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Xi’s delay of Siberia pipeline signals limits to his embrace of Putin

Snow covers sections of pipework at Gazprom's Atamanskaya compressor station near Svobodny, Russia, on Dec. 11, 2019. (Andrey Rudakov/Bloomberg News)
7 min

RIGA, Latvia — Russian President Vladimir Putin this week called the Power of Siberia pipeline, which carries Russian gas to China, the “deal of the century.” But Putin’s hopes of swiftly securing a sequel of the century — the giant Power of Siberia 2 — deflated over two days of talks with Chinese leader Xi Jinping this week.

Putin is desperately scouting for hungry new gas markets after Russia lost the bulk of its most important export market, Europe, following his invasion of Ukraine. That loss included Putin’s ill-considered move to cut gas supplies to Germany through a major pipeline last year.

Russian gas giant Gazprom has been pushing the Siberia pipeline plan for years, and all eyes were on the meetings with Xi this week for signs of agreement. Such indications never materialized.

Xi’s support for Putin, despite his invasion of Ukraine, is a geopolitical milestone — the Chinese leader called it a change “that hasn’t happened in 100 years” — as Beijing positions itself for an era of growing confrontation with the United States and presses for a multipolar world to end Washington’s global dominance.

But Xi’s decision not to give Russia the additional symbolic boost of a giant gas pipeline deal showed that he would not sacrifice China’s economic self-interest, and it highlighted Putin’s weakness and growing dependence on his “dear friend.”

Even if there had been an agreement, the pipeline would take many years to build and would not help Russia’s short-term economic problems with its shrinking revenue due to sanctions.

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Xi’s trip offered Putin important moral support, and Chinese trade has bolstered Russia’s economy, but the lack of a deal on Power of Siberia 2 showed the limits of what Xi is willing to do, said Janis Kluge, an expert on Russia’s economy with the German Institute for International and Security Affairs.

“Russia needs a lot from China right now, and it’s in a very weak position,” Kluge said.

“Basically, it would be a gesture of trust or loyalty from the Chinese side because, of course, these gas deals are always very long-term commitments,” he said, adding that it was questionable if the Power of Siberia 2 pipeline would ever be built, which in turn raises doubts about whether Russia’s western Siberian gas would ever be exported.

China does not want Russia to lose the war in Ukraine or to see the collapse of Putin’s regime, Kluge continued. “But this doesn’t mean that the relationship is blossoming,” he said. “There is now a clear dependency where there used to be a more symmetrical relationship. We can see that China is not offering anything more than the symbolics of this visit, and we can see that China is also more careful in its dealings with Moscow.”

Putin said on Tuesday that “practically all the parameters” of the Power of Siberia 2 deal had been agreed, but his comments concealed a defeat of Russian efforts to get final agreement from China.

“Unfortunately, ‘almost all’ is not ‘all’ of the parameters,” wrote Moscow-based analytical firm BKS, adding that “the agreement has been discussed in one form or another since 2004 or earlier, but the price issue has been a stumbling block again and again.

“If this aspect is not resolved, serious negotiations are still ahead and success is not guaranteed,” BKS wrote.

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The leaders’ joint statement referred vaguely to “strengthening the comprehensive partnership in the energy sector” but, tellingly, only agreed to “make efforts to advance work on studying and agreeing” on the landmark project.

At the conclusion of Xi’s state visit, Russian Deputy Prime Minister Alexander Novak could only say that details of the deal were yet to be worked out and that he hoped an accord would be reached sometime this year.

Konstantin Simonov, director of the National Energy Security Fund, a think tank, said Xi and Putin had been expected to sign the deal during their meetings.

“It is obvious that Russia needs the contract,” Simonov told Business FM, a Russian radio station. “Gazprom needs the contract, because last year we had a drop in supplies to the European Union of over 80 billion cubic meters. This is quite a serious volume, and this year we may lose another 30 to 40 billion cubic meters.”

“The fact that the contract has not been signed so far means that China believes that today Russia needs this project more, and it tries to drag out this delay in order to, most likely, get the most favorable conditions for itself,” he said.

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Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov denied reports that the failure to get a deal was a defeat for Putin, calling these “low-quality fake stories.”

“The reality is totally different,” Peskov said. “The expansion [of cooperation] was discussed.”

But there are plenty of uncertainties, including the expected level of Chinese gas demand in the 2030s, the price of gas at that time, China’s ready access to many other global suppliers and its capacity to increase its own domestic gas production.

From 2019 to 2020, Russia supplied 3 percent of China’s natural gas, compared with 10 percent from Turkmenistan and 12 percent from Australian liquefied natural gas (LNG), according to the Energy Policy Research Foundation. However, the original Power of Siberia project, which went onstream in December 2019, has increased supplies since. The foundation noted that China has kept its natural gas supplies well diversified, unlike many European nations before Putin’s invasion.

After meeting Xi on Tuesday, Putin said Power of Siberia 2, which would carry gas to China through Mongolia, is a “good project” and extolled Russia’s “reliable, stable” supply. In fact, analysts say, Moscow has often used its gas supplies to exert damaging political pressure on its neighbors, including Ukraine, Georgia and recently Moldova.

In a blatant example, Russia indefinitely cut the supply to Germany via the Nord Stream 1 pipeline in September, citing maintenance issues, while the Kremlin denied manipulating supplies.

“I think that China was watching very closely what happened there, and they will try to stick to their strategy of diversification and not allowing a single supplier to have a significant chunk of the Chinese market,” Kluge said.

Weeks later, a pipeline attack by unknown saboteurs severed supplies via Russia’s Nord Stream 1 and the new Nord Stream 2 pipeline, which had yet to receive regulatory approval to begin operations.

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Mongolian Prime Minister Luvsannamsrain Oyun-Erdene recently told Reuters that his country was waiting for China and Russia to agree on the details of the Power of Siberia 2 pipeline before going through the trouble of deciding on the route through his country. Gazprom needs agreement that China will purchase a certain volume of gas to make the project viable.

The biggest question mark is Chinese gas demand in the 2030s. The International Energy Agency’s World Energy Outlook last year reported that China’s LNG contracts, existing pipelines and new domestic gas projects would exceed its requirements up to 2035, as the growth in demand for gas slows.

“There are no easy options for Russia in its search for new markets for the gas it was exporting to Europe,” the agency reported. “Sanctions undercut the prospects for large new Russian LNG projects, and long distances to alternative markets make new pipeline links difficult.”

It predicted that Russia’s share of internationally traded gas would fall to less than 15 percent in 2030 from 30 percent in 2021, and that its net income from exports would plummet to less than $30 billion from $75 billion over that time.

Natalia Abbakumova in Riga contributed to this report.

One year of Russia’s war in Ukraine

Portraits of Ukraine: Every Ukrainian’s life has changed since Russia launched its full-scale invasion one year ago — in ways both big and small. They have learned to survive and support each other under extreme circumstances, in bomb shelters and hospitals, destroyed apartment complexes and ruined marketplaces. Scroll through portraits of Ukrainians reflecting on a year of loss, resilience and fear.

Battle of attrition: Over the past year, the war has morphed from a multi-front invasion that included Kyiv in the north to a conflict of attrition largely concentrated along an expanse of territory in the east and south. Follow the 600-mile front line between Ukrainian and Russian forces and take a look at where the fighting has been concentrated.

A year of living apart: Russia’s invasion, coupled with Ukraine’s martial law preventing fighting-age men from leaving the country, has forced agonizing decisions for millions of Ukrainian families about how to balance safety, duty and love, with once-intertwined lives having become unrecognizable. Here’s what a train station full of goodbyes looked like last year.

Deepening global divides: President Biden has trumpeted the reinvigorated Western alliance forged during the war as a “global coalition,” but a closer look suggests the world is far from united on issues raised by the Ukraine war. Evidence abounds that the effort to isolate Putin has failed and that sanctions haven’t stopped Russia, thanks to its oil and gas exports.