen Kotkin.


Russia’s war in Ukraine is essentially a war of attrition with no clear ending. Based on this reality, how long do you believe China and Russia’s “no limits” partnership can be sustained and what are possible threats to their strategic partnership?

Let’s begin with “a war of attrition.” All wars that last more than three months are wars of attrition. A war of attrition only has two variables: capacity to fight and will to fight. If I break your will to fight, you are done. But, if you are still willing to fight and I break your capacity to fight, you are also done because even if you are willing to keep going, you do not have the munitions to continue fighting. You need to be attacking both the other side's capacity to fight and will to fight in a war of attrition.

Capacity to fight for Russia is based on their production, predominantly home production on Russian soil. However, Ukraine cannot attack Russian production, which means Russia's capacity to fight is not threatened. Yes, there are sanctions and sanctions are a fanciful way of trying to attack the other side's capacity to fight. You cannot, however, blockade a country of Russia's geography. You would need to blockade Turkey, Iran, United Arab Emirates, Kazakhstan and North Korea, which is too difficult. Some of the Chinese goods, especially dual-use goods, are entering Russia through these borders. Not all of them are going from China to Russia directly. Many of them are going through third parties in what we call cutouts. Goods are shipped to Kazakhstan, which show up in Kazakhstan-China trade. When they enter into Russia, they do not show up in anybody's trade documentation. Not only are we not attacking Russia’s capacity to fight successfully, but Russia has enhanced its capacity to fight through relationships, like with China. Their will to fight consists of both the soldiers on the field and the leader who's willing to sacrifice those soldiers at whatever cost because he personally does not pay that cost. We are now stuck in a war of attrition in which it is both Ukraine's capacity to fight and will to fight that is under strain. They are a democracy and they cannot lose people without caring in the way that Russia can. It is very hard to fight a war of attrition under these circumstances. And it is hard when Russia has friends like China.

There is a matrix to understand China and Russia. On one side, you have the bromance between Xi and Putin. On the other side, you have a superficial societal relationship. The societies and the cultures are not deeply integrated with each other. There are not long standing foundational cultural ties in the way Russia has with Europe, or China has with the Korean Peninsula, Japan, Vietnam, other countries in Asia. To reinforce both sides of that matrix, on one side, you have deep anti-Westernism, for both Xi and Putin. Then, on the other side, you have state interests, which between Russia and China can sometimes clash. If societal relations and state interests are the drivers of a relationship, it could run into trouble. If the bromance and the anti-Westernism, however, drives the relationship, it can get deeper and deeper. That is where we are in the situation. Xi and Putin are driving a loose, anti-Western coalition where Russia is doing the fighting, and China is doing some of the suppling. China is not supplying heavy weapons, but supplying excavators so Russia could dig all those incredible trenches in southern Ukraine. They are supplying semiconductors, chips. About 70% of Russia's semiconductors now come from China and they're under the category of dual use. You can use them in a washing machine so they are civilian, but you can also use them in a missile. This could go on for quite some time. There is no end in sight.

Putin has just returned from a visit to China where he spoke at the Belt and Road Forum. News headlines are stating that the Russian president returned from this visit empty-handed. What was President Putin hoping to gain from this visit?

The relationship between Russia and China is lopsided. One has a giant economy and one has a much smaller economy. One obviously has a giant population and one has a smaller population. One is a near peer competitor with the United States and the other no longer is. It is an imbalanced relationship where the Russians need China more than the Chinese need Russia. The only exception is nuclear fissile material. China is vastly expanding its nuclear weapons, hoping to go from around 300 to 1000 or maybe even 4000 in a 15-to-20-year period. Russia is the place to shop, Walmart style, for everything from the excavation of uranium underground, to managing the waste at the end of the process. Russia dominates that market. For fissile material and expanding nuclear weapons, Russia is an indispensable partner. Many people do not know that Russia’s gigantic nuclear monopoly, Rosatom, is not under American sanctions. Even throughout Russia's war against Ukraine, with the U.S. and its allies supporting Ukraine, the U.S. has not sanctioned Rosatom because of United States dependency on Russia, in the nuclear sphere. That is the biggest thing that China gets. However, having said that, the U.S. has access to Russia's fissile material, despite being seemingly adversary. The question remains, how much does China need Russia as a friend in order to access that fissile material? What China does not want is Russia and the U.S. to become friends so that the U.S. would try to talk Russia into a moratorium on sales to China. The other piece that China does not want is a U.S.-friendly Russia on its border. It has a gigantic border. It is similar to the North Korea situation. Many things that the Kim dynasty, the ruling dynasty in North Korea, does, anger the Chinese, but the Chinese have no choice except to tolerate this misbehavior from their North Korean clients. They do not want the North Korean regime to fall. That would be a South Korean victory in the Korean War, many years after the armistice of 1953. If that happened, it would put American influence and American military bases even closer to China's border. Despite sometimes misbehaving, North Korea knows that China won't let it go. Something similar is the case with Russia.

How much China gets from Russia can be debated, but how much China feels it would lose, if Russia flipped to the other side, is the big variable in this relationship. China holds the cards, it has the FDI, the investment possibilities. It is a big client of Russian energy and Russia has burned its bridges to Europe, which was its number one customer previously. Also, China has technology. Not as much as the U.S., Germany, or the European Union has, but some of the latest technology. Russia's dependence on China is very significant. China is an energy customer, a supplier of potential investment and a source of technology transfer. It is not as good a partner as the West was for Russia by any means, either as an energy customer or technology transfer partner, or source of FDI. However, burning bridges to Europe has meant greater dependency on China. Putin does not have a lot of cards to play when he goes there. He is more of a supplicant than he is a peer.

China has been careful not to make Russia feel small or like a vassal state. China has rhetorically supported Russia's invasion of Ukraine, the expanded invasion of 2022. It has supplied some of these tools so China is doing something for Russia. Clearly, Putin cannot just abandon the relationship at this point. He does not have much leverage. One could even say that Russia is not a vassal of China yet, because Russia does not get to make that choice. China decides. There is a way in which China encourages Russia's dependency, and yet keeps it somewhat at arm's length in practice. It is not a full-fledged alliance and it is not a “no-limits” partnership in practice, even though it was stated that way rhetorically. I would speculate that Xi Jinping would like to take that phrase back.

Beyond China, Putin’s characterization of the war in Ukraine has found a sympathetic audience in several major countries in the Global South. Why is this the case?

First of all, let's be careful with the terminology, Global South. Most people don't know that 850,000,000, 12% of the world’s population lives in the Global South. India is in the North, China is in the North, Australia is in the south and it is a Western ally. Parts of Indonesia, Brazil, and South Africa and neighboring parts of South Africa are in the Global South. Otherwise, more than 7 billion people, live in the North. The Global South is a fiction, an invention. Moreover, what are the institutions of the Global South? The North has, for example, the European Union, NATO, G7, and bilateral alliances between the U.S. and Japan, the U.S. and South Korea, the U.S. and Australia. In what we call the West, we have a whole bunch of deeply institutionalized relationships that are treaty relationships which have mutual obligations. The Global South has the G20 which India likes and the BRICS which China likes. The Global South is basically a platform for India and China to raise their status and try to claim influence in the world. The conception of the Global South is Chinese propaganda. If you ask the African countries and the leaders of the African countries: do you want South Africa to speak for you? They would uniformly say no. South Africa is a core member of the BRICS, but the other countries in southern Africa do not want South Africa to represent them.  

It is hard to know what to call them. We used to call them the Third World. The problem with the term over time is it became synonymous with backwardness and poverty. What started out as positive became a pejorative. Then, people started looking for another term to call them. They came up with underdeveloped, but people did not like that. Then, it became developing countries. Developing Countries seems more positive because there is a teleology that they will be developed at some point. But now we say Global South. I do not use the term Global South and I would just urge caution.

When non-Western countries look at what is happening in Ukraine, they ask, “What about Syria?” The West did not get all bent out of shape when Syria was attacked and destroyed, when all of those civilians died, in much larger numbers so far than in Ukraine. It is hypocrisy. Are Syrians less human than Ukrainians? Looking at Europe, the Syrians who went to Germany fleeing this catastrophe in their country, there was a big controversy in Germany about whether this was a good idea or not. Years later, many of those Syrians still do not have full legality. In Germany, Ukrainians come in in big numbers and it takes them a day or two days to get residence permits, housing permits, and work permits. Some of the Syrians has been there longer than two years and they do not have a work permit or a residence permit. Now, of course, there is the controversy over Israel and Gaza. What about Gaza? What about those people? Countries that are less developed, or developing, or countries that used to be called Third World, they do not see the same application of humanitarian law, laws of war and asylum, immigration or receptivity. It is hard to argue with the empirical facts on their side. It is one thing to demand that they recognize that Russia's invasion of Ukraine is a criminal aggression, but what about the things that have been happening in their neighborhoods? Why did we not get all active about those issues? It is hard to deny that they have a point. It is up to the West, which wants to garner international support for Ukraine and its self-defense against Russia, to equate what the West prioritizes with what other countries might prioritize. There are trouble areas where the West is either indifferent to or worse, is causing some of the trouble. It is not surprising that they have questions about this. You cannot talk about a rules-based order and then apply the rules only to your priorities but not to areas that someone else thinks are humanitarian disasters or are wars of aggression and conquest. It is not a morality tale but it is a complexity that makes me able to understand their reactions. Now, China is crying imperialism, but China would have to look in the mirror about that, in terms of Xinjiang, Tibet, Inner Mongolia, let alone Hong Kong. China talks a big anti-imperialist game, embracing fairness and equity in the international order talk. But China is an empire and behaves like an old-fashioned empire. It mistreats people at home and it is in no position to claim the moral high ground for international affairs.

Both China and Russia favor a multipolar global order and reject U.S. hegemony. China, however, does not want to damage its relationship with the West further and hopes that European trade restrictions may be loosened. Is China worried about how its alliance with Russia will impact its goals for economic growth? What does China gain from this partnership?

Let’s unpack the terminology again. You say China craves a multipolar world against U.S hegemony. However, what China actually wants is a hierarchical, coercive, Chinese sphere of influence where smaller countries lose part of their sovereignty and have to behave the way China wants. The U.S. promotes an open, nonhierarchical, voluntary sphere of influence. Countries can join and trade and can conduct treaty environments but no one can tell you how to run your internal affairs or your foreign policy. The poll led by the West has to be more equal and more open. Yes, the U.S. is dominant in many areas like militarily and tech companies and countries feel that they are not fully equal. However, they are not coerced into the relationship. This is not one in which there is a hierarchy or where one country calls the shots for the other countries. All the members of the G7 are equal in their sovereignty and the NATO alliance has to have consensus, including reaching agreement with some small countries with small military budgets and small domestic economies. While there are some nuances, the Chinese or Russian version of multipolarity is to dominate their region. They tell the other countries which relationships they can have and might even take their territory. I do not use the term multipolarity because, again, it is Chinese propaganda. What they mean as a poll and what we mean in the West as a poll are not equivalent. One allows for freedom and one is highly coercive. That does not mean the U.S. always lives up to its ideals. I get that there is hypocrisy and that there is a failure to live up to promises. Therefore, let's live up to those ideals and push to make those ideals reality in practice. In the Chinese version, that is not an option for most countries that are part of that poll. That would be their hegemony. That is what they are trying to enact. I do not want a world like that. Most countries want a world that looks more like the European Union, or the NATO alliance, or the bilateral alliance with Japan or with Australia. They would love an alliance with the U.S. protecting their security. Even the Saudis, who are desperate for Chinese investment, tech transfer and presence in the Middle East, are begging the U.S. for a security guarantee. The U.S.-led order, however imperfect, is superior to what the Chinese, the Russians, the Iranians have on offer. It is up to the U.S. and its allies to convince other parts of the world that that is true for them. The secret to success is you provide opportunity at home and you provide opportunity abroad. Other countries, if they join up with you, they share in that opportunity and that prosperity and security. We need to do better at providing opportunity. We made some big mistakes. The U.S., this gigantic, open, global economic system, which allowed so many countries, including China, to grow a middle class and to become more prosperous, became synonymous with war. Meanwhile, China became synonymous with opportunity. That was a big mistake. We need to reverse that. 

Building more on the fact that China has these greater goals for what they want the global order to be, in this current global order, is China worried that its relationship with Russia is going to impact its economic growth as it is trying to operate alongside the West?

China has paid a very big price for this alignment with Russia. They want to have their cake and eat it too. They want to have Russia in their pocket, but a trading and technology transfer relationship with Europe as well. China had that before February 2022. Relations with the U.S. were rough and hostile so the Chinese grand strategy relied on Europe. Europe hates conflict and they love trade. China planned to get their trade relationship, their technology transfer, their investment at the highest end, from their relationships with Europe. Once China supported Russia's aggression against Ukraine, however, the Europeans got shocked. The wedge that China had between the United States and Europe, on China policy, was destroyed. China destroyed its own massive asset. Europe is now much closer to the U.S. on its China policy and Xi Jinping did that. Xi claims to be neutral, but everybody in Europe understands that he has never condemned Russia's aggression, he has mouthed a lot of the Russian talking points and he buys Russian energy while supplying Russia with dual-use goods. Europeans have come to understand that they should not have the same approach or same relationships with China, on the economic side, as before. It could blow up in their face in the way the Russia energy dependence blew up. Besides, it is out of line with European values. How could you be that deep in a partnership with a country that treats its people that way and that supports Russia's criminal aggression? The rethink in Europe is a result of what Xi Jinping introduced. Supporting the criminal aggression has severely hurt China economically and will continue to do so. As the U.S. attempts to introduce technology export controls, (those are not sanctions, those are from the Commerce Department and not from Treasury) on some high-tech goods, European partners are signing on to them. This is in part because they have no choice, but also in part because now they understand better what the issues are. That is a big price for the Chinese to pay. There is no other place for them to go to get the technology, so they have to do it themselves. The U.S. relies not just on itself, but on this giant ecosystem of shared values and institutions across the West. The West includes Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, Australia and Israel. The U.S. has a lot of good friends and they are all high-tech, high achieving countries with rule of law. China's friends are North Korea, Russia, Iran which do not have a lot of tech to transfer or stability or good reputations. It is a strategic blunder. From the point of view of China's own interests, the regime is afraid for its survival. It boasts that the West is decadent, that it is going down and the East is rising. It is China's time now. The Asian century this is what we hear out of China. The Asian Century is true, but it is happening here in America. This is the Asian century. That people from South Asia, that people from East Asia who emigrated to this country, build all those companies and serve as CEOs. We are having an Asia century and we are having it here.

Anna Behuniak '26Student Journalist, CC BY 4.0 <>, via Wikimedia Commons

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