Putin builds China links as ties with west fray

Russian President Vladimir Putin and Chinese President Xi Jinping attend a bilateral meeting during the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit on November 9, 2014 in Beijing, China.
How Hwee Young - Pool | Getty Images
Russian President Vladimir Putin and Chinese President Xi Jinping attend a bilateral meeting during the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit on November 9, 2014 in Beijing, China.

When Vladimir Putin met China's president Xi Jinping, a memorandum of understanding for a second massive gas supply deal caught most of the attention.

For the Russian president, the deal may be less appealing for its commercial benefits than its ability to advance the larger goal of cementing ties with its eastern neighbor.

According to Russian officials and security analysts, Moscow's worst stand-off with the west since the end of the cold war has convinced Mr Putin's government that it must moor its security interests to China because the Euro-Atlantic security architecture is broken beyond repair.

"Co-operation between Russia and China is extremely important to keep the peace in the framework of international law, making it more stable," Mr Putin told his Chinese counterpart, just two weeks after he accused the US of destabilizing the world by frequently violating international law.

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Russia's updated military doctrine is expected to target Nato and the US more clearly as the Ukraine crisis has frayed Moscow's relations with the western alliance. The current doctrine lists only Nato expansion, foreign troop deployments in neighboring states, destabilization in certain countries and deployment of missile defense systems as "external military dangers".

People familiar with the document said Nato and the US would be openly designated as threats or adversaries in the document's new version, due to be published next month.

Russian diplomats and analysts also said Moscow hoped to build the Shanghai Co-operation Organisation, founded by China, Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tadjikistanin 1996, into a more meaningful security alliance.

In a speech last month that left western observers bewildered for its rabid anti-Americanism and it slack of proposals for a positive agenda, Mr Putin bemoaned what he described as the destruction of the mechanisms that used to govern international security affairs.

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"Sadly, there is no guarantee and no certainty that the current system of global and regional security is able to protect us from upheavals. This system has become seriously weakened, fragmented and deformed," Mr Putin said. He accused the US of creating a world order in which brute force could become the only means for resolving conflicts.

According to people involved in drafting Mr Putin's speech, it initially contained a reference to"Helsinki II" – the idea that Russia, the US and Europe should try to work out a new framework governing their security relations similar to the 1975 Helsinki Accords. A proposal by then-president Dmitry Medvedev in 2008 for a new version of the agreement credited with lowering tension during the cold war failed to get off the ground because western countries saw it as a bid to undermine Nato.

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"The concept had been prepared for Putin back then, but they have lost confidence that this could work now, so it was dropped from Putin's speech last month," said Fyodor Lukyanov, chairman of the Council for Foreign and Defense Policy, a Moscow think-tank. "Helsinki was about fixed spheres of influence, and it worked as long as there was balance of power and deterrence. That spirit is gone now."

Another longstanding piece of the European security architecture is the Nato Russia Act, in which Nato pledged not to create permanent bases on Russia's borders.

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But the tension over the Ukraine crisis has fueled Russian fears that this promise is being undermined.

In addition, even though Nato has little intention of welcoming Ukraine and Georgia into the alliance,member countries see it as politically impossible to openly rule out their membership in order to keep them as buffers between the western alliance and Russia.

Mr Putin is under no illusion that things will get any easier. The next US president is almost certain to be more hawkish towards Russia than Barack Obama, who entered the White House seeking a hopeful reset of relations.

"This forces Russia to head in a different direction – towards China and Iran, out of the western international system," says Cliff Kupchan, chairman of the Eurasia Group risk consultancy.

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Moscow is already giving Nato a taste of what that means. The Russian air force has been probing the air space of Nato members with increasing frequency and range over the past two years, repeatedly forcing European militaries from Norway to Turkey scramble fighters.