China becomes Russia’s biggest collaborator after war decimates science ties with the west

22 Feb 2024 | News

Two years on from the invasion of Ukraine, the war has exacerbated Russian academic isolation from Europe and North America. Ukraine, meanwhile, has seen a surge of collaboration with the west – and with Poland in particular

Chinese president Xi Jinping (Left) with Russian president Vladimir Putin meeting in Russia in 2023. Photo: Presidential Executive Office of Russia / Wikimedia Commons

China has become Russia’s biggest scientific collaborator following Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine, largely because ties to the west have dramatically shrunk since the war began.

It’s nearly two years since president Vladimir Putin ordered an attack on Ukraine, and the impact of that decision on Russian science is gradually becoming clear in the academic publication data.

In 2023, China finally overtook both Germany and the US to become Russia’s biggest partner in terms of joint-authored articles (see graph below).

German and US collaboration as a proportion of Russia’s total published papers was already dwindling before the war, but the invasion appears to have massively exacerbated the drop.

The proportion of Russian publications that are co-authored with China, meanwhile, has steadily ticked up to surpass both, although the absolute number of joint papers with China appears to be flatlining.

“The ties with China aren't actually growing that much, it is just the ties with the west that are shrinking,” said  Andrey Kalinichev, a Russian-born research director at IMT Atlantique, a technology university in France, who helps run T-Invariant, an independent website about Russian science. 

In some ways, this collapse in western collaboration is hardly surprising. Following the invasion, European countries launched a broad range of scientific sanctions against Moscow, cancelling official projects together. The EU kicked Russian partners out of Horizon Europe projects, for example.

Individual researchers are not banned from joint work, but sanctions, including a lack of direct flights, have made travel between Russia and the west difficult and expensive.

Kalinichev also argues that a climate of fear in Russia, with increasing number of scientists prosecuted for supposedly divulging secrets to foreigners, is also a “obvious discouragement” to working with the west.

Even so, the scale of the rupture in ties is still dramatic. Back in the mid-2000s, almost 9% of all Russian authored papers had a German co-author. The same was true with the US.  

Now, accelerated by the war, that level of engagement has more than halved.

And it could have further to fall. It can take many months, or even years, for the end results of a joint project to end up published in a journal. This means that many of the joint papers published in 2023 are likely to be the outputs of research started before the invasion, so it could take years for the full impact to play out in the data. 

One ominous canary in the coalmine for Russia is that its academics have dramatically disengaged from academic conferences since the war, where connections with foreign colleagues are forged and maintained.

China flatlining

As for links with China, which has offered at least some tacit backing to Moscow during its invasion, the increase in collaboration is more relative than absolute.

In 2023, Russia and China published 3,280 joint papers, fewer than the 3,538 published in 2022.

That figure for 2023 will likely be revised upwards by a few hundred as the very final data for last year dribbles in. But the picture is one of steady collaboration, rather than a surge in engagement. China only increased its share of publications because the overall number of Russian articles fell sizably last year.

“As for China, the cooperation always has been there, but now some cooperations with Europe are impossible, so people need to do something, and they have to work with China more,” said Alexander Nozik, a physicist at the Moscow Institute of Physics and Technology, speaking in a personal capacity.

Meanwhile, Chinese companies like Huawei have stepped up their research activities in Russia, he said.

The Russian government has not directly encouraged academic work with China, but instead has warned scientists off collaborating with “unfriendly countries” in the west, Nozik said.

Nozik’s institute is under direct US sanctions, he said, with all research collaboration blocked and the university unable to buy US-linked hardware or software. Even Nozik’s private Github account is suspended.

There is also now a budget squeeze in Russian science. So the fall in collaboration could be “more about resources, not about ideology,” he said.

Russian links with India, which had been growing steadily since the turn of the millennium, also seem to have stalled in 2023, despite New Delhi taking a broadly neutral stance in the conflict.

Ukraine links surge

Meanwhile, Ukrainian researchers, despite displacement, the destruction of research institutes, and service in the military, managed to publish nearly 15,000 papers in 2023, which, once the last few percent of data is in, will be a small increase on 2022.

It will surprise no one that collaboration with Russian academics is in freefall. But as the data shows, Ukrainian science has been pulling away from Russia since 2015, the year after Moscow annexed Crimea.

Collaboration with Russian scientists is “categorically discouraged both on the institutional and the state levels,” said Olga Polotska, executive director of the National Research Foundation of Ukraine.

“Even if we think of individual collaboration between researchers, it is unacceptable because Russian researchers are affiliated to Russian institutions and are thus part of the system and bearers of the ideology of the unprovoked war against Ukraine,” she said.

Meanwhile, there has been a clear uptick in collaborations with the US and European countries since the war began – particularly with Poland, now Ukraine’s strongest international research partner.

This is in part because in the first phase of the war, many researchers, largely women, fled to Poland and were given Polish university affiliations, said Polotska. “Poland literally became the main refugee hub.”

Poland was also one of the first countries to offer special assistance to Ukrainian researchers. And despite Beijing’s close ties with Moscow, Ukrainian scientific links to China are neither “encouraged or discouraged” by the government, Polotska noted.

With China pouring resources into improving its global academic links, “collaboration with China develops in the natural way,” she said.

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