Country Report: Russia (November 2022)
At war in Europe, Russia sees Asia in a new light. The mainstream has grown more dominant, and dissent, if that word were used liberally, has narrowed much further. Attention to China overwhelms other themes. Does that mean that debate has disappeared entirely on themes associated with the “Turn to the East?” No—there still is an indirect debate under way between the mainstream, pro-China optimists, who see a chance for a knock-out blow against others as “pro-American,” and those struggling to convey concerns about China and argue for realism in opposition to urgent calls to forge a new world order with China and the SCO, as if in reach.
The mainstream has doubled down on China. To doubt it is now equated with putting Russia in jeopardy. Praise for the SCO has reached extraordinary levels. It is foremost in the assertions that a new world order is rapidly emerging. North Korean missile launches draw no greater concern than South Korean and US military exercises. A bipolar lens is fully in view in Russian writings on the Asia-Pacific. In the shadow of the Ukraine war, oft unmentioned, Russia is proceeding with its “Turn to the East” full speed ahead is the mainstream message.
An alternative reality is also present to the anger of the mainstream. It sees China in a quite different light. Rather than continuing its charge forward, China has growing troubles, even to the point of being equated with the late Brezhnev era, at least for its gerontocracy. Likewise, instead of sharing Russia’s enthusiasm for abandoning the old world order and plunging into a new one, China is largely operating within the existing order and intends to hold is ground. In this skeptical outlook on Russia’s designs for radical change, the SCO is recognized as diverse with no prospects for acquiring a transformative role in the near future. The alternative logic is left vague, and its implications are not spelled out, but hardliners express hostility to its views.
RIA Novosti on September 16 asserted that the SCO summit had agreed on the “end of the dictate of the dollar.” Putin declared that Turkey would begin, at the earliest time possible, to pay 25 percent of the cost of gas in rubles. Soon, Gazprom will complete work on the details of the project for a gas pipeline through Mongolia to China. The role of the SCO is growing, not only due to acceptance of new members, gaining involvement in the Persian Gulf. It has become an alternative to the collective West. It affirms Russia’s claim of a new, multipolar world.
On September 19 an article in MKRU celebrated the triumph of the SCO summit, treating it as a blow to American hegemony. The SCO has expanded in size and in its role in the world. Nothing is said about reactions to the Ukraine war, widely covered in the West. Instead, Putin is credited with leadership, along with Xi Jinping, in transforming an organization originally established to deal mainly with security in Central Asia, the “heart” of the planet, into a formidable influence across Eurasia, now encompassing 60 percent of mankind, a quarter of the world’s GDP, and four nuclear powers, when NATO has three. Biden’s new IPEF with 12 countries of the region is unlikely to realize its goals, just adding one more trade and economic organization to the many in existence. Iran has just joined the SCO, which is of critical significance. Numerous countries stand in line to gain one or another status associated with the SCO, distancing themselves from the US. South Africa and Brazil from the BRICS may join. These changes could make the SCO a global political and geoeconomics structure of the 21st century if new clarity is given to the main direction of the organization’s development. Proposals have been aired, but all decisions must be unanimous. The article insists that key decisions will have to be taken, sooner or later, first of all on the military component of the SCO in facing rising pressure from the US and its bases. A second decision must deal with trade and finances, against the hegemony of the dollar and “sanction wars” against such countries as Russia, Iran, and Kazakhstan. The author, Iury Tavrovsky, proceeded in October to write more articles in the same source along similar lines.
On October 3, Tavrovsky focused on American blogs spreading baseless rumors about China, as if some Communist Youth League group had been planning to unseat him. He accuses political scientists who know little about Chinese affairs. Another target for him is Russians who repeat such disinformation, playing into the West’s main goal of driving a wedge between China and Russia to avoid a two-front confrontation. Tavrovsky asserted that China is actually an ally; to harm it means to harm Russia. In his October 17 article he unequivocally praised the 20th Party Congress. On October 24, he argued that the decisions of the 20th Party Congress have great significance for Russia. The stability and power of Russia’s strategic partner are more useful than ever at a time of military action in Ukraine. Russia needs a strong China, and China needs a strong Russia. Temporary difficulties on the front drew incomprehension from the Chinese blog sphere, considering Russia a military power, but this did not impact actual Chinese policy.
Tavrovsky also wrote on October 24 that when Obama went to Beijing in 2009 he proposed a G2 to Hu Jintao—Chimerica. The US would continue to be in charge, leaving China a “loving wife” to fulfill its duties in world affairs. China firmly rejected the offer. “Socialism with Chinese characteristics” is working like clockwork, even more so with Xi Jinping’s “dual circulation” reliant on increased domestic demand. The remaining prejudice of disbelief in Russia has been minimized. Relations between Beijing and Moscow have entered a new era; China remains Russia’s reliable strategic partner against the West on the front lines of the “Cold War.”
On September 1 Ivan Zuenko in Rossiya v Global’noi Politike wrote that the main contradiction of this stage is between the Euro-Atlantic powers intent on maintaining their organizing role in the world order and the leaders outside the West, who quarrel with this. Events since February 24 must be put in historical context, at a minimum covering eight years since Yanukovich was overthrown and better yet the entire period since the disappearance of the bipolar structure of the Cold War. China is one of the key actors in this new “Great Game.” Conflict is closely tied to the clash of China and the US, preconditions for which were building in the 1990s to 2010s and came into the open with Trump’s trade war from 2018. Without China’s benign neutrality toward Russia’s special military operation and continued purchase of Russian goods, February 24 would not have continued. The way events have unfolded was not desirable for China and did not suit its interests. Only the US is the winner now, the real cause of the war. The disbalance to global stability allows the US to establish new rules with its allies and to strengthen its world primacy.
The consolidation of the collective West based on the “opposition between democracy and authoritarianism” (good versus evil) damages China’s interests. It severs the path to normalization of relations with the US, beneficial to China for economic reasons, and narrows possibilities for maneuvering in Europe. China was forced over the past five years to prepare for some sort of war, but it does not feel ready in this compressed timetable. Confidence that time is on its side means it seeks to hold to a neutral position as long as possible. Yet, NATO has shifted to the indivisibility of security in the Euro-Atlantic and the Indo-Pacific. Chinese are puzzled, saying they did nothing to provoke military and political pressure and they do not want a new cold war and are not prepared to be what the USSR was for NATO. Disappointment has risen too over the failed promise of the BRI. This is not an image of China thirsting to confront the West.
The US does not make a distinction between Russia and China as an axis of authoritarianism, despite the Chinese long hoping to be treated differently. Part of the Chinese establishment considers the problem to be that Russia crossed a “red line,” which China would not do. Now it is clear that any clear-cut or unchanging “red lines” do not exist. China starts from the realization that the ultimate goal of Washington is China’s overthrow. It can only wait, putting off the moment of the final split while strengthening relations with Russia and rebuilding its economy and increasing its military and political potential. It can boost the line to India and ties to Africa and the Middle East., while looking favorably on widening the SCO and BRICS. Taiwan, as Ukraine, is a means to apply pressure, without regard to Taiwan’s wellbeing in a conflict part of the “Great Game.”
Aleksandr Lomsanov, Ivan Zuenko, and former Korean ambassador Wi Sung-lac in Rossiya v Global’noi Politike exchanged views on international politics. The main message of Lomsanov was that the US does not intend to share the fate of the globe with the PRC, while China’s mission is to create a more just and equitable international order. Zuenko argued that “wolf-warrior” diplomacy is aroused by the popularity of chauvinist emotions and attempts to copy US politician’s behavior on the international arena. Reflecting the failure of its “soft power” and the idea that what you do is not important but how you portray it is. This type of diplomacy is not already dominant, as a process unfolds of forging a new style in place of hiding one’s strength. Lomanov argued that international propaganda and media prior to Xi Jinping held that “China is weak, the West is strong.” Hu Jintao played to the West with “soft power,” Xi fights for global “discursive power,” caused by the deepening confrontation with the West and the desire to give a symmetrical answer to external information pressure. The West ignores its own responsibility, provoking China, e.g., publicly declaring that its actions in Xinjiang, Hong Kong, and Taiwan “threaten the basis for the rule of law” and, therefore, are “not an internal matter for China.” “Wolf warrior” responses are inevitable. This pattern was seen in Chinese accusations about the US origin of the pandemic after the US charge that it started in a Wuhan lab. If the US were to soften the tone of its anti-Chinese rhetoric, Chinese diplomats would do likewise. The US has many outlets for polemics, China has diplomats, concluded Lomanov.
Igor’ Denisov in the October 16 Vedemosti praised Xi Jinping, citing a record of resolving problems others had not been able to do and his party congress reference to contradictions piling up that he addresses. Now one waits to know how Beijing will react to the chaotic world system and the intensified confrontation with the US. The latest political documents contain only a minimum of concrete information on China’s global rise ahead, Denisov makes clear.
Vladimir Petrovskii on Oct 26 in Mezhdunarodnaya Zhizn’ described China after the 20th Congress as a new approach to a new era. Stressing the more negative policies toward China in the US and also the EU, under enormous US pressure, leaving them no alternative. Petrovskii sees China firmly upholding its red lines. Its willingness to compromise will depend on the actions of Western partners, which in recent years have made anti-Chinese sanctions harsher.
Aleksandr Lukin in Nezavisimaya Gazeta on October 27 asked why China is threatened with a gerontocracy of the late-Soviet type. The 20th Congress contrasted with the 1956 20th Congress in Moscow and was more a reminder of the late-Brezhnev 24th and 25th congresses. Much of Deng Xiaoping’s architecture was undone as strong-man rule was solidified and the older generation did not give way to a 7th generation. The Politburo was chosen for personal loyalty not age distinctions, paving the way to the gerontocracy of late-Brezhnev years. The current leaders have decided that future deviations from socialism threaten as in the Guomindang days, and centralization with one all-powerful leader is the right response. A decisive battle has begun against the influence of oligarchs as well as corruption and all non-state influences and doubters. Lukin notes the view of pessimists that reliance on ideology at the cost of the economy is reminiscent of Mao’s time and could lead to similar economic chaos. The fight against the biggest corporations and internet-businessmen will stop development and reduce China’s popularity in the world, arousing antagonism in its main economic partners. Innovation will end. Is all of this good for Russia? I assume, at present, it is okay. The course of friendly support for Russia, not at the expense of Chinese interests, will continue. Whether this is good for the great nation of China it itself must decide. This wary analysis is not the mainstream.
In ViznesOnline on October 24 Tavrovsky focused on how Xi diverges from Deng, becoming redder. In 2021 Xi declared that China had created a new model for the development of humanity, “socialism with Chinese characteristics.” It cannot be copies; national specifics matter. The rich are secure with no fear of expropriation, but redistribution in consideration of socialist principles is occurring. Deng’s orientation toward Western markets led China one way, and Xi, on the contrary, is reducing dependence on foreign markets as the percentage of GDP from foreign trade falls from 38 to below 15%. Deng in many ways blessed corruption, but Xi hunts for tigers and flies, significantly raising morale. Tavrovsky sharply contrasts Deng’s skepticism toward Russia, recalling in 1989 1.5 million sq. km. seized from China, with Xi’s inheritance of a strategic partnership with Russia, which had existed under Mao, adding new substance and greatly strengthening relations. Now the two are two fronts in a world cold war, carried out against them by the US. On the Western front fighting has already begun. On the Eastern one Americans hope that fighting will start soon. The PLA, which runs China along with the party, is very anti-American and will not tolerate support for the enemy. Unfortunately, mass media in Russia is under pro-American authorities, who often get China wrong. Even in our leadership there are no China specialists, just American and European specialists. It would be wrong to conclude that the Chinese leadership is unstable or that there is a struggle there or that it is unnecessary to strengthen ties with it. All of this misinformation is occurring as Russia is at war with the US. The pro-Western experts call Li Kejiang the leader of the Komsomol faction, of a pro-American part of the leadership. In China, there is not the breadth of views found in Russia, which has pro-American oligarchs, journalists, politicians, who are feeling fine even in conditions of the country’s war with America in Ukraine. If the interests of China and Russia were to diverge, Xi would correct his policies. Pro-American feelings exist in maritime provinces, whose economies are tied to markets in the US. Today a situation exists, where either the US will run the world or China will. Neither can give ground. To do so is to be like Germany or Japan, one of the wives in a harem and not the main one.
Xi Jinping is not pro-Russian. He pursues the national interests of the PRC, which, at this stage in history, are very close to or even correspond to Russia’s. If the West will tighten its pressure on the Western and Eastern fronts, it is not excluded that Russia and China will form a single front. Unfortunately, in economics, they are not equal partners. However, in military opposition to the West they are real strategic partners, even having alliance relations when Russian strategic bombers fly as one toward US bases in Japan and our warships join in circuits along the shores of South Korea and Japan, where there are US bases. China attracts a significant share of the West’s military potential. It is difficult to imagine how the Ukrainian front would look if there were no China. Then the US and NATO would throw all their forces into the Ukraine front, fighting with their own forces. The Russian budget would be in bad shape without Chinese purchases, and imports would be scarce, including those from concealed pathways. China is doing all it can as a strategic partner. If the West had serious successes on the Western front, China could reconsider its current positive neutrality toward Russia. Xi rejects Deng’s dancing to the tune of the West. If slowed by sanctions, China will still overtake the West very soon—in the 2030s. Socialism will be born again, thanks to China. America’s army will not fight on the side of Taiwan. Aircraft carriers will exercise with Japanese and South Koreans, but the US is a paper tiger, losing wars since the Korean War and will lose in Taiwan, to the point it will give up without a fight. A new world order is forming with the SCO, BRICS, and other organizations, as well as trade blocs China is forming. The process is unstoppable. A multipolar world has already been established.
Olga Bandysheva on October 14 in Biznes interviewed Lukin, who was reported as saying that most of China’s population is quite satisfied, and the leadership is declaring the China Dream has been realized; people feel proud of their country and need not to yield to any other. Yet, the pandemic and worsening relations with the West now have an impact. Ties to Russia continue what is already a thirty-year course of improvement, which will persist. Russia is seen as a strong country with advanced weapons, including nuclear ones, which are really useful from the Chinese point of view. If it were to weaken or fall under the influence of the West, China would be left practically one-to-one with it. There is, however, some concern about Russian policy of late, as Putin noted when meeting Xi in Samarkand. The personal relations of leaders of a country do not matter; all depends on interests. Especially now when Russia has many unfriendly countries and few friendly ones, among which China is the main one. China strongly adheres to the principle of territorial integrity. Moreover, it considers itself the leader of the South, developing countries in Africa, Latin America, and Asia, many of which have similar problems. China is for non-interference in the internal affairs of other states and peaceful resolution of problems. Since the end of the 1970s it has not gone to war. In this respect, it has still not changed Deng’s policy. Over that time, it has avoided involvement in international conflicts. Thus, when the leaders met, Chinese said that the West provoked Russia but it would be good to finish the matter with peace. China is ten times Russia in population and owes Russia nothing. It should not correct Russia’s mistakes or help it at a loss. They recall how the Soviet Union wasted money in support of others and China in the 1960s-70s did so on revolutionary movements. China specialists need to understand China’s interests. We need to join the interests of both states, which would give a firm foundation to cooperation. Now, for example, China buys Russian oil at a large discount to the benefit of both sides. Some say that China is taking advantage, as if it should pay more than the going rate. We must not listen to those who would risk China’s extremely necessary cooperation.
The SCO and BRICS are very attractive organizations, adding new members, but they are still quite young and have a complicated time carrying out real activities. China’s position consists of not undermining the existing world order, in which it and other non-Western countries are quite well represented, as in the G20 or World Bank. China’s rise, corresponding to its status as the second economy, is considered in the West as undermining its influence. Yet, China gains a lot from the existing division of labor and supports free trade, while the West has turned to protectionism and sanctions, fearing they are losing the economic competition. Until not long ago, Russia was in China’s position. Now it is fundamentally against playing by Western rules. What matters is that the role of the West is objectively declining, as other countries such as India rise. Some conflict is inevitable. Sino-US relations are a cold war, still dealing with each other as the USSR and the West traded in the past. Yet China’s leading trading partners are the US, Japan, South Korea. This is a complex system, not the mainstream stance.
In interviews of Aleksei Borodavkin and Aleksandr Sternik in Mezhdunarodnaya Zhizn’ on Russo-Kazakh relations regrets were noted about events in recent years, such as not marking sacred events in bilateral history. Memories are being distorted is the clear message. It is said that the two nations are united not only by economics and security but also by culture and human contacts, achievements that must be treasured “in any weather.” This piece hints at the tensions now building between Russia and the largest Central Asian state, Kazakhstan.
Oleg Kirianov in RGRU on November 10 wrote about the increasingly tense situation in recent weeks on the Korean Peninsula. The US and South Korea on one side and the DPRK on the other are out of hand, insisting that only the other side is disturbing the peace. Now the situation is aggravated by other factors that could provoke serious conflict The North seeks to demonstrate to the US, South Korea, and Japan that a blow can be struck suddenly anywhere; neutralizing it would be very difficult. Among the tense moments was the rocket firing on November 2, landing 170 km from a South Korean island after sirens were heard in the country. Trying to explain “who started it” is useless and depends on one’s political preference. Allies of late have conducted drill on such a scale that the North should feel “very uncomfortable.” Journalists have given little attention to the launch by Seoul of its first intermediate range rocket. To get at the truth one has dig far back in history, only leading to blame on both sides. All of this unfolds against the background of sharply aggravated relations of the US and West with Russia and China. The possibility of restraining one’s partner now look like a good chance to gain the advantage on another front. Korea balanced on the edge of armed conflict in 1994 and 2017. We are moving into the third such “round.” The desire of some countries to show that they are “principled” and the general instability in the world could turn the peninsula into a “hot spot.” China and Russia will not allow sanctions through the UN, South Korea may go nuclear, and the North understands it can threaten with super-powerful countermeasures all who pressure it.
In Lenta.ru on November 13 attention was drawn to the emerging alliance of the US, Japan, and South Korea by Andrei Kortunov, who referred to tests by North Korea as a response to the joint military exercises of South Korea and the US. The article cites Pyongyang’s view that the escalation cycle was begun by the West. For a long time, Seoul has avoided the trilateral format, but great pressure is being applied by Washington. The China factor is very important too for Seoul and Tokyo, stimulating their military-political cooperation, readers are told.