Pumping Iron (Sort of)
Vladimir Putin's recent gym gimmicks tell us a lot not only about his physical condition, but also about Russia's general ailments. In this video, Mr. Putin is doing his best to impress the viewer by engaging in a series of exercises, which are better suited for seniors or patients of physical rehabilitation centers than for a beefed-up ex-KGB officer proficient in martial arts. Although the nature of the workout can be justified by the very fact that Mr. Putin has long passed the retirement age for men in Russia, one important detail has been overlooked. Vladimir Vladimirovich is guilty of making the biggest and most amateur mistake known in bodybuilding: He didn't exercise his legs.
First of all, Russia's president sets a bad example for his loyal sidekick Dmitry Medvedev, who also appears in the video. But more importantly, it appears that Mr. Putin has learned nothing from the collapse of the Soviet Union, which was essentially caused by the empire's inefficient economy and its inability to sustain the arms race. In the Cold War era, Soviet Russia was a "colossus on feet of clay," due to its massive military's lack of solid economic foundations. Today, a "bully with chicken legs" is a better way of describing what is left of it.
Just like its president, Russia is dreaming of regaining the position of a global power. And just like Mr. Putin, who has skipped way too many leg days in the gym, Russia has wasted over a decade of high oil and natural gas prices by failing to undergo basic structural reforms and modernize its economy. After all this time, Russia's oil and natural gas revenues still account for more than 50% of the federal budget revenues. So everything is business as usual for the Kremlin, right? Wrong.
Front Row Center for Mr. Putin
Having bullied Ukraine and sparking Western sanctions, Vladimir Putin looked to China, hoping Beijing would bail him out of economic isolation. What he did not expect was the significant slowdown of the Chinese economy, which obviously tamed the dragon's appetite for carbohydrates. Since Russia does not have much more to offer, bilateral trade and Chinese investment in Russia took a plunge of 31% and 20%, respectfully.
All this stands in stark contrast with the reception Mr. Putin enjoyed at the commemoration of the 70th anniversary of World War II in Beijing. Putin's primus inter pares treatment (as Ankit Panda put it in his tweet) says more about Xi Jinping's poor company during the V-Day celebrations than about the Russian leader's prominence. After all, which one of the remaining "world leaders" was a more suitable candidate to stand right next to Xi? Europe's last dictator Alexander Lukashenko? How about the Sudanese war criminal Omar Hassan Ahmed Bashir?
The Price of Chicken Legs
It's true that China might be willing to cater to Vladimir Putin's ego and to extend political support in the time of Russia's international isolation. By assuming a comfortable position of strategic ambiguity, Beijing can continue to pursue its international goals and to enjoy relatively good relations with most of the significant global players, including the United States. But China's partnership of convenience with Russia will mostly benefit the dragon, not the bear.
Beijing will buy as much Russian energy resources as it needs and, as a net energy importer, it will seek to maintain lower prices. It will not save Russia just for the sake of it. Moscow will have to give something in return. Given the arms embargo imposed by the West in the wake of the Tiananmen incident, China will continue to purchase Russian weapons. But the Kremlin's legitimate concerns about the high potential of stealing the technology via reverse engineering are yet another illustration of who calls the shots when it comes to Sino-Russo relations.
In the meantime, as Russia is being downgraded to China's supplier of energy resources, Xi Jinping will continue to reassure Mr. Putin about the significance of China's relationship with Russia. After all, the remarkable economic transformation initiated by Deng Xiaoping's "open door policy" took over three decades to make China what it is today. That meant a lot of heavy weightlifting all around. Putin's Russia - on the contrary - continues to flex its biceps and triceps, but can fall over at any time. China can exploit this weakness and is very likely to do so. When that day comes, Moscow will learn the hard way that there is no room for chicken legs in power politics.
Author's note: This article was written together with Jakub Piasecki (@piasecki82). Mr. Piasecki is currently a Visiting Fellow at the Taiwanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs and a Research Fellow at the Poland-Asia Research Center. Between 2009- 2012, he was a policy adviser on China in the European Parliament.