Country Report: Russia (March 2020)

Russians agree that this is a period of transformation, but there are differences regarding the nature of the changes. Essentially, three schools of thought can be discerned in recent articles. The variables differentiating them are not always fully apparent, but we can assume that three matter most: 1) attitudes toward the authoritarian and censorship drift inside Russia, as Putin has the Constitution amended to allow himself two more terms as president; 2) attitudes on the US and the West, whether regarding economics, politics, or civilizations; and 3) attitudes toward China and Sino-Russian relations at a time of economic slowdown and human rights violations on an unprecedented scale since the 1970s. Into the mix the COVID-19 pandemic is lately impacting perceptions along with its economic reverberations and the collapse in oil prices. We begin below with the least visible school, the advocates of an abrupt change of course. We turn next to the most prevalent school, insistent that Russia’s time has come as one of three great powers able to exert power quite autonomously of China. Finally, we focus on a lively school calling from doubling down on Sino-Russian relations in pursuit of an alliance.

The first months of 2020 had the potential to be transformative for Russian thinking about great power relations, economic prospects for an oil-driven economy, and even a sense of Russia’s prospects in the international order as it enters a new era. There are hints about Russian responses, but they are not well reflected yet in a fast-changing environment. Some expect Russia to double down on China, although it closed its borders quickly to Chinese to stop the spread of the virus, amid some early comments suggested that the outbreak was a sign of failures in China, such as those in Chernobyl in 1986. Most expect Russia to use the occasion to intensify criticism of the West. The question remains if Russia can stay confident that it belongs in the top troika with the US and China and that it is sufficiently strong to hold its own without undue dependence on China despite a huge drop in revenue. There is much talk in Russia that a new era is dawning, but mostly that means an acceleration of long-anticipated multipolarity as the US decline accelerates and Russia proves its mettle as a partner China really needs.

A change of course

Those who anticipated trouble for Sino-Russian relations cited the closure to Chinese arrivals, the mandatory two-week quarantine on Chinese who did enter including raids on hotels, dorms, apartment buildings, and businesses, followed by court verdicts against some who were found to have violated those (even if one article in Kommersant’ reported charges that there were students and others lured by police officers). Others pointed to disinformation from Russia and from links to pro-Kremlin sources, finding them reinforcing Chinese disinformation blaming the US. Nowhere was there direct criticism of Putin, Xi Jinping, and the bilateral relationship.

On March 6 in Kommersant’ Aleksandr Gabuev wrote about the influence of the coronavirus on Chinese industry. Russian firms dependent on Chinese components have great interest in this. Many of the key producers of micro-electronics are located in Wuhan and its vicinity. Prices are rising, and relocation of suppliers cannot be done quickly, while suppliers in other countries are overcommitted for months. Chinese suppliers predominate. Thus, the consequences can be very serious for purchasers and for China itself over the long run. Many companies in light of the tensions between Beijing and Washington had already been considering a reorganization of their supply networks, and now they are ready to move from words to actions, says Gabuev. On February 7 in the same newspaper, Gabuev wrote that we should be prepared for things to get worse from the economic impact of the coronavirus around the world, doubting more hopeful prognoses. Nothing is said about the reverberations in Russia. Yet the view that China is not just a continuously rising juggernaut could be interpreted as a call for rethinking.

Konstantin Eggert on in January asked why Russia is silent on the main threat to it, citing the epidemic as one more unpleasant surprise to the world from supposedly stable and rich China. He warns that there is almost no discussion in Russia about the threat from China’s regime. Eggert proceeds to mention “camps for reeducation” for national minorities and prison for dissidents, including for a Nobel laureate. The Russian leadership, long consumed with hatred of America, had begun to look with envy on China from the end of the nineties and, influenced by Primakov, to embrace the geopolitical fantasy of a troika of Moscow, Delhi, and Beijing. Readers are told that the declaration of multipolarity was one of the main foreign policy mistakes of Yeltsin. It led Putin to continuously draw closer with growing political dependence on a far from friendly and potentially dangerous neighbor, despite fear of a more powerful China. A potentially, historic pandemic is just across a 4000-km border, where the demographic contrast must cause trepidation. Militarily, the situation is not less alarming after 20 years of buying Russian arms. Russian academic circles are not better, too often repeating Chinese propaganda, when inside China revanchism against Russian 19th century colonialism and over the 1960s-80s conflict treats Russia much as it treats the West. It reports that especially after the coronavirus struck, Russians should be afraid of China, but the Duma and most of the mass media avoid any discussion in public space of the Chinese theme. Talk of this sort leads to sensationalism about what China might do if Russia further weakens and expresses hope that the Russian military is aware of Chinese hypocrisy rather than naively allowing Chinese access to Russia’s defense plans.

On March 4 in Nezavisimaya Gazeta an article focused on unprecedented pressure against the newspaper from a Chinese diplomat. Despite many in Russia thinking that the golden age of the 1950s in Moscow-Beijing relations lives on, some Chinese officials do not, says the article. They do not respect Russian laws or treat Russians as equal partners. Even this paper until recently would have considered such accusations contrived, but Chinese embassy personnel recently openly demanded removal from published material of Chinese state statistics and threatened to blacklist it. It is as if Russian laws on Russian territory do not have to be followed. The issue was the slowing of the Chinese economy. How dare one say so?  How fast did the Russian economy grow last year? Just one province has a greater GDP than Russia’s was the tone. This tells us more about the real state of bilateral relations that what politicians say, one reads.

Vladimir Skosyrev on March 19 in Nezavisimaya Gazeta wrote about the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) being frozen. After the epidemic was born in China, China’s international influence has weakened. Meanwhile, plans for infrastructure construction have halted, as both China and its partners’ economies have been shocked. The virus is also spreading to China’s partners with devastating effects. There is more awareness of risks of integration and dependence on China. Such criticisms of China inevitably lost force as the pandemic became much more pronounced in the West and China’s control mechanisms appeared to reduce its spread more rapidly and fully.

On March 18 Nezavisimaya Gazeta’s Skosyrev wrote about the war of words between the US and China turning into a war of deeds over reporters, pointing to the expulsion of US reporters and the language of Pompeo. The article turns into a commentary on Hong Kong, where the reporters are not allowed to relocate in contrast to past situations and where Chinese soldiers are becoming more active. Also, it covers Trump’s labeling of COVID-19 the Chinese virus and the outcry about that, even in the US. The trade war is being continued as an information war.

On March 17 Nezavisimaya Gazeta wrote about China following Europe in starting to refuse Russian oil. Sinochem rejected Rosneft in connection to US sanctions, it is reported. In 2019, 47 percent of Russia’s oil pipeline exports went to China and more than one-third sent from ports—together one-fifth of the oil production. Citing Reuters, the article warns of new blow to Russian oil, revealing that as Saudi Arabia and the US seek to punish Russia, China will not help, substituting Saudi oil at discount prices from no earlier than mid-April. Meanwhile, the US is selling cheap oil in Europe. Saudi Arabia gave Russia another chance, and is now tightening the screws. That China is not standing with Russia in the oil war and may even be one more source of pressure could be telling, but it draws on a Western source and is little covered.

Russia’s time has come

Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov in Mezhdunarodnaya Zhizn’ observed the seventieth anniversary of relations with Indonesia, arguing that after relations were established Jakarta found Moscow to be a reliable friend in establishing its state, developing its economy, and strengthening its position in the international arena. Skipping over the “complicated period of the 60s-80s,” the article jumps to the importance of the partnership today, boosted by a 2003 declaration and an agenda now to form a strategic partnership. Mostly, however, the article speaks of readiness to move forward and possibilities for broader cooperation as well as a high level of mutual trust for military cooperation. Russian arms sales are cited. The claim that the two countries are closely cooperating on questions of challenges to security is not substantiated by mention of how Russia deals with China’s infringement into Indonesian waters in the South China Sea. Lavrov cites as an undoubted priority of Russian foreign policy tightening relations with ASEAN, which in 2018 agreed to a strategic partnership. He points to Indonesian interest in integration processes in the Eurasian space, including signing a memorandum with the Eurasian Economic Union (EEU). Such vague remarks without substance can hardly be reassuring about the nature of bilateral relations. Yet Lavrov strongly endorses assertiveness of Russian international successes with confidence in the future.

Another article by Lavrov in the same journal focused on Vietnam, also seventy years after the establishment of diplomatic relations. He commented on standing together in the difficult years of the battle of the Vietnamese people for freedom and independence against foreign aggression and in the following peaceful construction. Special mention is made of traditional close ties in defense as well as economic ties, symbolized by the fact that Vietnam became the first state with which the EEU in 2015 signed a free trade agreement, leading to Russia’s trade volume climbing to $6.1 billion in 2018. Although energy ties are heralded, no mention is made of the challenge of exploring for oil and gas in the South China Sea against Chinese opposition. A rise in Russian tourism to Vietnam is noted, reaching in 2018 about 600,000 visitors. Reference is made to the closeness of the two sides’ positions on global and regional problems, again with no specifics about challenges in the Indo-Pacific region and differences over China and the US.

In the March/April issue of Rossiia v Global’noi Politike, Sergey Karabanov proposes ideas for Russia in a world descending into the “law of the jungle.” Claiming that Russia’s foreign and defense policies to date have been successful, giving it a certain position in the first troika of world powers, he asserts that it is qualitatively better able to defend its economic and political interests and has begun an economic and mental turn to Asia. Suggesting that Russia had lost its place as a sovereign great power, Karaganov insists that this has been restored, increasing readiness for cooperation. Yet stagnation threatens without adjustments in foreign policy. A window of opportunity must be seized with new ideas. In place of the earlier “entering Europe” and before that the communist idea, conservatism, patriotism, and anti-liberalism does not suffice in a country that is historically idea-driven. No longer is economic might decisive. Instead, military and ideological powers matter. With the right ideas Russia can occupy a leading position in the future world, Karaganov insists. He takes partial exception to the widespread opinion that we have entered an epoch of unpredictability and chaos. The models of the West have failed, but Trump is making the US stronger. He is the most dangerous of the international players of recent years as the world moves from the old—Europe—to the new—Asia—and also to polycentrism. Middle powers and regional centers do not want to choose between the US and China, giving rise to the “new unaffiliated.” Russia with support from China proposing the transcontinental “partnership of Greater Eurasia.” The EU has lost its chance to become the third leg of the new world order and is slowly falling apart, leaving only its western and northern parts with the US. Russia has room to maneuver as an independent geopolitical center building an Asian part of its culture and economically and technologically leaning to the East, argues Karaganov.

The re-ideologization of the international arena is continuing. Democratic liberalism has been left with a vacuum of ideas, being replaced with nationalism of the left and the right. Russia strives to fill the space with patriotism and conservatism. China so far offers the ambiguous concept of a “community of common destiny.” Traditional elites are losing influence. Russia has become a balancing force on a global scale. Unipolarity and the 500-year reign of the West are gone, freeing countries to use their competitive advantages. Russia can thus play a new role with its ideas for guaranteeing world peace, standing for freedom of choice in one’s model, and protecting the environment. Karaganov foresees a mission for Russia through a “national idea” that requires little change in domestic and foreign policy and involves little expense. Russia will be taken seriously, readers are told, because it is the second or third most powerful country, the heir to the superpower Soviet Union and of the Russian Empire. While it is argued that with time the West will come to be receptive to ideas from Russia, not a word is said about China.

Missing in Karaganov’s presentation is whether Russia is challenging China with its ideas for the future order or is anticipating clear support from China. Missing too is reference to any partners inclined to accept Russia’s ideas. There is also a lack of specificity about the three missions being proposed. What does it mean to guarantee peace, given mention of Russia’s role in Syria as a model? How will Russia stand for freedom of choice apart from continuing to stand against the West without questioning China’s moves, as if China is fully on board? Finally, what is distinctive about Russia’s role in climate change when its own policies have not been a model? For an article promising to showcase ideas for the world to adopt, the presentation of ideas is almost bereft of substance with no thought given to the ideas that others have been suggesting. Everything is dismissed from the rest of the world as if only Russia’s views will matter.

On February 25 a Kommersant’ article seeks to explain the rise of hatred in the US toward China, claiming that it began when suddenly the US began to treat China as a wild caricature and world evil, just a couple of years after viewing Russia in this way with no resemblance to its real nature. Citing Alfred Mahan’s book on the influence of sea power on history that warns about the threat of Russia gaining fuller access through China to the Pacific Ocean as well as to the Indian Ocean or of China rising up, it argues that an “Asian problem” was foreseen. The answer was seen as a balance among Asian powers to keep Russia and China apart. This explains the hatred, readers are told, demonstrated in Pence’s diatribe against China of October 2018 and more recently the remarks of Mike Pompeo, which have little in common with reality. Hatred of China is just one more US ideological extreme on the same track as hatred of Russia.

On January 28 Igor’ Denisov in asked why Xi Jinping cut a trade deal with Trump. In conditions of incomplete reform, China decided it was better to make concessions to avoid confrontation. The scale of the deal struck many, including $52 billion for energy imports and $32 billion for agricultural production, as Chinese ignore the laws of supply and demand and refrain from surprises, at least until the November US elections. China acted, readers are told, as a tactical concession, recognizing that in some sectors China is critically dependent on the US, which cannot be overcome in a short time span although that remains the aim. Fearing that foreign investors and companies would be spooked by a trade war, leaders decided to compromise. Chinese bloggers observe that in the written agreement the words “China is obligated to” are repeated more than 100 times, while wording that binds the US is only encountered five times. Perhaps, that is the reason Xi Jinping did not sign it. If China were mobilized into a besieged fortress with contradictions escalating to the level of a cold war, not only would its economy be threatened, so too would political stability. The outbreak of the coronavirus in Wuhan exposes the country’s problems. It mobilized well to respond, but there was delay until the leadership approved a response. By relieving fears over economic tensions, China has outmaneuvered Trump. Internet accusations that China’s negotiators were similar to the Qing Dynasty ones who sold out the country are not fair, concludes the author. Nothing is said about how Russia might lose from the trade preferences China has given to the US.

On December 27 Igor’ Druz’ in Stoletie wrote that China had entered a phase of political and economic instability. Despite this, Russia should coordinate with it against Western expansion. However, this is not an excuse for ignoring China’s problems. More and more Chinese companies face the impossibility of paying back their creditors. Even more dangerous potentially is state debt, compounded by serious contradictions. The article compares the legacy of the Mongol yoke in Russia long ago with the Manchu impact in China concluding only in 1911, as if China is now more burdened by its history as well as by communists fully transforming traditional values. It also asks if Chinese youth are too egotistical to love and defend their fatherland. Demographic challenges add to the evidence that a “Chinese century” is not ahead of us. This is not favorable to Russia, just as a too strong China would not be. A crisis could lead China to respond with dangerous and expansionary policies into Russia. The answer is that only Russia—the Third Rome—supports peace against evil, and it must return to the source of its civilization and not be attracted to either the West or the East.

An article on January 27 responded to the epidemic in China. Is this one more blow to the Chinese regime? No, such speculation on the internet comes from Hong Kong activists and tweets from the United States. Such rumors are spreading in Russia, too. How will Russia’s economy be affected, considering the many Chinese tourists who visit? The loss will be in the tens of millions of dollars, especially for Russian airlines that carry the tourists, concludes this article.

In Kommersant’ on March 20 an article discussed China’s recovery from the pandemic and offer of assistance to Russia. Planeloads of Chinese medical personnel are arriving in Italy, Spain, Iraq, and elsewhere. On March 18 Wang Yi told Lavrov by phone of China’s readiness to assist Russia too as part of a global effort to fight the pandemic. Xi Jinping and Putin joined the conversation as Xi explained that this is part of building a community of common destiny. The article factually reports on Chinese initiatives on this occasion.

Doubling down on Russo-Chinese ties

In Zavtra on February 17 Aleksandr Lukin wrote on Sino-Russian relations in a multipolar world, calling for freeing our consciousness from the Western, liberal model. He stresses the change in the world structure to multipolarity as American hegemony collapses. Putin’s restoration of regional sovereignty through strengthened central authority and annexation of Crimea as one case of extending power in the post-Soviet space as well as Syria helped achieve this. So too did the rise of the Chinese economy, along with its decision to join Russia in reasserting sovereignty. The US sanctions and pressure on Russia and China that followed could not restore US hegemony. Poles are the building blocs of a multipolar world, which bring states together in civilizational groups, which offer the only hope for states to preserve sovereignty. In light of the EU’s problems, Lukin perceives three poles: North America, Eurasia, and China, with India next in line in potential. Three poles suffice to show that two together represent an alternative to the West. Moreover, the integrative forces in Asia by land and sea by China and the arms successes of Russia as well as the strategic operations in the post-Soviet space and the Middle East show that the plans of the West can be interrupted. Universalism gives way to pluralism, postmodernism to tradition, competition to win-win, individualism to solidarity, hegemonism to equality, and exclusivity to inclusivity.

Critical to this framework is the notion that China and Russia are on the same wavelength, that Russia is the sole pole without partners in Asia to balance China, and that Putin represents the revival of Russian civilization as Xi Jinping does for China, reviving a past of Tianxia that is inclusive and in other ways favorable for the new international order. Having, under Deng Xiaoping, hid its ambition to be a pole, China is manifesting it now, but this poses no problem for Russia. As in the case of China, Russia built its empire not with force but with friendship and cultural appeal. Western experts will not recognize Russia as a pole or accept its full sovereignty, readers are told. The same holds for Western views of China. Key to responding to pressure and reducing the chance of third world war is to forge a firm and indestructible Sino-Russian alliance, combining Russian military-strategic power and Chinese economic power. Xi Jinping is viewed as having asserted Chinese power and opposing a unipolar world, taking advantage of concentrating power in his hands. The fact that China asserts itself as a pole has unleashed US opposition. Russia needs China to assert its sovereignty fully, and China faces the imperative of joining in one continental space (what Putin calls Greater Eurasia), building on the SCO, cooperating with India and with Japan eventually as well as with Iran, Turkey and Pakistan, i.e., the Heartland. China is too weak to become a full second pol,e but before our eyes it is becoming an ever more open opponent of the West. The China Dream and Eurasian Dream can be drawn closer. They are in harmony. All now depends on Russia and China to build something bigger together, concludes Lukin.

Miscellaneous articles

On February 7 Vesti,ru carried an article on countries of Asia refusing to support the US against China, stressing the INF treaty pullout. Countries are refusing to deploy these missiles, fearing Chinese retribution and lack of US support. Placement in Guam would not suffice, and the US wants to do so in Australia, Japan, the Philippines, and South Korea. Beijing threatens serious consequences. If states refuse Washington, the balance of power in the region will shift to China, readers are told. Meanwhile, many states doubt that the US would come to their defense. They recall China’s retaliation after Seoul deployed THAAD, which was followed by little US support for Seoul. This led Seoul to refrain from obtaining the remaining parts of THAAD and even from joining the trilateral missile defense system, inclusive of Japan. For the US to close the rocket gap with China it must assure partners it has their back.

On March 16 in Kommersant’ Sergei Strokan’ wrote that China’s international role is changing in connection to the pandemic. The best defense is to go on the offense, which China has done by shifting the blame to the US. Some in Russia are receptive. After all, the US started the information war, accusing China of failing to stop the virus spread at the outset, and it persists with warnings of a second wave in China. China’s national egoism kicked in. The information war over the global role of China in connection with the epidemic has been joined. Great efforts are being made in China to demonstrate that its development is not a threat but a boon for the world. China proposes to stimulate development in the Asia-Pacific despite the fall in oil prices and other “black swans.” It anticipates strengthening the position of the Chinese empire of the 201st century, the author concludes without offering any judgement on Chinese behavior.

On March 20 in Kommersant’ Feodr Lukyanov cited the view that just as the world speaks of pre-war and postwar, we will be referring to pre- and post-pandemic. This watershed has geo-economic and geo-political significance. Rather than claims of the growing power of civil society and trans-national society, the state is recognized as the answer amid the growing regionalization of international life. Brexit and Trump’s “each for himself” reflect this mood of “sovereignization.” The pandemic is a powerful catalyst, demonstrating that the state alone is capable of responding to a crisis. Lukyanov, however, takes exception to the argument that authoritarianism symbolized by China has proven its superiority to democracy, as in Italy. The response depends instead on government effectiveness and social solidarity, as in the states of Scandinavia, he insists. Inter-state bodies, such as the EU, matter little.

Dmitri Migunov in Izvestiia on January 26 asked why India is burdened with an economic crisis.  He noted that the Indian economy in the past decade was viewed by many economists as a replacement as the future engine for global growth, but indicators in the last few years have disappointed optimists, even to the point educated people in India have looked to move abroad. The reasons cited are: counting too much for a poor developing country on consumption rather than a rise in investment; allowing shadow banking to play a significant role instead of finance companies that play by the rules, which hamper the infrastructure sector; failing to reform or taking the wrong steps as in 2016 when monetary exchange was paralyzed; permitting a rise in inequality through policies in the land and labor markets; and ending up with a fall in private investment and exports. The situation now appears gloomy, but some state measures should bear fruit, e.g., tax decreases on profits. Moreover, debt burdens are low and new agrarian trends are promising. The US-China trade war can stimulate development too, drawing FDI to India. No mention is made of the looming pandemic or of Russian economic ties to India.