Russia’s handling of Cyprus inspired Dan Drezner to review how terrible Russia and China are at “revisionism”:
What’s striking, however, is that neither Moscow nor Beijing seems terribly interested in collecting client states. Hell, for all the rhetoric involving closer Sino-Russian cooperation, it seems as though the actual bilateral relationship amounts to little more than empty rhetoric and cooperation at the U.N. Security Council.
It’s almost as if there is no “authoritarian axis” or global alliance of “autocracies”. Russia and China aren’t very interested in collecting client states, but then why would anyone have thought that they were? It is mostly Westerners and American hawks in particular that are always ready to interpret actions by other major powers as evidence of their “expansionism” or “revisionism,” and most of the time neither of these is happening. Clients can be or eventually become expense liabilities that cause the patron more headaches and problems than they are worth, so it is not very likely that risk-averse, self-interested states are going to fritter away many resources on current clients or on the acquisition of new ones. If these states already have a few clients, they aren’t going to abandon them entirely, but they’re hardly ready to go to the wall for them, either. These aren’t states that are able or inclined to take over as global hegemon.
I would add that some of the local “revisionist” episodes Drezner mentions aren’t very revisionist at all, and neither Russia nor China has really “stuck out its neck” for its clients beyond vetoing resolutions at the U.N. The 2008 war was the result of escalating tensions over proposed NATO expansion, recognition of Kosovo, and Georgian goals of “reintegrating” the separatist republics, all of which Russia opposed vehemently. Russia wanted to keep Georgia out of NATO and keep Georgia from taking control of South Ossetia, which meant that Russia was trying to block attempts to change the status quo. Recognizing the nominal independence of the separatist republics was the most “revisionist” thing Russia did in this period, which hasn’t changed the reality that they are for all intents and purposes Russian satellites as they were for many years before the war. As for Syria, vetoing a few resolutions at the U.N. hardly constitutes taking a big risk.
Ian Bremmer explains Russia’s behavior regarding Cyprus, and attributes it to Russia’s need to maintain good relations with Europe:
Russia’s largest trading partner remains the EU; Moscow is dependent on revenues from gas sales to Europe. The bottom line: Moscow has far more to lose than gain from aggressively reacting to the crisis.