Alexander Etkind is a professor at the department of international relations at Central European University. This essay is adapted from his forthcoming book, “Russia Against Modernity” (Polity, 2023).
This essay was published in partnership with Die Zeit.
It was a mysterious visit. With a perpetual smile on his lips, Xi Jinping looked alien in the gloomy interior of the Kremlin. “Right now there are changes — the likes of which we haven’t seen for 100 years — and we are the ones driving these changes together,” he said to Vladimir Putin as they parted ways. The Russian president agreed, as if he was in the know. Xi was still smiling.
A year before, the Russian Federation started a war with the declared purpose of returning its lost domains. As Putin said, he was just reclaiming what had always belonged to Russia — this is, he alleged, what the tsars did as well. Revanchism, a particularly toxic kind of imperialism, is familiar to Xi, who is openly determined to restore Chinese sovereignty over Taiwan. Putin agreed on Taiwan — nothing would help him more than hostilities in East Asia.
There is a skeleton in the closet, and it is big and scary. Russia and China are neighbors with a tortured history. The Chinese-Russian border is the sixth-longest in the world and one of the least settled. Several times in recent history, Russia ceded some land — mostly uninhabited islands — to China. Larger territorial issues, however, have remained unresolved, and their history is surprisingly intertwined with the fate of Crimea.
Like in the current conflict, Crimea in the middle of the 19th century was the focus of hostilities that extended well beyond the peninsula. In 1853, Russian troops invaded the Ottoman Empire, prompting an alliance led by Britain and France to attack Crimea. The grueling war ended when Russia begged for peace three years later.
Belonging to different eras, the Crimean wars are manifestations of two global crises. The first paved the way to abolishing slavery and serfdom; the second is a response to the looming end of fossil fuels. In both, Russia’s logistics were poor, its weapons obsolete, its morale low and its political masters so much older than its soldiers that they barely understood each other.
Both Crimean wars challenged the internal structure of the Russian imperial state. The first was a humiliating defeat for Russia. Its southern coast was undefended after the destruction of the Black Sea fleet; its lack of modern infrastructure and technology, and its backward society and serf-driven economy, were exposed for all to see. As all wars do, the Crimean War led to a swift transition of power from fathers to sons. Emperor Nicholas I died (or took his own life) a year before peace was established. His son, Alexander II, emancipated the serfs and launched his “great reforms” — still the most successful attempt to modernize Russia. The Russian Empire retained Crimea but retreated from the lands that are now parts of Romania, Bulgaria and Turkey. Centuries would pass before the borders in the region, including those of Ukraine, would take their current shape.
Just a few months later, the Western powers again waged war, this time in China. The hostilities in actuality had lasted for decades, driven by the Europeans’ insistence on China opening its harbors to opium. Capturing Beijing in 1860, the Europeans forced Prince Gong, the regent of the Chinese Empire, to sign a peace treaty that today is still considered in China as one of the “unequal treaties” imposed on it by outsiders.
A key player in these events was Nicolay Ignatyev, a Russian diplomat whose career started in the Crimean War. Playing neutrality and combining threats with bribes, Ignatyev convinced despairing Chinese officials to cede part of their northern lands, Manchuria, to the Russian Empire. When the dust of war finally settled, the British were in control of Hong Kong and its surrounding islands. But the Russians had gotten territories that were larger than the whole British Isles.
And it was not the end of the story. In 1896, the Russian Empire got a “concession” from a decaying China on another big chunk of Manchuria. Using Western loans, the Russians built there the Chinese Eastern Railway, then one of the longest in the world. It connected Siberian cities with the Pacific coast, strengthened Russia’s position against Japan and opened the way to Beijing.
The center of the annexed land was the city of Harbin, and the Russians populated it. All this became a reason for the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-5, which Russia lost. But the area largely remained in Russian hands for another 30 years, when the Soviet Union made a bold decision to sell the Chinese Eastern Railway to Japan, which by then had set up a colonial puppet state in Manchuria.
This was a big success for Russian diplomats — they redirected Japanese aggression from the Soviet Union to the United States. This time, it was Maksim Litvinov, a Jewish Bolshevik married to a British writer, who led the secret negotiations with the Japanese. Had this sale not gone through, Japanese troops might have attacked Harbin instead of Pearl Harbor.
At the end of World War II, the Soviets occupied Harbin again. Valuing friendship with its large and spontaneous neighbor, Moscow presented this part of Manchuria to Communist China in 1952, a couple years before it gave Crimea to Ukraine. In 2014, Russia took Crimea back, launching the conflict that continues today. Talking to Xi, Putin hoped the Chinese leader would understand his actions in Ukraine but would not apply the same logic to the lands that the Russian Empire annexed from China. Such an asymmetric, egocentric aspiration does not have a chance in great-power politics.
China did eventually regain Harbin and, much later in 1997, Hong Kong. However, big parts of Manchuria, which China lost along with Hong Kong, still belong to Russia. Outer Manchuria, as the Russia-controlled region is known, has great strategic value, abundant natural resources and game-changing potential. Important cities and military harbors were built on these lands. But in Russian hands, this gigantic area of almost 400,000 square miles — roughly equivalent to a tenth of China — remains underpopulated and underdeveloped.
In 2016, shortly after the annexation of Crimea, the Russian government issued a law that encouraged settlement in the Far East, including Outer Manchuria, promising each adventurous migrant a hectare (0.4 acres) for free. The program has been a failure: Mismanagement and a lack of infrastructure and credit restrain any meaningful development.
However, many Chinese have migrated, legally or illegally, north into the region. Nobody knows the exact numbers, but the Russian government has been vocally worried about this migration. Western experts believe that these anxieties have been largely exaggerated. Still, the density of population in Siberia is lower than in China by a factor of 50.
Xi is the leader of the most populous country on the planet; Putin rules its largest. While the prosperity of China fully depends on the labor of its people, the prosperity of Russia relies on the resources of its land.
The two countries, and their leaders, need each other — but they could not be more different. Xi’s anti-corruption campaign targeted some of the most powerful people in his country. Hundreds of officials, dozens of provincial leaders and even some Politburo members have been purged, exiled or executed for corruption. In contrast, Putin spread large-scale corruption from top to bottom so thoroughly that it became an endemic disease, a national sport, a globally recognized feature of post-Soviet Russia.
In 2022, Transparency International ranked China and Russia at the opposite ends of its Corruption Perception Index (65 vs. 137), with much of the developing world between. Corruption and tax avoidance boost inequality; capital flight hides it. They are all higher in Russia than in China. According to the World Inequality Database, in 2021, the richest 1% owned 48% of national wealth in Russia — 33% in China. Capital flight from China is insignificant — more than a trillion dollars fled Putin’s Russia. Taxation in China is progressive. Russia’s income tax was flat until 2021, and remains almost flat now; even U.S. Republicans have never gone that far in their libertarianism.
Xi is still a communist operating on the far-left end of the ideological spectrum. Putin is a far-right conservative.
Supplying oil and natural gas to China and getting products of labor in exchange — machinery, consumer goods, possibly weapons — Russia under Putin’s rule has largely become an informal colony of China. There are no empires without colonies, and no colonies without natural resources. Russia’s exports of raw materials have enriched the country’s elite, increased inequality and given very little to the people. The climate crisis has exacerbated the political troubles of petrostates such as Russia. Toxic to the world, fossil fuels in the early 21st century are doomed in exactly the same way as opium was doomed in the late 19th century.
But so far, everyone needs energy, at war as well as in peace. Having its own share of problems with its immense coal emissions, China is better positioned in this changing environment than Russia. China’s energy mix is much more diverse than Russia’s exports. On top of that, China is heavily invested in the technologies that are coming to replace coal, oil and gas. From nuclear reactors to LNG vessels to windmills, China is expanding its energy technologies and exporting them. Around three-quarters of European solar panels come from China. Putin’s Russia has nothing to replace its obsolete fossils — nothing but war.
One of Putin’s goals in launching the war in Ukraine was to impose the continuation of the oil and gas trade on a detoxing Europe. Russia underestimated the West’s reaction, just as it underestimated the Ukrainian resistance. Partially, European plans of decarbonization have been deferred because of the war, but Russia will never regain its Western markets of fossil fuels. And Russia is not able to transfer its flow of oil and gas to the east. Huge new pipelines would be needed for this, but China refuses to finance them.
In 1969, Soviet and Chinese troops fighting over Damansky Island, a small spit of land in the Ussuri River on the border between Russia and China, drew the attention of Henry Kissinger, who concluded that if a Sino-Soviet War was imminent, the U.S. would rather support the Chinese. As Kissinger put it in his memoir, it was “a case of mistaken analysis leading to a correct judgment.”
In 1971, Kissinger secretly visited Beijing. His creative diplomacy — arguably the highest success of American diplomacy in the Cold War era — led the U.S. to its unexpected rapprochement with China, the U.S.S.R. to its ultimate collapse and the world to its incomplete globalization. In 1991, an agonizing Soviet Union peacefully relinquished its claims on Damansky to China — it’s been called Zhenbao since then.
Throughout these decades, Soviet and then Russian troops have been preparing for a war with China. Thousands of tanks were kept in storage or dug into the earth ready to fight in Siberia. Fortifications, airfields and other installations were built up on both sides of the border — one of the biggest concentrations of fire- and manpower in the world.
Having now started a barbaric war in Ukraine, Russia changed its balance of power with China. During the months that preceded the invasion, and throughout this tragic year of all-out war, gigantic military convoys have moved Russian armor and manpower across the nation from the border with China to the one with Ukraine. Marines from the Pacific fleet, infantry from Buryatia, pilots from Khabarovsk and tanks from Amur have all perished in Ukraine. Imagine the Chinese military planners’ surprise: Suddenly, all that power on the other side of the border vanished into thin air.
Could the Chinese use their northern troops in a battle for Taiwan? Probably yes, but this would be a tragic mistake. The immense and undefended spaces of southern Siberia and Russia’s Pacific coastal provinces would be an easier target. For a rational nation, which I hope China is, reaching the strategic goal of colonizing Siberia in a peaceful, profitable manner would be more desirable than engaging in a bloody, complicated battle for Taiwan. But such a task requires creative partners. It is waiting for a new Kissinger.
From the Ukrainian perspective, opening a front against Russia in the Far East would be a dream come true. Hopefully, it will not be needed.
A military defeat in Ukraine and a peaceful transformation of Siberia would cause decisive changes in Moscow. Together, they would be perceived as a major blow to Putin and his clique. They would change the leadership of the Kremlin, the Moscow regime and the very structure of Russia. The Federation would not survive, fracturing and altering the whole continent of Eurasia. Even communist, authoritarian China might change, finally growing into its long-deferred perestroika.
Just like Xi said to Putin: The changes are coming, changes on a scale we have not seen in a hundred years.