Country Report: Russia (September 2021)


Russian publications covered some important developments in the late summer of 2021. One was the death knell to eight years of Russo-Japanese exploration of a diplomatic breakthrough: a peace treaty and territorial demarcation. Having lost hope in a deal, Russia launched an initiative for countries to invest in the disputed islands, knowing it would anger Japan. The publications considered the prospect of sharp deterioration in this relationship, as a debate ensued over the 1956 agreement and whether Khrushchev betrayed the national interest. On the Korean Peninsula, Russian coverage expressed confidence that China had North Korea’s back—with supplies ready to flow as soon as pandemic restrictions were lifted—and that negotiations would resume with the US, unable to avoid an outcome favorable to the North and to a regional security dialogue. The issue is put in the historical context of truth about the Soviet role in WWII and of the confrontation between socialism and capitalism, which continues on the peninsula. As for commentaries on Afghanistan, Russian publications offered two contexts: that of a divided SCO whose leaders even avoided a meeting given their opposed thinking, and that of the Sino-US struggle in a new cold war, even if China remains wary of the Taliban and is less active than Russia.

China and Taiwan also figured heavily in other coverage. On the latter, two themes drew close scrutiny: the impact of the US departure from Afghanistan, which was not seen as signaling a lack of resolve on Taiwan as PRC sources argued, and the reverberations from Lithuania’s decision to upgrade ties to Taiwan, which led to Chinese sanctions. Coverage of China ranged from Xi’s July 7 speech affirming socialism to Russian applause, the effort to boost ideology and put Xi on par with Mao, a build-up of Chinese nuclear strike capacity challenging Russia’s unique status as a US competitor in the nuclear arena, and minority policy so far concentrated against Uighurs, which breaks with the Soviet-inspired approach and forcibly speeds assimilation with negative consequences.

Rossiya v Global’noi Politike on August 11 posted an exchange between Andrey Baklanov and Aleksandr Lukin on Japan. Baklanov appealed for a “principled position on relations with Japan,” insisting that a precondition for allowing it to participate in joint development of the four disputed islands should be a refusal by government, business, and public organizations from all claims to the possession of them. If the Japanese do not believe that the islands belong to Russia, why cooperate with them there? Linking the issue to the price Russia paid to win this territory in the victory over fascist Germany and militaristic Japan, he implied that Japan’s demands called into question Russia’s status, which determines its special role in international affairs. What Japan is doing is joining in the attacks by the West against what used to be the common view of victory in 1945, detracting from Russia’s contributions. This undercuts the foundation of the postwar world order.

In the talks Russia has been unclear about its position, referring to the joint declaration of 1956 that opens the possibility of returning two islands to Japan. This was a failed, personal step by Khrushchev in very unfavorable circumstances, as the Warsaw Pact came under pressure from opposition forces in Eastern Europe, manipulating the terms he had introduced at the party congress in February in an attack on Stalin that actually discredited the Soviet system. Problems with China and in the communist movement in Western Europe added to the troubles. In Moscow, Khrushchev was in trouble, too; against this background, he needed a quick, positive diplomatic outcome with Japan. If Japan were to get the four islands, it would only fuel pretensions for Sakhalin. Even allowing Japanese on the islands in some form of joint economic activity would be dangerous. The recommendation is to turn to South Korea and Vietnam for economic ties and make a clean break with softness to Japan.

Lukin responded on August 12. He faulted non-diplomatic language, such as “impudence in Tokyo,” and a simplistic approach to a complex issue without any constructive proposal. He faults the history of 1956 offered by Baklanov for its treatment of the state of Sino-Soviet relations, on the crisis of communism in Europe, and on the views of the “anti-party group” concerning Japan. Seemingly attacking the very concept of “peaceful coexistence,” which was sustained by the Soviet leadership even after Khrushchev’s ouster, Baklanov fails to note that the pursuit of better relations with Japan was supported by most Soviet leaders and diplomacy did not entail unilateral concessions but mutual compromises. The agreement used the word “transfer” not “return,” affirming Soviet ownership and excluding the possibility of revising the results of the war after a peace treaty was signed, in which Japan recognized them. Baklanov’s critique of those with a “reverent” attitude toward the document actually includes Lavrov and Putin. Lukin adds that the goal was to turn Japan into a neutral state, and it had a chance to succeed, but for US pressure. Such diplomacy is still needed now, he notes, to break the sanctions front. Finally, the July 2021 proposal of Prime Minister Mishustin for a free customs zone is not Japan’s idea but of interest to countries with tense ties to Japan, i.e., China and South Korea. Japan fiercely opposes it, and Russia is threatening that if Japan will not come on its terms, then countries competing with Japan will.

On July 30, Peter Akopov in RIA Novosti wrote about the rage of some Japanese politicians over Mishustin’s visit to the islands and his proposal, as well as the Russian Foreign Ministry’s counterprotest “in connection with the unfriendly steps of Tokyo in the context of Japan’s territorial claims.” Akopov acknowledges that Abe made a serious offer in the fall of 2018 to proceed on the basis of the 1956 declaration and sign a peace treaty first and only then see the transfer of two islands, while not abandoning claims to all four islands. Abe was clear that he would be satisfied with two. Yet, Abe lacked the power to realize this. Japan was not ready to recognize the results of WWII, to abandon its territorial claims against Russia, and to conclude a peace treaty. After his resignation his policy is recognized as wrong.  In these circumstances, Russia has tried a new approach to economic activity on the islands, exempting investors from taxes. However, Japan’s elite is not willing to abandon its pressure on Russia. Not only must Japan sign a peace treaty, it must issue a guarantee that the Japan-US security treaty does not apply to the islands before they can be transferred for use or joint control while maintaining Russian sovereignty. A precondition raised at the end of the article is for Japan to weaken its dependence on the United States.

On August 5 in, Valentina Shvartsman called the new Russian proposal “unique and unprecedented” to attract Japan to the economy of the Kuriles, but viewed Japan’s response as a rejection. Japan has earlier protested over the visit of Russian leaders to the islands, but this time it did so also to the plan for their development as if it contradicts the agreements between Abe and Putin. Since the pandemic struck, visa-free trips by Japanese to the graves of ancestors have paused, along with talks about the islands and a peace treaty. Increasingly, Japanese voice fear of the “military threat” from Russia caused by exercises on the Kuriles, and send planes to counter Russian planes. Suga lacks Abe’s reserve in responding to what Japanese call “provocations.” A pause in talks due to the pandemic and Abe’s retirement led to resignation that nothing had been achieved with Russia, and there is no path forward. Ties with a new president in the US are what matter. But the real cause of the impasse is that Japan insists on signing a peace treaty only after the transfer of the islands, which is the opposite of Russia’s approach. The end of negotiations is not a serious blow to Russia; it can get along fine without a peace treaty.  The current crisis in relations calls into question the economic ties and exchanges Abe pushed. Japan may introduce more severe sanctions against Russia and revert to closer ties with the US, but will try to avoid serious problems with Russia in order to concentrate on the main threats to Japan’s security.

Nataliya Portiakova in Izvestia on September 8 assessed the views of contenders for the LDP leadership regarding Russia, concluding that not a single candidate is inclined to actively develop relations. The current prime minister did not show up at the EEF, even virtually, and did not once meet with Russians directly in his year in office. Holding only one telephone conversation with the Russian leader. After being rattled by Russia’s new plan for the Southern Kuriles, Japanese are in no mood to discuss joint economic projects. It is assumed that Russia has closed the door, including with its amended constitution forbidding territorial concessions. No serious divide can be seen among the candidates on Russia. Kishida, who was foreign minister, announced that he considers it a mistake to have agreed to the hypothetical return of only two islands. If Kono Taro’s grandfather Kono Ichiro was a signer of the 1956 declaration, his education in the US and closeness to Washington dispels expectations. Portiakova sees no promise for this relationship. All blame is put on the Japanese.

Korean Peninsula
Carnegie Moscow carried an article by Andrei Lankov on July 23. It mentioned that prior to the pandemic there were about 25 foreign embassies in Pyongyang, but half have closed and others have only a minimal staff with little to do since officials do not meet with them. Trade closed to a nadir with China in February 2021. The quarantine has stopped fishing boats, too. Yet, given the North’s importance to China, it can count on the food aid needed to forestall a large-scale famine, as indicated by reports of stocks of food and essentials waiting on the Chinese side of the border as North Korea build disinfection points. Much of the article explains North Korea’s unique strategy to prevent the pandemic from spreading there.

Vladimir Kulagin on July 27 in wrote that North and South Korea that day restored direct communications after a year and agreed to restore confidence. He interviewed Andrei Lankov about what this means. Pyongyang’s view that Seoul did not keep its promises of 2018-19—for instance, to get the US to significantly ease sanctions—is mentioned. Despite talk about breaking off contacts, the two sides were negotiating in Singapore and Switzerland. Yet, the North aims to talk to the US, not so much South Korea, and is being friendly to get concessions on sanctions. And to boost the progressives in the face of the spring 2022 elections. Lankov adds that an online summit between Kim Jong-un and Moon Jae-in could be held soon to help the ruling party. While it is inevitable that a US president will recognize the North as a nuclear power, Biden cannot do this. The restraining force is China, which keeps the North afloat in return for restraint, but as much as Biden wants to forget about it, that will not last.

On July 27 Georgii Budychev also wrote about Korea in RSMD, 68 years after the end of military activities there. He calls it a conflict with the “communist world.” Then he points to the loss of the USSR for the DPRK as key turning point, driving it toward nuclear weapons as the strategic equalizer. Despite its growing ability to defend itself, the geopolitical triangle has not changed much—China’s power has risen after Russia’s had fallen. A balance of forces exists in Northeast Asia. The US has formed an anti-Chinese bloc with the Quad and is pulling in South Korea. Should the crisis in the DPRK persist, the North would be swallowed by the South with enormous geopolitical consequences for the US to advance to the Chinese border. This would deal a big blow to the multipolar world concept promoted by the PRC and Russia, and cause a huge “loss of face” for China. In the event of a crisis, China could take North Korea (or part of it) under China’s protection. The significance of Korea for the geopolitical mosaic is growing thanks to the bipolar clash between the US and China, in which Russia is a “support group” not excessively spending its resources in this area. The US had tried to get China to pressure the DPRK, but when that did not work, the US started using the Korean card against it.

On August 12, Alexander Zhebin wrote about how the two Koreas celebrate their August 15 liberation day, pointing to differences in their views of the role of the USSR. He asserts that the Red Army played a decisive role in the defeat of the Japanese Army on the territory of Manchuria and North Korea. Kim Jong-un sent a telegram to Putin, honoring the memory of the soldiers of the Red Army who died in “the sacred great cause of the liberation of Korea.” In contrast, South Koreans consider Americans their liberators and struggle with the legacy of collaboration, distorting or belittling the role of the Soviet Union in the defeat of Japan and liberation of Korea. Newspapers and politicians attack the historical truth, responding to the remarks of a leader of a small political party that the Soviet army came as a liberator and the US as occupiers. Claims that the Soviet Union only entered the war after it had turned into a defeat for Japan are denounced, asserting that only Soviet troops fought the Japanese on Korean territory.

Gleb Ivashentsov asked whether the Korean War end. He praised Trump’s diplomacy with Kim Jong-un, but adds that the deep state thwarted it. His recommendation is for “making practical progress,” but faults Biden’s strategy as more like “strategic patience 2.0” than equidistant between Obama and Trump’s approaches. Further he insists that China will not “surrender” the DPRK due to the geopolitical damage that would cause, including China’s loss of a buffer. Dialogue with China on this is illusory for the US; China is openly resisting putting pressure on the DPRK and not zealously enforcing sanctions. Chinese high-level dialogue with Kim Jong-un resumed in 2018; the two coordinate their positions and China exerts some restraining influence while aiming to maintain its stability. Operating on two tracks—nuclear disarmament and security guarantees—China calls for “phased and synchronized” action on denuclearization. Given North Korean determination to find a balance between Beijing and Washington, in order to extract dividends from both as it did from Moscow and Beijing during the Cold War, the US will have to find a formula for coexistence, which could be met with strong Chinese opposition. The current situation is in the interest of both China and Russia. The idea is now floating in Washington for arms control on the peninsula. Ivashentsov suggests that Russia should take the role of organizer in the Six-Party Talks framework and help forge a regional security framework.

On September 14, Victoriia Panifilova pointed to different attitudes toward the Afghan problem within the SCO, leaving doubt any collective response at the CSTO and SCO summits on September 16-17 in Tajikistan. Xi Jinping and Narendra Modi decided to participate on line in order, it is said, not to create a conflict since their positions are diametrically opposed. Given this, Putin also chose to be online. The new president of Iran will attend in person as his state is finally admitted as the ninth member. This will generate new arguments against the West, readers are told. Iran, like Russia, is not satisfied with the Taliban’s actions. In contrast, China, Pakistan, and Kazakhstan agree. No explanation is offered for the impact these divisions will have on the SCO, which was supposed to provide a framework for managing its challenges among others.

On September 1, Vasilii Kashin in Rossiya v Global’noi Politike also turned to Afghanistan in the context of Sino-US relations. He noted that the US “war on terror” had positive consequences for China, postponing confrontation with the US and easing the struggle in Xinjiang with political Islam and separatism. After reconsidering investment projects by 2017 due to corruption, war, and the lack of infrastructure, the Chinese had intensified contacts with the Taliban and supported Tajik armed forces. Extremely pessimistic about US prospects there, China was not surprised by the outcome. It prepared by expanding ties to Russia and others in the SCO, partly through its Peace Mission exercises. It also supplied more weapons from the mid-2010s to Central Asian states, while preparing for the return of a haven of terrorists and separatists. Kashin finds that China’s diplomacy is comparable to Russia’s and probably in close coordination, if less active. It has received assurances that Afghanistan will not be used against it. Its projects cannot restart until conditions improve. Diplomatic recognition is likely to be in coordination with Russia, Pakistan, and Iran. Its political goals for now are limited to security, and its diplomacy will remain more limited than Russia’s until opportunities open.

On August 8 in Nezavisimaya Gazeta, Vladimir Skosyrev discussed the impact of the US abandonment of Afghanistan on Taiwan. Disagreeing with Chinese propaganda that claims the US will again abandon a partner at a critical time, he argues that it cannot afford a second humiliation. If China acts, the US will intervene. The situations are different since the US did not need Afghanistan and no global competitor of the US was involved or likely to take the place of the US. In Taiwan the main US rival is involved, and it will defend Taiwan with great zeal.

On August 12 in the same newspaper Skosyrev returned to the subject of Taiwan, noting the decision of Lithuania to establish a de facto embassy there and the response from China. Calling Lithuania the most anti-Russian country in Europe, Chinese media said Russia should join China in punishing the country and that its decision was only to serve the US. China’s core interests are involved, and this should serve as a new link in Russian-Chinese strategic cooperation. After the article reports that Lithuania says it still recognizes Taiwan as part of China, it asserts that Russia has no means to influence the country. It concludes that the US now is expanding ties to Taiwan, and Lithuania decided to move into the lead.

In Vzgliad on September 1, Mikhail Kuvyrko described how China employs economic sanctions on states that dare to challenge it on fundamental issues, pointing to the new decision by a Chinese railway company to cancel direct container trains to Vilnius following Lithuania’s decision to open a diplomatic mission of Taiwan in its country. The US responded to show its solidarity with Lithuania as did the leading European powers, a sign of worsening relations with the EU with sanctions over the situation in Xinjiang, refusal to ratify the investment agreement reached in December, and condemnations of cyberattacks in July. Chinese importers are refusing Lithuanian timber and food products. The article reports the view that the economic break under way with China contradicts the interests of Europe, given the irreplaceability of Chinese exports for greening of the economy. Europe will not be able to play an autonomous role in this transition or in new technologies. The case of Australia calling for an investigation into the causes of the epidemic, opposing Hong Kong’s national security law, and banning Huawei, leading to Chinese sanctions, was also raised. The message is clear: beware crossing China or you can expect severe punishment.

On August 2 in Nezavisimaya Gazeta, Yuri Tavrovsky declared that China is no longer afraid of the US, and humanity has entered a new round of the competition between capitalism and socialism.  He noted that at the 100th anniversary CCP celebrations, Xi Jinping declared that "socialism with Chinese characteristics" is not only "a new model of China’s modernization", but also "a new form of human civilization." After countering on the economic and military-political fronts of the Cold War, Beijing responded on the ideological front, now the most important for Washington, Tavrovsky said, equating this to the clash between socialism and capitalism of old. The Democratic Party weighs ideological dominance heavily, but it has a formidable rival as the interest in the Chinese model spreads. Attacks on the Communist Party are equal to attacks on China itself, readers are told. Now China is ready to share its experience with other countries. The article concludes that humanity has entered a new, final round in the competition between the capitalist and socialist systems. Clearly, China is seen as the standard bearer after the USSR.

On September 1 in Nezavisimaya Gazeta, Vladimir Skosyrev wrote about the purges under way in advance of the CCP plenum this fall with a new resolution on history. Mao founded the new China, Deng made it prosperous, and Xi is the leader who made the party and country strong. A cult of personality is unfolding. Propaganda puts Xi on par with Mao. On September 6 in the same newspaper, Skosyrev described Chinese businessmen as afraid of a new “cultural revolution.”  Citing one article predicting the end of huge fortunes, he mentions the beginning of a “red era” as under Mao, alarming to entrepreneurs and intellectuals. Quoting from Li Guangman’s article about monumental change taking place, he describes a campaign seen through the lens of national security from November 2020, to reaffirm revolutionary ideals and withstand pressure from the West. Officially, China still is in the initial stage of socialism, but Xi may think that the transition period must end and advance toward communism, while an internal discussion or struggle wrestles with this.

On July 28, Kommersant asked how China’s sharp build-up of its nuclear arsenal affects Russia, which will lose its exclusive status as the only power capable of opposing the US on equal footing in nuclear weapons. This means a completely new geopolitical configuration. In Novaya Gazeta on July 30, Alexei Arbatov warned that in a decade we will awaken to a different world, emerging from trilateral arms race already under way. In a war, the Chinese missiles would fly over Russian territory. China’s build-up puts strict limits on agreements the US and Russia can reach. Russia would not be left on the sidelines.

On August 10 Fedor Lukyanov responded to Kupchan’s article in Foreign Affairs, saying Russia does not need matchmakers in answer to the call for the US to help it “dissolve an unsuccessful marriage.” In Rossiiskaya Gazeta, he argued that Biden made Trump’s course of containing China more consistent, rallying allies, recreating the “collective West” on the Cold War model, and on opposing a “collective East” in an ideological conflict. But this is based on the premise that, sooner or later, Russia and China will come into conflict. Kupchan disagrees, rejecting an ideological approach and taking Russia as it is with a promise to help it modernize its resource-based economy. While he is correct in charging that China is fraught with excessive arrogance, he misjudges the level of mistrust between Russia and the US and the fact that China is not guided by systemic opposition to Russia, but to the US. Lukyanov sees no rationality in Russia acting as Kupchan advises, but he concludes by saying for the dissolution of a marriage, Russia does not need outside matchmakers, leaving open how Russia should behave.

For Carnegie Moscow on August 25, Yaroslav Shevshenko analyzed China’s minority policies and its intention to spur assimilation voluntarily or, if need be, through ruthless measures. If accusations of genocide in Xinjiang and Tibet are not always supported by fact, it is clear that Xi has revised nationality policy, which had been based on the USSR experience. Recalling the collapse of the Soviet Union, intellectuals had called for abandoning that approach after the wave of violence in 2008-09. Although the nationality issue was much less severe in China than in the USSR, Chinese leaders who were ready to borrow heavily from the Soviets did so on this issue. They allowed local cultures to advance except for the leftist era of the 1960s-70s, including privileges for the minorities, although socio-economic indicators showed they were behind the Han.  After the disturbances of 2008-09, Chinese criticized the government for wasting resources and warned of the fate of Yugoslavia and the USSR. An appeal in 2011 to pursue integration was taken as a warning to avoid the Soviet debacle and switch to a “melting pot” approach to form a single “Zhonghua minzu.”

The outcry became the ideological base for Xi’s new course after the 50 or so cases of mass inter-ethnic violence of 2013-14. Rather than abolish the geographical units and system inherited from the past, other measures were chosen to socialize people to love the Chinese nation, including stringent language policies. In Xinjiang, the new epoch meant force to wipe out Uighur identity. Totalitarian methods were chosen through mass security crackdowns and “reeducation camps.” At a minimum, two million people suffered from mass repression. In China they report that these measures serve to integrate Uighurs into the national labor market. Fertility is controlled, too; expectations are that in 20 years their total will fall at least by a quarter. News of forced sterilization has led the US to call this genocide and impose sanctions. Forced assimilation will not stop and may be applied to other regions such as Tibet.

The article concludes that assimilation of small minorities is inevitable, but the Soviet model halted this process. Thanks to the urbanization of China, it is clear that cultural and linguistic merging cannot be stopped. Thus, this trend is not just the personal preference of Xi as the united opinion of the party hierarchy, intellectuals, and Chinese society. They seek voluntary integration into the Han ethos, but the state machine reacts ruthlessly if there are obstacles. Before long, there will be no Uighur community left. Yet, there was really no danger of “Chechenization” in Xinjiang. There was no national elite, and the Party has penetrated society, leaving Uighur extremism as only episodic. Thus, Beijing’s response seems excessive and can only deepen Uighur hatred of the Han Chinese.

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