The Russian invasion of Ukraine has triggered strong condemnation from many world governments and reignited talk of a new cold war or even a third world war. But Russia is not as isolated as the global outcry suggests. It benefits from a robust network of partners, allies, and fellow travelers that includes countries such as Belarus, China, and India.
While few of these countries have endorsed Moscow’s aggression, they have and will continue to help shield it from potential punitive action at the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) and dilute the impact of economic sanctions.
Let’s take a look at some of Russia’s closest geopolitical partners and allies.
CSTO: A Successor to the Warsaw Pact
In 1991, months before the fall of the Soviet Union, the Cold War military alliance known as the Warsaw Pact or Warsaw Treaty Organization was dissolved. The Warsaw Pact served as the Soviet Union’s response to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization or NATO, serving as a mutual defense organization for Communist countries that fell under Moscow’s sphere of influence. In 1992, Russia and eight other former Soviet republics formed the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO).
The CSTO lacks the muscle of the Warsaw Pact. But it remains a Russian-dominated entity. And it effectively serves to block the spread of NATO, enables Russia to station troops overseas, and facilitates its export of weapons to member countries.
Today, the CSTO is diminished in size. Since its founding, Azerbaijan, Georgia, and Uzbekistan have left the organization. Along with Russia, its remaining members are Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan.
Russian Allies Armenia and Belarus Take Different Approaches on Ukraine
Among CSTO members, Russia’s strongest partners are Armenia and Belarus. So far Armenia has been careful not to endorse Russia’s actions. It has not recognized the Donetsk and Lugansk breakaway regions of Ukraine. But Arayik Harutyunyan, the Armenian-backed “president” of the breakaway “Republic of Artsakh” — formed from Azerbaijan’s Nagorno-Karabakh region — hailed Russia’s recognition of these breakaway territories and called on Armenia to do the same. Artak Zakarayan, Armenia’s former deputy defense minister, blamed Ukraine’s political elite for the Russian invasion.
Russia is Armenia’s top trading partner by far. Armenia hosts 3,000 Russian troops. Last year, Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan said that the “Armenian-Russian military alliance is pivotal for ensuring Armenia’s security” and called for greater integration of their militaries.
Belarus, unlike Armenia, has not only endorsed the Russian invasion, but its Russia-dependent strongman Alexander Lukashenko is also actively aiding it. Russian troops stationed in Belarus for joint military exercises earlier this month effectively used the country as a staging ground to enter northern Ukraine. On February 24, they entered Ukraine’s Chernobyl Exclusion Zone via Belarus, possibly en route to the capital, Kyiv.
India and Russia: Long-Standing Allies, Close Defense Partners
Among major world powers, India is Russia’s oldest continuous ally. The partnership between the two countries dates back to the Soviet era. In 1971, India and the Soviet Union signed the Treaty of Friendship and Cooperation, despite New Delhi’s claim that it was a non-aligned country.
Defense is at the heart of the India-Russia strategic partnership. Russia has long been India’s main arms supplier. In recent years, New Delhi — one of the world’s largest importers of arms — has acquired nuclear submarines and the S-400 surface-to-air missile system from Moscow. India and Russia also have many joint defense hardware programs, including the development of the BrahMos cruise missile and the Sukhoi Su-30MKI fighter jet.
Driven by a shared rivalry with China, India’s cooperation with the United States and other Western powers has grown over the past two decades. But New Delhi has remained loyal to its friends in Moscow.
Notably, India has adopted a neutral stance in the current Ukraine crisis. While Chinese diplomats have mentioned the importance of adhering to the United Nations (UN) charter and other norms, India has simply made generic calls for peace and dialogue. India’s top diplomat, Minister of External Affairs Subramanian Jaishankar, and its permanent representative at the UN have refused to condemn Moscow’s aggression. India, while not a permanent member of the UNSC, is currently a non-permanent member of the body.
On February 25, 2022, India was one of three countries that chose to abstain from a UNSC resolution condemning the Russian invasion of Ukraine.
Are Russia and China Allies?
The People’s Republic of China and the Soviet Union were allies in the early part of the Cold War. But by the late 1950s, the relationship began to unravel, driven by growing ideological differences and other factors. In 1959, Chairman Mao Zedong accused Khrushchev of “revisionism.” The next year, Deng Xiaoping repeated the charge and declared that “China must go her own way.” By 1962, the “Sino-Soviet split” became official when Beijing broke off relations with Moscow. This split paved the way for the establishment of relations between the PRC and the United States in 1972.
Cooperation between China and the Russian Federation has grown over the past two decades, especially since Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014. In 2001, China and Russia signed a Treaty of Friendship, which paved the way for the expansion of military ties and strategic cooperation. Beijing describes its relationship with Moscow as a “comprehensive collaborative strategic partnership.”
But Sino-Russian ties today are more complicated than official rhetoric suggests. China and Russia seek to oppose U.S. dominance of the world order. But they behave in fundamentally different ways in the international system. Scholars at the RAND Corporation argue in a 2018 report:
“Russia is not a peer or near-peer competitor but rather a well-armed rogue state that seeks to subvert an international order it can never hope to dominate. In contrast, China is a peer competitor that wants to shape an international order that it can aspire to dominate.”
China and Russia are also strategic competitors in the Arctic and Central Asia. Kadri Liik, a senior policy fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations, notes that as Russia has become isolated from the West, “China did not rush to break Western sanctions on Russia” and “proved to be a tough negotiator.” As a result, she describes the relationship between Beijing and Moscow as “a flexible non-alliance.”
On February 4, 2022, Chinese President Xi Jinping and Russian President Vladimir Putin signed a 5,000-word joint statement that some interpreted as heralding a formal Sino-Russian alliance to counter the West. The two countries declared that there were “no limits” to their “friendship.”
Notably, the word “alliance” doesn’t appear in the text. And the Wall Street Journal reports that the decision to sign the statement was “influenced by a Chinese foreign-policy establishment stuck in a belief that Mr. Putin wasn’t out for war.” Those assumptions have since been proven to be incorrect and Beijing has struggled to find a clear response to the Russian invasion.
Like India, China voted to abstain from the February 25, 2002, UNSC vote on a resolution condemning the Russian invasion of Ukraine.
These Countries Are Russia’s Top Allies:
These countries are Russia’s top allies, according to a survey of Russian public opinion conducted by the independent Levada Center in 2020: