AS MUCH AS RUSSIA’S DESIRE TO MAINTAIN POST-SOVIET Eurasia as a ‘backyard’ has been a source of confrontation with the Euro-Atlantic West, Eurasia’s other great power— China—was long an afterthought in Russian thinking about regional geopolitics. Though China was already beginning to outpace Russia as a source of trade and investment, Chinese President Xi Jinping’s September 2013 announcement of what would become the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) (Xi 2013a, 2013b) represented a more direct challenge to Russia’s influence everywhere from the Balkans to Central Asia.1 The BRI called into question the role and efficacy of Russia’s own plans for regional integration, embodied in the Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU). It also opened up the prospect of Chinese trade, investment and political ties displacing Russian influence all across the Eurasian landmass.
Russia’s response has nevertheless been restrained. Deference to Chinese ambitions in Eurasia is a central component of Moscow’s pursuit of closer relations with Beijing. Improving Sino–Russian relations has been a priority for Moscow dating back to before the fall of the Soviet Union and has taken on new importance in the era of escalating competition with the United States that followed the outbreak of war with Ukraine in 2014. Since the announcement of the BRI, however, China’s own pursuit of regional, and ultimately global, influence has been at odds with Russia’s longstanding ambition to maintain post-Soviet Eurasia as a strategic glacis and sphere of ‘privileged interests’. Russia has consequently sought to shape and channel Chinese engagement in line with its own interests, with decidedly mixed results.
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Jeffrey Mankoff is a Distinguished Research Fellow at the Institute for National Strategic Studies, Center for Strategic Research at National Defense University. The views expressed are the authors own and do not reflect those of the National Defense University, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.