Old Saint Basil's Cathedral in MoscowJohnson's Russia List title and scenes of Saint Petersburg
Excerpts from the JRL E-Mail Community :: Founded and Edited by David Johnson

#17 - JRL 7206
Transitions Online
June 2, 2003
Russia: On the Edge of a Multipolar World
Putin says relations with China are at “their highest level ever” as he tries to narrow the rift with Washington.
By Sergei Borisov

ULYANOVSK, Russia--Russian President Vladimir Putin emerged from a mini-summit with China’s new president, Hu Jintao, to declare that relations between Russia and China had “reached their highest level ever.” At the same time, though, Putin sought to lift relations with the United States from their recent low point by asserting that the positions of Moscow and Washington on Iran's atomic program "are closer than they seem."

In the days before and after St. Petersburg’s anniversary, the Russian president’s calendar was packed with meetings with some of the leaders of the roughly 50 foreign delegations invited to the celebrations. These included discussion on some issues that will become increasingly important next year when Russia gains a border with the EU--visas, border security, and tariffs. But it was the meetings with Hu Jintao and U.S. President George W. Bush that were particularly important for Russia’s current agenda, which is dominated by security issues laid out by the United States: Iraq, Iran, and North Korea.

Putin gained strong support from the Chinese leader about the need for a “multipolar world,” or an international system that would impose constraints on U.S. power. Indeed, Hu went further than Putin when he told students at the Moscow State Institute of International Relations, “The trend toward a multipolar world is irreversible and dominant.”

Hu, who had chosen Russia as the destination for his first official trip abroad since assuming office, also signed a 13-page joint declaration calling for “a multipolar, just, and democratic world order” based on international law.

Like Russia, China opposed the U.S.-led war in Iraq and, after his meeting with Putin in Moscow, the Chinese leader joined Russia in stressing that the United Nations should be given a central role in the postwar reconstruction of Iraq.

The declaration also calls for “a settlement of all disputes through dialogue and cooperation to reinforce and improve the system of international relations.” In particular, they urged a peaceful solution to the standoff between the United States and North Korea, emphasizing that forceful pressure or the use of force would be unacceptable.


The depth of Sino-Russian cooperation was underlined when, with the blessing of both presidents, the Russian oil giant Yukos signed a massive 25-year deal with the state-owned China National Petroleum Corporation (CNPC). Under the agreement, finalized the day after Putin and Hu signed their joint declaration, Russian will ship 700 million tons of crude oil to China over 25 years. The presidents described the deal, which is valued at $150 billion, as a cornerstone for future joint energy projects.

A 2,400-kilometer pipeline will now need to be built from the Angarsk oil field west of Siberia’s Lake Baikal to Daqing in northern China.

CNPC president Ma Fucai called the agreement “the biggest deal between China and Russia in recent years.”

Since the mid-1990s, Russian-Chinese relations have become much warmer after many years of tension, culminating in 2001 in the signing of a friendship treaty between Chinese President Jiang Zemin and Putin. This improvement has been reflected in a doubling in trade between the two countries, from about $6 billion in the mid-1990s to $12 billion last year, Hu said. He also mentioned a resolution to outstanding border disputes.

The arms trade is another critically important aspect of economic cooperation between the two countries. Some analysts believe Russia could harm itself by selling arms to neighboring China. However, Dmitry Trenin of the Carnegie Institute in Moscow argues that this is not a concern for the Russian leadership. “Russia’s military and political leaders consider that in the near term and foreseeable future, China will not present a military problem for Russia,” Trenin told RFE/RL.

There are, though, many uncertainties. Nikolai Zlobin, the director of Russian and Asian programs at the Center for Defense Information in Washington and editor in chief of Washington Profile, warned that it was unclear how China, with an unemployment figure greater than Russia’s total population, would behave in conditions of globalization. “Russia will lose in any collision with China,” Zlobin told TOL.


For all Russia’s and China’s talk of a multipolar world and joint projects, Putin made clear just how fundamental relations with the United States are when he declared on 1 June that “this summit has confirmed that there is no alternative to Russian-American cooperation."

Putin added that the foundations of Russian-U.S. relations had proved to be firmer than the complications they had faced. The Russian president clamed that "we have shown restraint and taken care of our international and personal relations,” adding that “I do not believe that there were any insoluble issues.”

For months the chief complication has been Iraq, but Russia’s support for Iran’s nuclear energy program has increasingly come into the spotlight as Washington seeks to prevent nuclear proliferation and in the weeks before a report by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) on Iran’s program.

America views Russia’s position on Iran as inflexible, according to Zlobin, who expressed surprise at Russia’s position. “It is impossible to understand how Russia could ignore” that it is a closer potential target for Iran than the United States, he said.

“Politically, Russia invested much into Iran,” Zlobin said. “Now the task for Russia is to save face.”

Russia may be trying to do exactly that. As Putin told journalists on 1 June, the positions of Russia and the United States on Iran's atomic program "are closer than they seem." Putin stressed that he and Bush have a "mutual understanding" on this issue. He did not elaborate.

Putin added, however, that Russia is against using Iran's atomic program as a lever for unfair competition against Russian companies on the Iranian market.

Russia has joined other countries in urging Iran to be more transparent and agree to tougher IAEA inspections. "We call on Iran to sign this protocol. This would be an important step toward lifting the concerns of the international community regarding Iran's nuclear program," Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov said on 1 June.

At their meeting, Putin and Bush also exchanged ratified copies of the Russian-American Strategic Offensive Reductions Treaty, which will cut the two countries’ strategic weapons to a third of their former levels. The two presidents had agreed on a draft at their summit in May 2002.

After months of arguing with Washington, there were also efforts to narrow the gap over Iraq. Moscow does not rule out that Russian companies could work in Iraq. "[We are] ready to cooperate further with the Iraqi authorities, as well as representatives of the international community that have the necessary experience and resources to reconstruct the country," Putin said.

Ivanov also told journalists that he had struck a deal with U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell to intensify consultations about UN reform to increase its effectiveness. The need to make UN more efficient is obvious, Ivanov said.

It is unclear if reforming the UN could help to build the “multipolar world” that Russian and Chinese leaders talked about, though.

Indeed, Zlobin contends that there is no advantage for Russia in a multipolar world. “All Russia’s choices in foreign policy are in many respects illusory," Zlobin said. In particular, a multipolar world with China as one of its centers of power would offer Russia no advantage.

“Recently Russia has become an instrument of French foreign policy; it must not become an instrument of Chinese foreign policy,” Zlobin said.

He believes that Russia and the United States are now at the lowest point in their relations and that the “era of searching for a partnership has ended.” “We tried to imitate friendship,” Zlobin said, but “it was a Potemkin friendship.” Russia has no clear foreign policy strategy and the two countries have failed to create a “philosophy” for their relations.

“The next stage will be connected with cooperation of the United States and Russia in specific fields,” Zlobin said.

Top   Next