Country Report: Russia (November 2021)


If during the first half of 2021 debates emerged over the merits of an alliance with China, Sino-Russian relations fell under the radar in the fall. Casting doubt on them had faded from sight, as old themes were revived and new ones raised. Russians were doubling down on the Greater Eurasian partnership as if it were increasingly in sight and giving warning to Japan as if it would feel Russia’s wrath unless it reverts to Abe’s accommodative approach. Two themes that were slighted for a time were back with a vengeance. New attention was devoted to the closing of borders: North Korea’s sealed borders were unlikely to reopen, and Chinese borders also were restricted for the long run. Bordering on both countries, Russians were naturally interested in the implications for their country, but these did not become the focus apart from mention of the negative impact on Russian Far East fishing. Of no less interest was the transformation of China’s domestic policies in this new epoch. Authors recognized that a fundamental shift was occurring in China’s model without noting its impact on Russia. Still, detailed, up-to-date coverage of Xi Jinping’s domestic moves informed readers. An unusual entry explored how poor North Korea was able to acquire very advanced weaponry.

Greater Eurasia

In Mezhdunarodnaya Gazeta, No. 10, an upbeat statement about the future of Greater Eurasia was presented without much qualifications. Authors Kirill Barskii, Sergei Krasil’nikov, and Sergei Mikhnevich wrote that one of great trends in this stage of the world economic system is the spread of megaregions through political and economic integration. The EEU considers its own project, Greater Eurasia, extremely important. Putin introduced the idea in December 2015 and mentioned ASEAN, the EEU, and the SCO in his Sochi declaration of May 2016 at the Russia-ASEAN summit. In June 2016 at the Petersburg international economic forum, he made the initiative more concrete, again suggesting that the EEU may become the center of integration. This is a vision of a network of regional organizations, national strategies, free trade zones, economic corridors, transport routes, and other transcontinental projects in the interest of peace, security, and prosperity. They should guarantee against interference from outside and the imposition of foreign models not welcome in these countries with clear rules of the road.

Notable, too, was the blow struck to the world economy by the pandemic, causing extra suffering to the “contact” sector, such as tourism, transport, and airlines as well as small and medium business. Yet besides the pandemic’s negative influence, the virus of trade wars has also hurt the world economy along with inadequate protectionism, unilateral sanctions, and unfair competition. Mutual trust has been lost. Barriers have become increasingly problematic. The solution is deepening regional economic integration, as Greater Eurasia alone would provide in a way to serve the interests of all participants on the basis of equality and mutual respect. States, business, and regions as a whole should seize this historical moment, as presaged at the SCO Dushanbe summit in September 2021.

On June 5, 2019 Russia and China declared a new epoch in their relationship, and China supported the advance of integrationist processes within the EEU and the initiative for the formation of the Greater Eurasian partnership, as Russia backed the BRI, and both promised to accelerate the docking of the EEU and BRI. The Dushanbe SCO declaration acknowledged the idea of creating the Greater Eurasian Partnership with the countries of the SCO, EEU, ASEAN, other interested states. India expressed its support orally in September 2020. Mongolia is in favor, as it boosts ties to the EEU and BRI. In October 2020 the joint Sino-EEU commission began to meet to boost cooperation. At the 6th EEF in September 2021 growing interest in Greater Eurasia was visible, albeit a long-term process to proceed over stages from simple to complex, while offering hope for a more just regional order. Voices heard at the EEF were from Moscow, not visions offered from other countries. The foundation they emphasized was politics and security and economic development with humanitarian ties. They stressed respect for national sovereignty, strong support for states, the traditional family, and traditional values. To hold back on joining is to risk one’s position in the march forward, the article concludes, while omitting evidence for why this Russian initiative will win much support.


Vzgliad on September 29 welcomed Kishida’s rise as prime minister with the message that Japan has a chance to correct its relations with Russia. Gevorg Mirzaian wrote that it could begin the return of Japan-Russia relations to a normal track. Not much can be expected of a Japanese prime minister, as a leader in another country, given the high level of consensus among various LDP factions needed to change policy, and Kishida is an unlikely choice to take big decisions such as to end the alliance with the US or to refrain from pretenses over Russia’s Kuriles. Abe took the maximally constructive position on the island question, seeking in talks a formula for minimizing the domestic political risk for Japanese authorities from recognizing the islands as Russian. He could not conceive of any shift on the Russian side, but he created a positive foundation for relations and prepared his electorate for concessions on the dispute for the sake of improving bilateral relations and limiting Russia’s shift to the side of China, given the inevitable, future conflict between Tokyo and Beijing. Japan’s rhetoric was aimed exclusively at domestic consumption, Moscow understood, and it valued Abe’s approach to dialogue and very warm ties to Putin. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs, thus, refrained from responding to all of Japan’s indignation, as, for instance, it reacts to Ukraine in regard to Crimea. Russia did not regard Japan as an unfriendly country, and on the lessons of WWII it concentrated on Nazi Germany without special mention of Japanese militarism. Some experts think the reason was a desire to make the “Turn to the East” to the East and not to China, and that this explains little strife over the Kurile question or corresponding Japanese illegal fishing in Russia’s economic zone or even the Japan-US alliance, which is seen as having a clearly anti-China character.

Everything changes after Abe departed and Suga did not support Abe’s tone on the islands. His approach was a sharp contrast. He did not meet Putin even once in almost a year and only once called. Moreover, he ignored the EEF, avoiding even a video appearance. Also, Japan did not welcome Russia’s proposal to establish a SEZ on the Kuriles, following Russian laws. In these circumstances, it is not surprising that Moscow, according to an anonymous voice, has taken a harsher line with Japan, e.g., publishing documents on Japan’s preparations for war against the Soviet Union from 1938 and even after the treaty reached in 1941, contradicting the Japanese side’s thesis on the USSR’s betrayal in 1945. Also, documents on the activities of Detachment 731 in its chemical and biological experiments on people, whose cruelty exceeded anything done by the Nazis in their concentration camps and went largely unpunished after the war. Soviets, too, were its victims. In Khabarovsk in September they were recalled, as Sergey Lavrov and Sergey Naryshkin appeared by video. Putin at the EEF blamed Tokyo for its constantly shifting position in the talks on concluding a peace treaty. This shows that Russia has no fewer historical pretenses toward Japan than the countries of East Asia. If it does not raise them, that is only for the sake of developing bilateral relations in a positive vein—if that is, indeed, what is taking place. If Tokyo does not want to remain isolated in East Asia, it should consider returning to a constructive relationship with Moscow. A new prime minister offers that opportunity, but there is little chance the change-adverse LDP will take it soon. The choice is to return to a constructive dialogue or to further damage bilateral relations.

North Korea

Andrei Lankov on October 28 for the Valdai Club wrote about the hermit kingdom, pointing to measures to restrict the flow of information out, reversing two decades of seepage. This has long been part of the playbook of the DPRK leadership as a means of regime preservation. The most mundane information is deemed secret, but the illegal flow of people from the country, the spread of cell phones with cameras and on the Chinese network, and the increase in foreign observers in North Korea including embassy personnel all allowed information to filter out. Kim Jong-un from the time he took office began to take measures to complicate the access of North Koreans to information about the outside world and to impede the outflow of information. Also in 2011-13, Chinese authorities, after insistent requests from Pyongyang made border crossings much harder and hunted down those who had crossed. Migration slowed in the 2010s to an even lower level in 2020-21, as seen in those who made it to South Korea. Controls tightened on those in Northeast China interested in North Korean affairs, including missionaries. From 2015-16, the amount and quality of information on life in the North dropped. NGOs are gone now, embassies are gone or barebones, much like the 1960s-70s. This pattern can long persist. China is prepared for unconditional support of the North, assuring minimal conditions without need for other states. Pyongyang has little need for international contacts. After the end of the pandemic, we can surmise that many of the new measures will remain.

Andrei Lankov on November 11 in Valdai Club focused also on the new North Korean term “Kimjongunism,” which now defines the official ideology of the country. Kim Jong-un was not willing to eternally remain in the shadow of his forbearers. Kim Il-sung in the 1970s made juche the term denoting his thought. Under his son the term spread of Kimilsungism coupled with Kimjongilism, albeit quite rarely and in closed publications, since it too openly clashed with Marxism-Leninism, which could complicate relations with socialist countries. Kim Jong-il added “songun”—army first—but not to replace juche. Kim Jong-un is going further to limit references to his grandfather and father in official documents, a sign he is less than favorably disposed to his father, as is known and as was reflected in early removal of his closest officials from their posts. Establishing himself as an ideologically independent figure is the message he is now conveying and substituting for the idea of juche. If this move may do some harm to his legitimacy; that is unlikely to be very great, concludes Lankov.

In Vzglyad on October 5, doubts were raised about how North Korea is acquiring its advanced military technology.  Similarities to Russian technology are cited. Many questions are raised about how it is possible for such detailed, complex weapons to be developed by a poor state. For example, the glider for hypersonic missiles requires construction materials and processes that seem to be well beyond the North’s capabilities, available only in Russia, China, and the US. A poor country with a weak economy totally cut off from exchanges of scientific-technological information through sanctions, whose rocket building level long was very low had suddenly and phenomenally over the past decade emerged in the forefront of world weaponry. Just five years ago its rockets were based on Soviet technology, at best of the 1960s. Where did this originate? Something may have come from Ukraine, but the rest? There are signs of leakage from the work of “Avangarde.” Some could have come from China. Alexander Timokhin asks. He wonders if there is some kind of Russian transfer operation at work for some sort of foreign policy objective. If not, it is time that Russian intelligence thinks about what is transpiring.  It may be that there is a basis, which Russia did not intend to give the North. Perhaps, it is worth looking for a leak or for solid proof that the source of the North Korean miracle is China, and not unsanctioned access to Russian developments. 


Iaroslav Shevchenko on October 20 in Moscow Carnegie Center discussed how the closing of China with absolute intolerance over the coronavirus affects relations with Russia. While the impact on strategic relations is not traumatic, accumulating problems are a symptom of a serious crisis. China’s measures allowed it to get through the extreme stage of the epidemic in only 1 ½ months and claim a big political victory, about which they persist in reminding people. To permit another big outbreak would be particularly problematic. Thus, Beijing is ready to keep its iron curtain for a long time and does not care how that affects even close partners such as Russia. Physical contacts with the outside world are almost completely ended, except for businessmen and citizens of 23 countries, including ASEAN, South Korea, Japan, India, and Belarus, but not Russia.  Americans may enter if vaccinated with one of their three approved vaccines. Local quarantines compound the problem of getting approval in Beijing. Airlines are penalized if cases are detected on their passengers, with suspension of operations for weeks or longer, as happened in a stretch in August to mid-September for Russian flights. Doubts about the Chinese vaccine’s effectiveness, exposed by the Delta variant, leave realizing collective immunity uncertain. Yet in the summer of 2021 the policy of zero tolerance was strongly defended, and the restrictions are expected to continue for at least the next year through both the Olympics and the party congress. Given the March 2023 government posts schedule, the article anticipates the closing of China lasting to the summer of 2023.

Despite warm bilateral relations, Russia was one of the first states to close its borders with China, and by the spring of 2020 China was closing to Russia, fearing infected Chinese trying to cross and responding with armed patrols. Trade continued with special measures to avoid contact with drivers, at times forcing them to wait on the Russian side of the border to recover their containers and to wait in line as long as a week to deliver their loads—resulting in strikes. Russia fully withdrew visa restrictions, but not China. Talks on mutual recognition of each other’s vaccines were halted, and even Russians who have been inoculated with a Chinese vaccine are not allowed to enter, unlike Belarussians. Complex restrictions have lowered interest in business and other contacts to a minimum. Even at the EEF in Vladivostok, just 20 or so Chinese were present, almost all of whom were Chinese company representatives in Russia.

A big loser has been the Russian Far East fishing business. When cases of the virus were found in Qingdao and Dalian after contacts with Russian fish, imports of pollock were embargoed, severely damaging this industry, two-thirds of whose exports have gone to China. There is no infrastructure to deal with the unsold fish. Protestations did no good. Some in Russia view this as an undeclared trade war, taking advantage of dependence on the Chinese market to win the right to fish in Russian waters. Yet overall trade fell in 2020 only by 3 percent and is on pace to rise by about 30 percent in 2021. Rising oil, gas, and coal prices are key.

Special arrangements allowed joint military exercises inside China, but there were not more than 500 Russian soldiers, all of whom were in quarantine before departing, while the Chinese soldiers faced quarantines before and after these exercises. Chinese did not go to Russia for its “Zapad” exercises. There is no prospect of China reopening the border soon, and it could be a long time. China’s new five-year plan prioritizes self-sufficiency with limited dependence on the outside. Even before the pandemic, human contacts and cross-border cooperation were not a strong point of the Russo-Chinese entente. Putin and Xi have not met in person since November 2019, but they had 8 declared exchanges in these two years. Scant personal and middle business ties have hardly any impact on relations.

On November 15 Andrei Kirillov in TASS wrote about China’s new plenum, saying that the order imposed under Deng Xiaoping is holding except for plans to end the ten-year term limit of the leader. This is an historic plenum as the 100th anniversary of the CCP is marked and a resolution is adopted celebrating “grandiose successes.” Close to the 2022 party congress, this plenum also draws more attention. It affirms Xi Jinping’s role as the “core” of the Central Committee and centralism. China faces difficult problems, but the article only briefly points to economic challenges and Taiwan without any sign of criticism of Xi’s policies.

In Zavtra on November 4 Chinese neosocialism was called a new spirit for a new era. The mutual destruction of Democratic and Republican ideological thinking has aggravated the problems of the country, and liberal capitalism is on its last legs although the US remains one of the great powers as its influence gradually fades. Two great ideas are on the rise: political Islam and Chinese neosocialism. Until very recent times Chinese have preferred not to praise the merits of their model, just calling it “socialism with Chinese characteristics.” Yet its successes have been so phenomenal, especially under Xi Jinping, that finally in 2021 it is being called a model for all of humanity. Xi quietly leads China on the designated course, but he does not avoid confrontations in ideology, trade, and defense. In his “community of common destiny” there is no offensive globalism or intention of hegemony. BRI has attracted more than 100 countries, offering an alternative to the West. Chinese do not want to take on themselves the burden of responsibility for the world’s problems.

Acting in the tradition of Sinocentrism, Beijing waits for others to realize the effectiveness of the Chinese model. In contrast to the US summit of democracies in December, Chinese are focused on the Olympics. Much of Asia shares a civilization with China and would accept not only a Confucian but an authoritarian-socialist model. This outlook mixed with “socialism with Chinese characteristics” facilitates the spread in East Asia of the “spirit of the times.” But globally there is a barrier to its spread, as in the West based on Christianity. There, Xi’s application of socialist theory applies. The flames of socialism burn in centers closed to outsiders and when the time is ripe will be loudly proclaimed. Rumors of the end of world socialism turned out to be greatly exaggerated. Neosocialism is celebrated in Vietnam, North Korea, and Laos, too, and socialism with national specifics can prevail in many parts of the world. Entrepreneurs can enter the Communist Party, but some proved to be critics of the leadership and are being put back in their place, as measures to boost social equality go forward. If one takes “Chinese characteristics” from the formula “socialism with Chinese characteristics” one is left with “socialism,” as in the case of “Russian neosocialism.”

In Zavtra Alexander Prokhanov asked if the world would fall under China’s control. Not long ago, China offered the world BRI linked to the “China Dream.” Now we know the China Dream opens the way for a new person for the Chinese and the world, not burdened with vices, complexes, and working for the well-being of all. In the past, the Soviet Union offered this model of a new humanity. China is striving to rid its information space of what are called harmful habits—all previous forms of behavior on earth. It coexists with the reviving great Islamic project, the Russian project, the European, and the American projects.  It is too early to say if China’s project will spread to all, but it is a grandiose task.

On November 3 Oleg Remyga in Forbes assessed China’s attacks on its own giant companies, noting the willingness of Chinese to share personal data—38 percent or the highest in the world, compared to Japan at 8 percent. Chinese technological giants effectively used this, each constructing around itself a powerful ecosystem embracing almost all aspects of life. The question under discussion in many countries is does this personal information belong to the state in the name of the people and not to private companies. The Chinese people and the leadership will both be pleased with the increased personal experience and convenience that is coming. Existing technological ecosystems were isolated from one another along with their data, which was not accessible to official organs, as monopolies formed within these systems. The pandemic exposed the inadequacy of this model of data management. The government had no choice but to act. Yet it is not in the interest of the authorities to suffocate the national technology champions. This sector has received colossal infrastructure support from the state through “Made in China-2025” and “Internet plus,” and it will be the driver of further economic growth in the country. Power belongs to the party and the people, a principle with which not one technological leader dares to argue, reckoning that the day could arrive when the state demands that these credits be repaid. So, Alibaba and others pay up fines without complaint.

Ivan Zuenko in Profil’ on October 2 wrote broadly about China’s nature, coming under the influence of an historical process both with a classical imperial period and a stormy “barracks communism” followed by boisterous economic growth leading to today’s nationalism. Attempts in the West to transfer to China the matric of America’s “new ethics” naturally fall flat. Zuenko proceeded to discuss attitudes toward homosexuality, blacks, women, and sexual harassment. Traditional attitudes clash or reinforce government policies. Policies have illegalized same-sex marriage, criminalizing it to 1997 and using electric shock therapy until recently. Yet historically and still, society is more nonchalant on this matter.

It is more complicated for blacks, notes Zuenko. There is no colonial or slave past, and Mao supported the struggle for civil rights in the US and young African states. Yet as ties expanded and Chinese cities, especially Guangzhou, drew communities from Africa, deeply hidden prejudices came to the surface. These communities were identified with drugs, prostitution, and infections as well as quarantine violations from the start of the pandemic. Over the past two years daily racism has been common.

The sole “new ethic” resonating in China is the rights of women, but this is complicated. They enjoy many rights, visible in successes in business and government, but there is male-centrism too. Women usually manage household finances. Similar to the “Weinstein effect” in the US are scandals exposed in China, dating back a decade in famous court cases. Yet once Xi Jinping was ready to turn from anti-corruption cases, violations of the boundaries of political activism were a greater concern than support for rights. Controlling a MeToo movement took precedence. Oral evidence did not suffice. The conservative, hierarchical nature of society was less critical than the opposition of the state, which demands control over almost everything. At times, it will use feminist rhetoric as to strike a blow against Alibaba in a sex scandal. Only the state will decide who gets fired, penalizing anyone deemed a political risk. Theis is not a sign of a “new ethic” but of a “new epoch” introduced under the governance of Xi Jinping.

On October 31 in Profil’ Zuenko reviewed China’s campaign against social inequality. The view from the top is that “great families’ got rich and acquired too much influence, not paying taxes in proportion to their wealth, undermining the fiscal base of the empire and becoming a reason for corruption and centrifugal forces on the periphery. Historically, the ideology of the Chinese state was to establish a homogeneous society, which paid the same taxes to the state. An “ideal totalitarian state” as created by Qin Shihuangdi remained a model of weak society and strong state, which Mao invoked in the 1950s-60s, leaving all similarly poor and with no rights. Although Deng reversed this in conditions of a humanitarian catastrophe, drawing on the Russian NEP to legalize enrichment at the “primary stage of socialism,” and an extreme Gini coefficient ensued, alarm over its impact on social stability and memories of another ideal left room for another approach than a country of sharp contrasts. There are many signs in 2021 of the beginning of a “new epoch.” The old recipe for the “Chinese miracle” no longer works, the economy is growing more slowly, and openness advanced by Deng is being replaced, using the epidemic as a pretext for a “closed” society. China no longer is so much in need of the outside world in terms of human contacts, and the crisis of globalization has lessened the salience of reactions from world society. The level of development of private capital has already exceeded that in in a capitalist state, undermining the ideological mantra of the “primary state of building socialism” and the legitimacy of CCP power.

Strengthening the state against the background of the struggle against the pandemic and new financial circumstances allow the CCP to revive the Cultural Revolution approach under the August 2021 Xi Jinping slogan “common prosperity” as the key demand of socialism. This means tight regulation of excessive income and demands on those with high incomes to return more to society. In October a widely circulated article on this subject filled with citations from Xi’s August speech was the beginning of a massive political campaign. Chinese are told that the market will no longer be paradise for the capitalists and the press no longer a place for a generation under the influence of Western culture. The goal, as in the Cultural Revolution, is to remake society. If the drive to reduce social inequality is worthy, the means under consideration are not about creating but destroying and compelling change. One impact has been massive flight from the country of high-paid professional soccer players. Authorities seek a society easy to manage, loyal, patriotic, and immune from foreign influence. Corporations are viewed as direct competitors with party-state influence. As in imperial times, the battle with the “great families” and for equalization so that all would be without rights before a powerful state is now under way, concludes Zuenko.

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