Russia has found itself in an unequal relationship with China since it intensified its pivot towards Beijing after the attack on Ukraine.
Since Western countries imposed sanctions on Moscow, bilateral trade between the two neighbors has reached a record $190 billion, and the share of Russian foreign trade in yuan has gone from 0.5 percent to 16 percent.
“It is absolutely crucial for Russia to be close to China because Russia does not have many trading friends,” Elina Ribakova, deputy chief economist at the Institute for International Finance, told AFP.
Russian President Vladimir Putin is now preparing to host Chinese leader Xi Jinping next week.
The two last met when Putin visited Beijing three weeks before launching his campaign in Ukraine.
The ties between the two countries are particularly strong in the energy sector, which has been hit hard by Western sanctions.
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“China and India have replaced the EU as Russia’s main export market” for oil, a group of economists from the Institute of International Finance said.
Along with Turkey, China and India accounted for two-thirds of Russia’s crude exports in the fourth quarter of last year.
“Chinese companies took over the niches vacated by Western companies leaving Russia,” said Sergey Tsyplakov, an expert at the Moscow Higher School of Economics.
That was the view of Anna Kireeva, a researcher at the prestigious MGIMO University in Russia.
“It was also necessary to find alternative sources of imports, especially in machinery, electronics, various parts and components, cars and other vehicles,” Kireeva told AFP.
However, she said most large Chinese companies that are well integrated into Western markets chose to pause their operations in Russia for fear of potential sanctions.
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Time will tell if the alliance of convenience turns into a long-term sustainable partnership.
“Putin wants an even relationship with China, like with a twin brother, but that’s not the case,” analyst Timothy Ash told AFP.
“Russia has no other option” but to turn to China, he said.
Temur Umarov, a fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, said Russia’s economic stability “depends on China.”
“It gives Beijing another tool, another instrument to influence Russia domestically,” he said.
However, the Kremlin rejects any disparity.
“There is neither a leader nor a follower in Russia-China relations because both sides trust each other equally,” Russian presidential aide Yuri Ushakov told reporters.
Some logistical problems hinder trade development between Beijing and Moscow.
Railway routes in Russia’s Far East are saturated, Kireeva said, and upgrading them will take some time.
Infrastructure in the Far Eastern regions, including the main oil port of Kozmino in the Sea of Japan, is also congested.
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In addition, Russia has had to sell its oil at cheaper prices than usual to China or India to maintain sales volume.
Its budget is already feeling the consequences of the forced discounts.
Oil export earnings fell 42 percent year-on-year in February, the International Energy Agency said.
Having fewer partners leaves Russia in a vulnerable position compared to China, which remains a competitor, Ash said.
“Beijing has an interest in keeping Russia as an ally independent of the West, while it also likes Russia to be weakened so it can exploit it.”
Russia’s economic dependence on China is still in its early stages, Umarov said.
“But in years or decades, this economic leverage can turn into greater political leverage,” he added.