Country Report: Russia (January 2022)


In late 2021 and the beginning of 2022, close attention was paid to the Biden-Xi virtual summit, the summit of the democracies, Sino-US tensions over Taiwan, the impact of China’s border closings on Russia, and domestic policies in China, including the campaign for “common prosperity.” Other themes that drew attention included: reconsideration of the concept of the “Indo-Pacific,” especially given thinking in India; reinforcement of views on Russo-Japanese history as if this could promote dialogue; and efforts to understand North Korea after ten years of Kim Jong-un’s rule and its dramatic advances in missile capabilities. Along with the corrective to past opposition to the Indo-Pacific concept, other writings defy the sharp tilt toward China by keeping a narrow focus on ongoing developments. Examples are found in Nezavisimaya Gazeta’s Vladimir Skosyrev objectively treating China and Sino-US ties, Sergey Trush’s sobering coverage of tensions over Taiwan and Xi’s policy, and Alexander Gabuev in Kommersant examining the closed border, and together with Igor Denisov in Moscow Carnegie Center assessing the recent rewriting of history. In contrast, Vasilii Kashin calls for more preparations to supply increased Chinese acquisition of arms for a Taiwan conflict, and Iury Tavrovsky in Zavtra assessed the summit of democracies as a last-ditch—but failing—effort driven by a quasi-religious hatred inherited from Cold War hostility to the Soviet Union and now manifested in baseless anti-Chinese hatred. Another view that Sino-Russian relations have been driven to great heights via lessons from the US is by Petr Akolov.

On November 16 Vladimir Skosyrev in Nezavisimaya Gazeta wrote about the virtual meeting between Biden and Xi, where both spoke of regulating disputes so they do not result in conflict. Communications need to improve, but fundamental contradictions will remain. Xi warned that US encouragement of separatists in Taiwan would force Beijing to take extreme measures. There would be catastrophic consequences, too, from US attempts to forge anti-Chinese alliances. There were no concrete agreements. Alexander Lukin was cited as saying that despite Xi’s statement that China is spreading its model of development, at the recent plenary session of the Central Committee the message was that China has established a new civilization, a new type of modernization, opening a new pathway for developing countries. Both China and the US seek to avoid conflict, preferring dialogue, given domestic conditions, e.g., the slowing of China’s economy. The US read-out noted Biden’s appeal for China to fulfill the 2020 agreement on imports from the US, but the Chinese version omitted this. Trade talks will follow with Chinese expecting that tariffs will, before long, be lowered on imports needed by American companies.

On November 24 in Nezavisimaya, Skosyrev commented further on the Biden-Xi exchange, saying that Biden had not listened to Xi’s warning “not to play with fire.” Biden is prepared at the forum of democratic states in December to recognize Taiwan. This meeting fulfills the promise to return the US to the role of global leader versus the authoritarian regimes of China and Russia. Complicating the international atmosphere was the decision to invite Taiwan. The result is likely to be new difficulties in Sino-US relations over Taiwan. Recently, China has turned to new ways of pressuring Taiwan’s business community, fining companies ranging from hotels to textiles for tax violations, fire safety violations, etc. China intends to punish those who give financial support to the forces supporting Taiwan’s independence. In Shanghai alone live about 200,000 Taiwanese, and investments from Taiwan in the PRC totaled $188.5 billion in March 2020. China would suffer somewhat from the loss of investments, but it is prepared for that. By contrast, Taiwan would suffer greatly; but it would be harder to persuade Taiwanese to reunify. As for Russia, its reaction to the democracy summit was that the West has no constructive agenda,

On November 30 in Nezavisimaya, Skosyrev wrote about the police measures being applied by the CCP to reduce the wealth gap. Under the slogan “common prosperity,” redistribution of wealth is proceeding. Some wealthy individuals have been charged or have disappeared. The article recalls the mass repressions of businessmen and intellectuals of the 1960s-70s, noting that the CCP judicial commissions have wide, unchecked powers. Also, there is much talk of the danger that has to be eliminated. Thus, fear has spread among the well-to-do, many of whom have not revealed to tax organs their grey income. But it is not only tax cheats under threat. The rich, famous, and influential are all in fear. Unnatural mortality has plagued Chinese billionaires. The article recalls Beria, who is alleged to have said in Stalin’s time, “show me a person, and I will find some crime he committed.” Alexander Lukin is quoted as saying that state control over private business is being tightened. Yet this should not be compared to the Stalinist repressions or the Cultural Revolution. This is one more departure from the reforms of Deng Xiaoping. Now, loyalty does not suffice. One must make one’s peace with the state, concludes Skosyrev.

Sergey Trush in Mezhdunarodnaya Zhizn’ discussed tensions over Taiwan. He summarized Xi Jinping’s impact of re-ideologization of the left and purge of bureaucratic opposition. Progress in unification with Taiwan would be a weighty factor in allowing Xi to remain in the top position indefinitely. Xi has departed from Deng’s passive foreign policy, seem in his Russia policy as well. The current tense situation stems largely from Trump’s actions, manipulating the Taiwan issue to extract compromises on trade, even leaning to break the “one China” principle. Yet to use force would have unpredictable consequences for China, even for the political fate of Xi Jinping. It is impossible to assert that Xi firmly supports a military decision. On the contrary, he supports a very moderate strategy, calling repeatedly for a peaceful solution, says Trush, noting that Xi is deeply worried about problems of China’s internal development in the coming 10-15 years—the horizons of his active career. Biden too is restrained on Taiwan, retaining “strategic ambiguity.” This includes restraining Taiwan. In his conversation with Xi Biden stressed keeping Sino-US competition under control and reaffirmed the “one China” principle.  Unlike Russian articles eying rather eagerly the onset of conflict over Taiwan, Trush seeks to counter such predictions.

The Tsentr of analiza strategii i tekhnologii posted an article by Vasilii Kashin on Taiwan, including the consequences for Russo-Chinese military and technical cooperation. The tensions will grow in the Sino-US confrontation over the island with a direct military clash including the US and Japan a realistic scenario, accompanied by a global economic shock. The victory of one or the other side would change the balance of power in East Asia and the whole world. At present Russia’s support for any action China takes over Taiwan is a given, but how deep that support will be is unclear. Even if Russia is passive and limited to rhetorical support for the “territorial integrity of the PRC” and solidarity at the UN, Russia’s ties to the US and China will be affected. In preparation China would compensate for weaknesses in its industrial base through imports. Already from 2018 security cooperation of Taiwan and the US rose markedly. Under Trump a course of “normalization” began, which Biden continued. Naval vessels began regularly traversing the Taiwan Strait, and military advisors and instructors worked openly. Chinese planning aims for a quick operation before the US can successfully react. Unlike Crimea, there is no mass readiness to support arriving forces. China may make a decision to attack timed for municipal elections at the end of 2022 or the general election in January 2024. This would be the most dangerous military-political crisis since the 1962 Caribbean one. The contract signed at the end of 2018 for more than $2 billion for Russian helicopters probably is part of the preparation. This followed disappointment with Chinese production. Other needs are listed by Kashin, in some of which Russia already has experience cooperating with China. He concludes that, on the whole, rising tensions over Taiwan may drive a new stage in Russo-Chinese military-technical cooperation. Given the likelihood that tensions will soon rise, Moscow and Beijing must press ahead with negotiations on arms agreements and on steps to complete the needed bureaucratic procedures.

On December 3 in Kommersant, Alexander Gabuev wrote about how closed China has become, noting the full closure to trains from Russia apart from containers as the latest measure. Russia sought a change but was rebuffed. There are cordons for lumber, coal, fertilizer, and other products in order to gain from Moscow some “commercial concessions.” Given the COVID battle, the situation on the border remains serious and long-lasting. Since the spring of 2020, the border has been closed; an outbreak of the virus in Heilongjiang led to the closure. A side effect useful for authorities is a sharp drop in foreigners inside China. The fewer eyes and ears in China this fall, the better for Xi’s extension in office this fall. This situation will prevail, at a minimum, through most of 2022, if not longer. Russian fishermen have transferred some exports elsewhere. Costs have risen for all; adding energy price increases, the rise is 30 percent. Thus, Gabuev stressed the enduring inflationary consequences of the struggle with the virus inside China.

For Moscow Carnegie Center, Alexander Gabuev and Igor Denisov asked on November 25 why Xi Jinping is rewriting the history of the communist party. They noted that the personal authority of Xi continues to be strengthened. He is becoming a leader on a par with Mao Zedong, taking CCP rule to a new stage. However, this triumphalism does not mean that in the coming decade China will go from victory to victory. The weight of internal and external challenges is growing. The elite purges continue, while the system of authority and feedback is becoming less comprehensible. The November 6th plenum of the 19th congress was one of the most important events in the 2021 Chinese political calendar, passing a resolution on historical questions—only the third of its kind in the 100-year history of the party. The first solidified Mao’s authority. The second evaluated Mao’s role in history, opened the way to reform, and was equivalent to the 20th party congress Khrushchev statement on the cult of personality in significance. Although it appears that the new resolution is linked to the 100th anniversary, the real reason is Xi’s desire to establish his place in party history and ensure his legacy. All decisions of the forthcoming congress should be seen as the triumphant results of a decade of an extraordinarily successful “new epoch.” The decade more than the century will be chronicled with emphasis on the ideas of Xi Jinping. Three big epochs dominate the new chronology, each with guiding thought. Talk of transferring power from one generation to another is gone: there is no reason to wait for a post-Xi generation. Only Mao and Xi are called “core” with stress on their personal impact on the theoretical development of Marxism. Diminishing Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao, the resolution indicates that Xi succeeded in resolving problems left from before or only planned to resolve. Xi liquidated serious dangers, substantiated by methodically listing all higher officials imprisoned, many of whom were close to Jiang or Hu. At fault was the loss of party control over ideology and culture from the start of reform. The quality of journalistic and expert exchanges has fallen, leaving coverage of China worse off. Chinese journalists undertake fewer investigations unless it is convenient for the authorities. The purpose of the resolution was not to give Xi a third term, which already was assured, but to give Xi a new status to shape the system.

In RIA Novosti, on December 16, Petr Akolov wrote that the US taught Moscow and Beijing a lesson. Their relationship exceeds the level of an alliance. This is the message from the December Putin-Xi virtual summit—their 37th meeting since 2013. If not for the pandemic, they would have over 40 meeting. Putin will go to the Winter Olympics in early February. In 2008 when US leaders attended the Beijing Summer Olympics, the US assumed that China supported US-led globalization and Russia was but a regional power. Now an entirely different map of the world is clear. Unlike the inequality in US alliances, Russia and China are equals. They are committed to forging a new world order on the ruins of the Atlantic project. Acknowledging competition and difficult questions between Russia and China in regard to North Korea, Akolov declares that Putin and Xi understand that they must not allow the US a chance to play on their differences. What unites the two is more important than what could potentially divide them. The mistake of the 1960s, which allowed the US to play on the split in the 1970s, must not be repeated. That split led China into the Cultural Revolution and the USSR to a world history that could have been different. One cannot redo history, but one can learn from one’s mistakes. Sino-Russian distrust a decade ago is over. Each responds to great pressure, as on Taiwan and Ukraine. A strong Russo-Chinese bond is essential. A financial structure must be established to prevent outside interference. This is one recommendation for further boosting relations.

In Zavtra Iury Tavrovskii wrote on November 30 about the summit of democracies as the last parade of liberalism with little chance to create an anti-Chinese front. Democracy is just a part of Western civilization and morphed into “democracy with American specifics.” But many in the elite sought a unipolar world, driven by a quasi-religious hatred of their opponents’ beliefs, similar to Nazi anti-communism. Only in the 1970s when China joined the anti-Soviet front was the postwar strategic balance sharply altered, forcing Moscow to face forces on two fronts. Yet the triumph of the “end of history” only lasted two decades, Putin was convinced of the Anglo-Saxon hatred of Russia and proclaimed his opposition to the West in 2007. Xi Jinping followed with the “Chinese Dream.” A new cold war gradually took shape. In 2017, China finally said good-bye to the West, and the point of no return occurred in 2021, recognizing the impotence of the US model after terrible US results in fighting COVID and other disasters. Biden chose a cold war against China, unlike Trump attacking its socialist ideology and the CCP. A quasi-religious hatred for the Soviet Union became the seedbed of the Democrats ideological fervor. Biden and “neocons” could lose no time in realizing the slogan, “China-haters of all countries unite.”

Already China and its rising middle class is becoming the savior with its important market of the majority of economies, including those of close US allies. Mass unemployment would follow if they joined the US. Full encirclement of China is impossible also because Russia is on China’s side at a level beyond that of standard allied relations. Russia is not joining “socialism with Chinese characteristics” or “capitalism with American characteristics.” It is in between, with “healthy conservatism,” in Putin’s words. The UZZ model is unappealing due in part to its assault on family values. China does not try to teach others its model, which is as foreign as Chinese characters. The summit of democracies is a last-ditch effort against the tide of history.

In Mezhdunarodnaya Zhizn’ No. 11, Aleksei Kupriyanov wrote about India’s approach to the geopolitical construct of the Indo-Pacific and Russia’s interests. As this concept has become a buzzword, China and Russia have officially approached it with care, but their experts often use it and have lively discussions about it. One myth to be refuted is that it is just an American invention aimed at isolating Russia and China or is raised in opposition to the Russian concept of Greater Eurasia. After all, China has demonstrated its view that this is used to contain it, and to approve it officially would not be in the interest of Russian-Chinese relations. Yet India actively supports the idea and is also Russia’s strategic partner, and Russia’s negative response serves to damage its ties to India. This article exposes a variety of myths in the Russian discourse and analyzes Indian thinking. It seeks to rehabilitate the concept regardless of the Chinese view.

The concept is more than one and one-half centuries old, but was preserved mainly in Australian foreign policy discourse until recently. When Japan and India sought to draw closer, they adopted the term to indicate a common space, which Abe popularized, referring to the joining of two oceans. India sought to use its booming economy at the time to widen its political influence in both the Indian Ocean and the Asia-Pacific Region (APR). The new concept, thus, demonstrated its ambition to become one of the main players in the APR. The American expert and political community was not interested; Obama tried to forge a G2 with China to decide all of the key questions, leaving no room for India, Russia, Japan, and Australia. When the G2 failed, the US elite switched to containing China rather than trying to cut a deal with it. In 2012 this led to emboldening the Indo-Japanese concept. Unlike in the US conception, philosophical and cultural themes held prominence. Japan gave more emphasis to economics, and India stressed the expansion of its influence to the east, focusing on soft power, including its historical impact.

If the US saw the Indo-Pacific in terms of its own security, containing China, India saw it in civilizational terms, extending its role into the western Pacific. If for the US, India was a junior partner against China, for India the question of conflict with China in the region was not existential. It is entirely possible to imagine a situation where China and India acknowledge each other’s interests in security in the Indian Ocean and the South China Sea, freezing for a time their conflict. If China, or the US, is an enemy seeking the role of hegemon, then for India it is a neighbor, with which it is necessary to delineate spheres of influence. The positions of Japan and Australia are right in the middle. Japanese sense their limitations before China’s rising military power, and Australia is not directly threatened by China but seeks to show its loyalty to the US, albeit not as an American vassal. Both aim to preserve trade ties to China. The article is remarkable for its avoidance of any mention of things that China did that could have aroused others. Except for India, for which the language is neutral, it is always others who oppose China for ulterior motives or territorial disputes that China has not exacerbated. Yet, the message is to join with India, whose motives are commendable, and to keep hoping for Indo-Chinese rapprochement.

In Russian works there is an equivalence to the Indo-Pacific and the Quad, which the author disputes. The Indo-Pacific region is needed for the Quad, not vice versa. It is likely that the Quad will expand with France, Germany, and other members of the EU or ASEAN. The US seeks broad, regional integration projects for its vision of the Indo-Pacific anti-Chinese initiative. Unlike in the Arctic, where Russia faces the challenge of attracting investments and technology without loss of sovereignty, its interests in the IP are insubstantial, and it can use its weakness for flexibility. The Soviets were not bashful about accepting the term Asia-Pacific, although it was introduced by Japan, a US ally, and became an instrument for the US to justify its presence in Asia. The same applies to the Indo-Pacific, the usage of which can improve relations with India and ASEAN without hurting close ties to China. The result could be a shared Russo-Chinese approach to the Indo-Pacific, an alternative to the American strategy aimed at splitting the region. Thus, this is an appeal to China to change course on India.

The Indo-Pacific is an inseparable part of Greater Eurasia, pointing to a sea route historically supplementary to the Eurasian land route—the Great Silk Road. It was an inclusive space, which should remain. Outside power’ interference should be condemned. Russia supports an ASEAN-centric Indo-Pacific. Russia is an inseparable part of the Indo-Pacific with the Arcto-Pacific region, playing a role in the Arctic comparable to India’s role in the Indian Ocean. The two concepts together describe the sea routes for Eurasia. Russia is ready to offer an alternative to the US view of the Indo-Pacific region. Unlike the Chinese variant, Russia insists on inclusion of the Arctic in conceptualizations as well.

Nikita Bondarenko in Mezhdunarodnaya Zhizn’ wrote about historical politics in Russo-Japanese relations. In the 19th century, when historical politics as an instrument of international relations spread, it was particularly practiced in Japan, but this led to conflicts with countries in the region. The roots of this go back to Japan’s earlier expansionism in Asia. This led to problems with China and South Korea and also with Russia, which bases its claim on the results of WWI. Despite a progressive postwar narrative recognizing war crimes and aggression, over time a conservative narrative revived, freeing Japan of responsibility for aggression, eased by the Cold War and the US alliance. Since the LDP formed in 1955 the conservative approach has dominated, as in textbooks, although in the 1990s there was some corrective that sought compromise. Abe Shinzo represents the conservative resurgence. The “trauma of defeat” now overshadows that of responsibility.

The 1904-05 war with Russia was key to the formation of the myth of Japanese exceptionalism. The image of Russia as occupier of territory is an important element in national cohesion and the strengthening of the conservative narrative. Because one of the points of the declaration of 1956 was linkage of a peace agreement to the transfer of two islands, Japan insists on this linkage. The liberalization of historical politics in Japan in the 1990s did not register at all on the Russian track with both conservatives and progressives in agreement. Abe proposed a deal based on 1956, but this was widely condemned with insistence on four islands. In the 1990s, Russia even accepted the logic of Japanese conservatives that Japan was a victim of the Soviet Union. Yeltsin apologized for keeping 60,000 prisoners-of-war, who were combatants directly responsible for the wartime aggression. Russia treated its history as a weight to remove. The odd situation resulted in rhetoric of official apology addressed to the aggressor-country. From the start of the 2000s, Russia acted as a victorious power. Yet it is still important for there to be a corrective to the Russian approach, seeking a balanced, academic discussion, while stressing common interests and memories of equal relations in the past. Russia can show that the islands were settled by Russians already at the beginning of the 18th century. A joint commission is proposed to study history as if this would help to convince the Japanese of Russia’s position. This rebuke of the Yeltsin approach to Japan and insistence that the Putin approach denies a compromise and demands that the victor country insist on its claims closes the door to talks.

Aleksandr Solov’ev in Rossiya v Global’noi Politike wrote about a discussion on the North Korean political myth. Kim Il-sung proposed juche as an alternative to Marxism, as a declaration of his ideological independence. The necessity of balancing between the USSR and China obliged him to specify exclusivity through mythology. With only one center, the US, Syngman Rhee could reproduce the American mode, but in South Korea two narratives dominated—on the right and the left. Solov’ev finds many similarities between North and South, as in their histories of the improbable ancient era of the nation and images of a “victim nation” and exclusivity. Racial purity is another shared image. Both were liberated from the Japanese at the hands of others, but they have a syndrome of victory. In South Korea the background of impressive economic successes led to rethinking the symbol of “victim nation” as a leader nation now ready to take responsibility for less favored states. North Korea is transitioning to a narrative of “normalcy,” even if this is reversible. Korea has territorial pretenses on all of its neighbors, including Russia, which can be activated at any moment. The myth of reunification is the final one mentioned.

In Rossiya v Global’noi Politike, No. 1, Andrei Lankov points to the appearance of “Kim Jung-un-ism” in October 2021, proclaiming a new official ideology. Kim is unwilling to remain in the shadow of his predecessors, seen in changes in the ceremonial pictures that hung. In the 1970s as a synonym of juche, the independent ideology, they began to use “Kim Il-sung-ism.” Later the term “Kim il-sung-ism-Kim Jung-il-ism” came into use, but this term did not appear often. Given a desire to reduce strains with socialist countries, Marxism-Leninism was still the official ideology. Juche remained the focus after 1994, but Marxism-Leninism was rarely mentioned. Kim Jung-il added “songun,” the primacy of the military. In his first years Kim Jung-un stressed his close resemblance to his grandfather, who remained popular for the relative prosperity he achieved. Over time, that changed, as references to the two ancestors faded. Now Kim Jung-un presents himself as an ideologically independent leader. Juche may be dropped and he may lose legitimacy as a result.

Andrei Lankov on December 7 in Kommersant asked if the two Koreas could begin to negotiate by themselves. Their relations have been tense for two years; North Korea ignores initiatives to talk or responds crudely. Its position is understandable since material assistance and economic support are not offered, just symbolic gestures such as tree plantings. The reason is that for Moon the relationship with the US takes priority. Fear of arousing dissatisfaction in Washington follows from the victory of US hardliners on the DPRK.  Practically all types of trade and investment are subject to sanctions. In recent years in Seoul there has been a noticeable strengthening of pro-American inclinations among the elite and in society as a whole. The biggest factor is China, whose strengthening has aroused concern in most of its neighbors, including South Korea. There has also been a loss of interest in the North, especially among young people. Older generations favor offering significant economic help, but not young people. That leaves the government reliant on US approval, which eliminates all but symbolic initiatives. The US opposes tourists, let alone investors, going to North Korea. Add to this the pandemic and quarantine, it is clear that there is no end in sight to this dead-end situation. In referring only to China’s strengthening, not its provocative changes, and to the victory of US hardliners, not the US search for a negotiating path, Lankov caters to extreme Russian views.  

On December 1 Vladimir Khrustalev was interviewed on North Korea by Oleg Kir’ianov in Rossiiskaya Gazeta. Mentioned is China’s radical reexamination of its position on North Korea as a result of the conflict with the US. The strategic value of the North has risen sharply for China, which is firmly opposed to a united, democratic, nationalist, pro-American Korea. China is likewise opposed to any instability and could send troops quickly if disorder occurred, albeit that is very unlikely. As long as China is in confrontation with the US, it will support the North. Russia’s policy toward North Korea is very similar to China’s. It too wants to maintain the status quo, and is dissatisfied with the North’s missile and nuclear tests, but prefers stability and the division of the peninsula rather than unification under a pro-American democracy in Seoul or chaos. Khrustalev doubts the ideological component of Russian policy. The article thus concludes that North Korea is obliged to respond to the missile defenses it faces and the military power of its opponents, including South Korea and Japan. More generally, its goal is security. It requires a strike capacity against the US. With US support, South Korea is removing limits on its missiles. Russia can be threatened by its neighbors actively arming in this way. Russia has two options: to ignore this process on its eastern borders or to aim for parity on its part.

In Mezhdunarodnaya Zhizn’ on November 11 Vladimir Kovalev and Mikhail Miasnikovich wrote about Eurasian integration, ten years after the founding of the Eurasian Economic Commission, which led to the establishment of the EEU in 2015. A new strategy for economic integration to 2025 has been forged. The authors note that 2020 was a litmus test for integration, given many economic and epidemiological challenges. The pandemic only accelerated the negative processes under way. In difficult conditions, including rising protectionism, deepening of EEU regional integration provides an answer. In 2020 the setbacks to GDP and industry in the EEU were small compared to world averages, apart from China. Trade too fell less. 2021 turned out very positively. Now it is time to transition to more integration beyond the logic of a trading union to integration of industrial potential. However, the products of the EEU lack competitiveness and goods do not flow freely. The article recognizes that cooperation with China has not yet transformed into real interstate projects and practical results. Mention is made of the need for railroad and automobile arteries and information infrastructure. Only for Uzbekistan is the EEU the first trading partner. The EU is first for 74 countries, China for 66, and the US for 31. Efforts must proceed to build Greater Eurasia. One necessity is to raise trust in the EEU as an institution and to shift from a psychology of competition to one of cooperation. A lack of political will is suggested, but no mention is made of distrust of Russia by other countries with weaker economies, which could lose sovereignty.

Now Reading Country Report: Russia (January 2022)