The conflict between Russia and Ukraine has created a strengthened knot in the relationship between Russia and China. However, if and when the conflict ends, this knot may loosen as the two nations, especially Russia, reassess its priorities and interests. It is common knowledge now that Western sanctions have proved inefficient against Russia; what has happened instead is that Russia has been pushed more towards China.

  • China and Russia's recent display of camaraderie has left several nations perplexed — including those in the West as well as India, albeit for different reasons. Recently, the Presidents of China and Russia met in Moscow, and it would be hard to deny that the pomp and optics were not impressive. The two leaders engaged in an informal conversation that lasted for over four hours and shared a touching farewell, with Putin personally escorting Xi to his limousine. Prior to the commencement of the bilateral event, both Xi and Putin penned op-eds in news agencies of other countries. In these articles, both leaders flaunted the significance of their relationship and expressed fondness for each other.. The op-eds served as a testament to the warm personal rapport between them, and underscored the importance of their partnership for the world amidst the ongoing Russia-Ukraine war. In the quest to boycott Russia and impose hardship through economic sanctions, the West seems to have misread or forgotten that the vacuum they leave will only result in it being filled by other countries — and of them, most likely by China. China has therefore seized the opportunity to fill that vacuum by expanding its presence into the Russian market.

A Tumultuous History

  • The bilateral relationship between China and Russia has been marked by periods of amicable cooperation and conflicts, following the establishment of the People's Republic of China in 1949. After initial years of strong bilateral ties, the relationship began to wither away in the mid-1950s, when Nikita Khrushchev took over the helm of the Soviet Union whereupon ideological differences started emerging. This resulted in the famous Sino-Soviet split, manifested through a military clash at Zhenbao (Damanskii) Island in 1969, nearly escalating to war.

  • Reconciliation didn’t occur between the two nations until the 1980s. Normalisation of relations began only with the Sino-Soviet Summit of 1989. Post normalisation, the relations saw a significant development which culminated into the signing of “partnership of strategic coordination” in 1996. During the 2000s, the relations saw growth in all aspects including trade, military, diplomacy and people-to-people connection.  On his state visit to Moscow in 2019, President Xi Jinping stated that “the China-Russia relationship is seeing a continuous, steady and sound development at a high level, and is at its best in history” and agreed to upgrade their relationship to “comprehensive strategic partnership of cooperation for a new era”.

Energy Trade

  • In the article penned by President Putin for People’s Daily, Putin aspired to take the trade between both the countries to over USD 200 billion. In 2022, the trade volume between the two countries surged by 33% to reach a staggering USD 190 billion. Evidently, both countries are working closely to achieve that goal; China’s exports to Russia are up from USD 67.57 billion in 2021 to USD 76.12 billion in 2022. Additionally, Russia saw a surge in the imports of Chinese goods, which includes electronics, base metals, machinery, vehicles, ships, and aircraft. Despite this, Russia enjoys trade surplus with China, largely owing to energy exports to China.

  • The Russia-Ukraine war has further brought both countries economically closer as most countries have refused to trade with Russia. As a result, by the end of 2022, the share of Chinese brands in the Russian smartphones market increased to 75%. After the sanctions on energy imports by Western countries, China emerged as a major buyer of the discounted Russian oil and gas. The reason behind the trade deficit of USD 3 billion in January and February 2023 was oil and gas, where during the first two months of 2023, Russia supplied China with 1.94 million barrels of oil per day — an increase from the 1.57 million barrels per day that China received in 2022, making Russia China's top oil supplier. China’s imports of Russian pipeline gas and liquefied natural gas last year surged 2.6 times and 2.4 times, respectively, to USD 3.98 billion and USD 6.75 billion.

India in the Crossfire?

  • India and Russia have invested heavily in their relationship which dates back to the Cold war era. When India was refused submarines by western countries, the Soviet Union offered India excellent boats for the time — the Foxtrot class submarines — and also enabled capability enhancement via assistance and training for repairs.

  • Moreover, India can rely on Russia's veto power in the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) if a resolution is proposed regarding Kashmir, as Russia had previously exercised its veto during the 1971 war. Both countries respect each other's sovereignty, and refrain from meddling into each other’s internal affairs. The heads of state of both nations maintain a strong and positive personal relationship with each other. In the fiscal year 2022-23, bilateral trade between India and Russia hit a record of USD 39 billion, with India increasing its oil imports from Russia. Further, 120 Vande Bharat trains are planned to be manufactured through a joint venture with a Russian firm. Having said that, this is not enough and there are areas where India and Russia can cooperate to increase trade; the vacuum left by Western firms in the Russian market needs to be capitalized by India.

  • Russia’s recently released report on the concept of foreign policy strategy declared India as one of the main allies. It further goes on to state that Russia will continue to build a “particularly privileged strategic partnership” with India. It also places special emphasis on expanding cooperation, increasing volumes of bilateral trade, strengthening investments, and furthering technological ties. In the course of the Russo-Ukrainian war, India has refrained from directly criticising Russia, despite having faced a lot of heat, pressure, and condemnation from the West.

  • In this interconnected world, where a significant global incident can trigger a chain reaction, the already weakened global economy was further impacted by the Russia-Ukraine conflict. India was not insulated from these consequences. The domestic economy was impacted by various market factors, including the increased prices of metals and edible oil, the depreciation of the rupee, rising crude oil prices, and a fall in the stock market. As a result, the pace of economic growth slowed, and inflation and economic decay ensued. Additionally, the delivery of the S-400 system has also been delayed due to the ongoing conflict.
  • In such a scenario, Russia's shift towards China following the war could have a more significant impact on India. This is primarily due to the fear that China can now influence Russia’s relations with India. Thus, India’s reluctance to publicly criticise Russia in the words of the West can be attributed to the country's deep-rooted ties and dependence on Russia. This dependence, in turn, is a consequence of the West's past decision to arm Pakistan and drive India towards the Soviet Union.

  • Moreover, the past decade has seen a significant increase in military cooperation between Russia and China. As part of this cooperation, Russia has sold S-400 missile defence systems to China. Currently, two squadrons of these systems have been deployed in Tibet, located just across Ladakh. However, it is worth noting that Russia has not always been eager to sell advanced military equipment to China, as it has its own concerns about China potentially attempting to reverse engineer this equipment. Nevertheless, Russia has been left with little choice but to sell to China.

  • Russia may choose to maintain a delicate balance between its relations with China and India, but this will depend on whether it perceives any compelling reasons to prioritise its engagement with India. Although border skirmishes may occur, it is unlikely that a full-blown war will break out along the LAC in the near future. It seems unlikely that Putin will face a difficult choice between India and China anytime soon, so the possibility of China pressuring Russia to cease the supply of crucial weapons, if not unlikely, appears to be remote. India accounts for almost 20% of Russia's total defence exports, making it a significant market for Russian defence products. Additionally, India is one of the top consumers of Russian oil. While it is possible that China may attempt to pressure Russia into reducing its cooperation with India, India can remain cautiously optimistic that Russia will not succumb to such coercion too easily. The relationship between Russia and India has a long-standing history, and Russia is unlikely to jeopardise this strategic partnership without strong reasons.


  • One of the most important things for Russia right now is to gain support and legitimacy from a big power, and Xi’s recent visit provides exactly that, especially after the International Criminal Court’s arrest warrant against Putin. So even if one argues that there was no material benefit for Putin from this visit, it was, nevertheless, a symbolic victory for Russia.

  • The conflict between Russia and Ukraine has created a strengthened knot in the relationship between Russia and China. However, if and when the conflict ends, this knot may loosen as the two nations, especially Russia, reassess its priorities and interests. It is common knowledge now that Western sanctions have proved inefficient against Russia; what has happened instead is that Russia has been pushed more towards China.

  • As far as India is concerned, some scholars argue that India can and/or should dissuade Russia from doing anything that is antithetical to the West’s or India’s interests. However, as India would not like Russia to dictate its relations with the West, Russia would find it unpleasant to be dictated vis-à-vis China. It is better for India to deepen its relations with Russia, focus on increasing trade, cooperation and investments.


Having recently graduated with a degree in Computer Applications, Dhananjay Shinde is keenly interested in topics related to Politics, Foreign Policy and Security and has written several articles on these subjects. His curiosity lies in the workings of the International Relations domain and what goes into formulating policies. In his spare time, Dhananjay can be found revelling in literature and philosophy.

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