Russia’s poor performance on the battlefield has led to new opportunities for a ‘particularly assertive’ China, which already enjoys substantial economic ties with the republics through its Belt and Road Initiative.
Russia’s “new generation of leaders” is increasingly concerned about Moscow’s alliance with China, experts are warning.
Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping entered into a strategic partnership just before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine last year, in which both proclaimed their friendship to be “without limits’’.
And last week they held a two-day conference in Moscow in which they signalled their intention to continue to strive for a “multi-polar world” which eschews Western influence.
But as soon as the mini-conclave was over, Xi sent telegrams to the leaders of all five Central Asian countries, inviting them to participate in the first “China-Central Asia” summit in May.
“And that’s how you send a very cold chill down Putin’s spine,” said regional security expert Prof Alessio Patalano, of King’s College London.
According to reports, Xi’s messages emphasised the deepening of relations between China and Central Asia, with sources adding that Xi said he was “looking forward to discussing with Central Asian leaders the grand plan for developing China-Central Asia relations”.
The five central Asian republics – Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan – were part of the Soviet Union and have traditionally relied on Russia to provide security guarantees.
But Russia’s poor performance on the battlefield has led to new opportunities for a “particularly assertive” China, which already enjoys substantial economic ties with the republics through its Belt and Road Initiative.
Opportunities for influence in Central Asia are not lost on the West, either. In recent months European Council President Charles Michel and US Secretary of State Antony Blinken have visited Central Asia.
“Making this offer just a day after his meeting with Putin reinforces the idea that Russia is being viewed by China as
much weaker today than it was before last year’s invasion,” said Prof Patalano.
The shift has not been lost on sections of Russia’s elite who have been warning since 2015 that close relations with China would come at too high a price.
Prof Mark Galeotti, of the Council on Geostrategy think-tank, said fear of Chinese influence had drawn together two disparate groups within Russia – ultranationalists and technocrats who stand to represent Russia’s future leadership.
“What is coming through clearly is that there are many of Russia’s elite who are deeply unhappy about Putin’s Western obsession, and who regard China as a much greater threat than Europe,” he said.