Country Report: Russia (March 2021)

Two themes gained prominence in Russian coverage of the Indo-Pacific region in the first part of 2021: the Russo-China-US triangle and the geopolitics of the Korean Peninsula. There was little on the hallmarks of multipolarity, especially India. The mood was upbeat for three main reasons: 1) Sino-Russian relations are strong and growing stronger; 2) the Biden administration is viewed as having poor prospects on all fronts in the region, especially with China and North Korea; and 3) the North Korean challenge will not be managed without Russia achieving its objective of an inclusive regional security framework. Suga would continue Abe’s positive outreach to Russia, even if little would come of it. Moon would still strive for engagement with North Korea, in vain due to his dependency on the US as well.

Amid bravado over a “new era” in Sino-Russian relations with more explicit talk of alliance, there were warnings as well. On North Korea, acknowledgment of tension between the two had risen to the surface, as China was dissatisfied with Russia’s autonomous course and Russia with China’s cooperation with the US and marginalization of Russia. On Central Asia, fear of China’s security and political role without consultations with Russia was palpable, as seen in the test case of a new leader in Kirghizia and the establishment of a military base in Tajikistan. In spite of a high-sounding agreement on building a joint space station on the moon, Russians were nervous about having only a peripheral role and being discarded after sharing technology. Neither face-saving talk of Greater Eurasia as an alternative to BRI nor claims of cooperation in the Russian Far East could survive the harsh realities Russia faced before a resurgent China.

Strategic triangle

On February 9, Petr Akopov in RIA Novosti assessed Biden’s approach to Xi and Putin, claiming that Washington is operating within a triangle, but one that cannot be equilateral. Biden approaches Xi from personal experience as the vice president who had met him eight times. Although he talks of rejecting Trump’s policy toward China, the reality is that he will step up the pressure. Sanctions are not being removed, naval vessels keep testing China, and the US is intentionally interfering in China’s internal affairs. Most important, the US is assembling an anti-China coalition. Within the US, he says, Biden is called a “Chinese puppet,” a response to his label for Trump as “Putin’s puppy.” America has no coherent strategy for containing China; it only offers the world “fear of China,” which is a hard sell. India does not intend to be dragged into its anti-China strategy. Asia aspires to be part of China’s “new silk road.” Similarly, apart from the EU, nobody joined in a “blockade of Russia,” as Russia’s authority and influence grew. Trump was not interested in ideological pressure on China or a broad anti-China coalition. Thus, Biden is the greater problem. Whereas the Soviet Union was undermined by a small, pro-West elite minority, China, as always, is Sinocentric, and it benefits from the experience of the collapse of the Soviet Union. It has learned, as has Russia, to have no illusions of the possibility of peaceful coexistence with the West. They work together, as seen in the more than 30 meetings in 2012-19 between Xi and Putin, Akopov recounted.

Mikhail Kotov on March 14 in Izvestia, discussed Russia and China building a lunar station together, noting that the announcement was not of a contract with a precise description and specific dates. The document does not even have a clear definition of what the lunar base will look like—whether it will be a station in orbit or on the surface of a natural satellite of the Earth. A stationary lunar station would be tens, if not hundreds, times more expensive than an orbital one. Instead, this is a political document that determines the alignment of space forces in the world; an attempt to declare a new center of power. The budget of the Russian space program is inferior to the American one by more than ten times; it is simply unrealistic to implement projects of comparable technological complexity without someone’s help. Apparently, in this situation, Russia is trying to bet on China, which is capable of independently implementing the most complex space missions. It is clear why Russia needs such an ally. Answering the question of why China needs such cooperation is more difficult. If it is access to Russian technology, that is precisely why, in the work on the future lunar station, it is important to immediately determine the "rules of the game" and clearly describe all legal and economic aspects of such cooperation. Kopov treats the signed memorandum as solely a statement of good intentions, not a real plan. 

Vassily Kashin in Profil’ on March 5 asked if the US could get China to recognize its guilt in genocide toward the Uighurs, anticipating a major increase in US pressure and mutual
hostility. If Pompeo’s remarks earlier were typical of the language of the Trump administration, the fact that his successor Blinken shared the same view on Xinjiang was proof the issue would endure, reminiscent of US politicians declaring Russia a state sponsoring terrorism. Kashin recognizes China’s campaign of mass extrajudicial arrests and sending potentially unreliable local residents to "re-education centers," but he calls the response in Congress, Canada, and elsewhere a “plot.” Washington’s official use of "genocide" makes it unlikely that the US-China dialogue will thaw in the foreseeable future, he concludes.

Iurii Tavrovskii in Zavtra on January 28 wrote about Sino-US relations, arguing that Xi Jinping on January 14 had taken a conciliatory step in a letter to the Starbucks CEO, insistent that despite the pandemic China was striving to fulfill its obligations to purchase additional goods for $200 billion from the US over two years. Imports from the US rose to $135 billion in 2020 or 10%, with agricultural up 67%. Tavrovskii notes that US business is against decoupling, which has already cost 245,000 jobs. Chinese are very polite with the US from a position of strength. Yet Chinese can be under serious illusions even as they show a willingness to compromise.

Iurii Tavrovskii in Zavtra on March 12 wrote about the overlapping security interests of Russia and China, focusing on Wang Yi’s March 7 statement at the March parliamentary meetings: “In a strong tandem, China and Russia play a stabilizing role in ensuring peace and stability throughout the world. The more turbulence and upheaval in the world, the more important it is to move China-Russia cooperation forward. China and Russia, as a strategic pillar for each other, mutually provide opportunities for development and act as real partners on pressing issues on the world agenda…This year marks the 20th anniversary of the signing of the Treaty on Good Neighborliness, Friendship and Cooperation between China and Russia. My Russian friends and I agreed to extend the Treaty and fill it with new content. This will be another historic milestone and a new start for Sino-Russian relations." Notice was taken of the new term, "Russian-Chinese tandem." It means that China has joined Russia in abandoning hope in constructive relations with the West. Putin did so in Munich in 2007, and Xi followed in 2012 with "the China Dream of a Great Chinese Nation Revival," which was unacceptable for the West. Proof of these shifts occurred when Xi Jinping showed understanding of Putin’s position in 2014 during the crisis in Ukraine and Putin, in turn, supported the BRI initiative and gave the command to refrain from criticizing Beijing that had already begun during the aggravation of the situation in the South China Sea. In June 2019 the addition of the “new era” to the established formula of “strategic partnership” was regarded by both well-wishers and ill-wishers as a prelude to the “great leap forward” into formalization of military-political relations, claims Tavrovskii.

Talk of an alliance began with articles in Zavtra. Since the summer of 2019 in expert circles and the media of both countries there has been discussion about signing a new treaty in place of the 2001 one, whose 20-year duration would be automatically renewed for a five-year period, Groups of experts in Moscow and Beijing proposed formalizing the allied relations that had developed de facto between the two countries, whether by concluding a "Treaty of a New Era" or signing a document like the secret Union Treaty of 1896. Other experts categorically rejected the new alliance under various pretexts. As the deadline for replacing the treaty approached, the controversy escalated. On October 22, 2020, Putin in a video conference of the Valdai Club touched upon relations with China several times, but the greatest attention was drawn to his "thinking out loud" about the possibility of forming an alliance:“We have always assumed that our relations have reached such a degree of interaction and trust that we do not need it, but theoretically it is quite possible to imagine such a thing. We conduct regular military events jointly. […] it is not only about the exchange of products or the purchase and sale of military products, but about the exchange of technologies. And there are very sensitive things here. I will not speak about it publicly now, but our Chinese friends know about it. Our cooperation with China, without any doubt, enhances the defense capability of the Chinese People’s Army.” Russia is interested in this, and so is China, readers were informed. 

On February 5 Aleksandr Gabuev in Kommersant described the new economic reality in China. He describes an anti-crisis plan for creating infrastructure worth $600 billion for 2020: ​​green power plants, charging electric cars, 5G communications, large data centers, supercomputers, and high-speed data transmission. By 2025, the PRC plans to fully build the material base for what the World Economic Forum calls "industrialization 4.0." In parallel, Beijing, taking into account the experience of the trade war with the United States, is forcing a large-scale import substitution program for critical technologies and may boost Russian exports as China looks for alternative suppliers of hydrocarbons, metals, coking coal and products, and at the same time, for new investment targets. However, it makes sense for Russian business to hurry as the greening of China’s economy proceeds and the window of opportunity shrinks, Gabuev adds.

On March 6 in Kommersant, Gabuev wrote about Russian exchanges, Chinese investors, and China’s restrictions on capital account movements, which will affect the current plans of the Moscow Exchange. Citizens of the PRC cannot buy more than $50 thousand per year, and then must give a compelling justification, such as medical treatment or study abroad. Chinese management companies, familiar to local investors, practically do not work with the Russian market. Russian management companies in China are unknown. It will take Russian players a long time to find suitable partners in China and learn how to sell their assets to local investors.

On February 9 Gabuev wrote in Kommersant about the growing influence of China in Central Asia. Following its rising economic influence, its political and military role will increase also. There has been lots of talk about the orientation in Ukraine, Georgia, and Moldavia to the West. Attention needs to turn to Central Asia’s shift toward China, he asserts. The West was interested there, at first with the collapse of the USSR to make sure the Soviet Union was not reestablished and then to supply the US campaign in Afghanistan. Now the prospects of the US being a player there are limited. To the mid-2000s Russia was the dominant foreign player in the region. Then, China’s economic interest rose as a buyer of resources and a market, as Russia’s fell. Stagnating since 2013 and in recession now, Russia’s economy cannot provide the credits or investments found in China or appeal as a market. Russia has the EEC, but does that suffice? The president of Kirgizia, after the toppling of his predecessor, is said to have close ties to China, which may reflect the first move by China—in the mode of the West—to establish a friendly regime in its sphere. Some see China craftily using access to breach holes in the fence to enter the Russian market. The old division of labor, leaving military matters to Russia, also may be lapsing, as China sells weapons and forges new contacts, while countries start to send their cadets to China. A border base was opened in Tajikistan without Dushanbe or Beijing informing Moscow. For protection of Chinese assets private military companies will form, and China will try to prevent reactions to its concentration camps and extreme assimilation tactics against the Uyghurs. Any squeak in Central can reverberate across the border. Can Russia learn to tolerate a bigger Chinese presence and maintain a balance of forces, not giving everything away for Chinese to buy up? The only way for Russia is to strengthen the sovereignty of the Central Asian states, precisely what it sought to undermine earlier to put each under its sphere of influence. Conversations with Chinese colleagues shows that their long-term goal is an exclusive sphere with Russia as a junior partner. Kirgizia may just be the first case, but Russia has some chance since there is great alarm about Chinese expansion and what China is doing in Xinjiang to Muslims and Turks.

In Mezhdunarodnaya Zhizn’ No. 2 Bakhtier Khakimov wrote about the SCO, 20 years after its formation, noting its expansion across almost all of Eurasia and to more than 40% of the world’s population and a quarter of its GDP. Enshrined in the SCO documents is the idea of the Greater Eurasian Partnership, reaching beyond the EEU to ASEAN and, in the future, the EU. He was recognizing the International Conference on the Eurasian Arc of Instability, organized by St. Petersburg State University and its Faculty of Oriental Studies.

The Korean Peninsula

Aleksandr Zhebin on March 1 in the March/April issue of Rossiia v Global’noi Politike wrote a review of the 2021 book Contemporary Korea by Torkunov, Toloraya, and D’iachkov, which was summarized in the previous Country Report: Russia. This is the third volume of a trilogy on the history of the Korean Peninsula, updating coverage to the period from 2008 to 2020. Zhebin blames the impasse in 2020 on US policy, holding to “maximum pressure,” and Moon Jae-in as incapable of pursuing a more autonomous course from the US in inter-Korean relations. Moon’s policy contrasts with his obligations in the inter-Korean summits of 2018 and declarations to join in three-way infrastructure projects with Russian participation. Putin called this a “deficit of sovereignty.” Given these failures, the DPRK began to view possession of nuclear weapons as the “only guarantee of the security and independence of the country.” It will hold onto then until the unlikely event it is fully assured of the absence of hostile intentions of its opponents and can count on real assistance for development.” Zhebin stresses that US-DPRK talks cannot succeed. A regional architecture for security is essential, finding promise in the past Six-Party Talks.

The review article notes that part 3 of the book is devoted to Russia’s Korea policy with stress on ‘dualism,” both denuclearization and a complex approach to the security interests of not only North Korea but the other states in the region through restraint and compromise. The US has tried to force Russia to take a hard line to the DPRK, linking this to other issues in bilateral relations. In 2017 the Russian Foreign Ministry was presented with a fait accompli, obliged in one day to agree to US-China project at the UN although it contradicted Russia’s thinking and interests. Zhebin finds the authors pessimistic. Perhaps a big war can be avoided, but it will take 10-15 years to get normalization (coexistence) in inter-Korean relations, they concluded.

In early 2021 O.S. Pugacheva’s chapter on inter-Korean relations in Kontury Global’nykh Transformatsii described the evolution in the platform of ideas that guided the Sunshine Policy for a decade until ties broke down in 2020. Pugacheva explains how relations evolved and what was lacking. The main cause, she says, is the orientation and increasing dependence of South Korea on the US. The link between inter-Korean economic cooperation and denuclearization has a negative influence too. Deterioration in North-South relations in June 2020 is not blamed on the North, and worsening Sino-US relations are seen as now bad for denuclearization. Without consensus on North Korea and a different view of the alliance with the US in a polarized South Korea, North-South relations are impaired. This is a viewpoint that blames the US and dismisses the autonomy of South Korea, similar to recent writings on Japan, with scant blame to the North.

In Mezhdunarodnaya Zhizn’, No. 1, Aleksandr Vorontsov asked what the Korean Peninsula would be like in a decade. He advised not to destroy everything in the legacy of Trump’s administration toward the Korean Peninsula, because in the past three years, from a military-political point of view, there has been stability and silence, rare and unprecedented since the time of the US-North Korean Framework Agreement (1994-2002). The two sides were able to agree on very important matters, but not all that is necessary for the establishment of lasting peace on the land. Vorontsov praises Trump’s 3 summits. As for Russian writings on the Korean topic, on the one hand, publications in 2009-20 increased sharply. On the other hand, their quality leaves much to be desired.  Many are of an opportunistic nature, prepared by non-specialists without a deep understanding of the complex history and cause-and-effect relationships in the Korean problem.

Vorontsov finds that Lee Myung-bak’s "conservative revenge" ruining progress since North Korea remained "enemy number one," while the US was still under the illusion that "the Pyongyang regime was about to collapse." The stubbornness of the North Koreans and the unwillingness of the Americans to make concessions due to their expectations did not allow for compromise. The Pyongyang elite, frightened by the deteriorating health of the leader and the unresolved problem of “succession to the throne,” became disillusioned with economic and foreign policy experiments. Vorontsov joins in the effusive praise to the co-authored book on the Korean Peninsula, saying it will help to overcome the current situation in which Korea is studied in many universities and organizations in Russia and the CIS countries, but not fully comprehensively. Quite often, the specifics of bilateral inter-Korean relations, important factors of the changing fundamental foundations of the state structure, the political system, and foreign policy of the DPRK and the Republic of Korea, fall out of such textbooks and manuals.  There was no single integrated work, forcing students to turn to Internet sources or use individual articles in scattered publishing houses. Vorontsov concludes that the analysis of Russian-North Korean relations, carried out by the authors of the book, anticipated the development of events reflected in the decisions of the January 2021 congress, thereby shaming those critics who insisted that Russia was of little importance in Korean affairs.

Vorontsov agrees that the “six-party format” of negotiations remains optimal today. He approves of calling the approach an “equilibrium of stability or the “Great North Pacific Project.”  In such a regional approach the root causes of the proliferation would be removed while resolving other severe regional problems. “The six-sided format could theoretically even be considered as the embryo” of the North Pacific project. As for Russia’s role, the upward trend in Korean affairs is still far from being consolidated. However, it has a solid foundation. Vorontsov takes exception only with assessments of South Korea’s economy. It faces serious demographic problems, is gradually but steadily losing its competitive advantages over China in a number of key industrial spheres (for example, shipbuilding), and will face difficult times.

Other writings on the peninsula concentrated on North Korea. On January 12 Andrei Lankov wrote in Rossiia v Global’noi Politike on North Korea’s decision to keep markets waiting and reverse reforms of 2012-17. Small business, which has been operating for 20-25 years, is facing severe attacks. In response to sanctions and irrationally harsh responses to the pandemic, these measures resemble the restrictions of 2005-09, which proved ineffective and were reversed in 2010; they may eventually be again. Georgy Toloraya in the same issue asked if there would be war on the Korea Peninsula. He points to the decisive role of a fundamental shift in China’s position from almost unconditional support of the DPRK’s position, which drew a sharp reaction fromPyongyang. Then the North Korean problem became intra-camp: the US versus the ROK and Russia versus the PRC. It is now in doubt whether the US is able or willing to provide security to its allies, while sentiments for nuclear weapons in South Korea and Japan are greater than ever. Tightening sanctions and a rise in tensions are a pretext for further strengthening the US military presence in the region and deployment of more THAAD in South Korea, which is adverse to the strategic interests of Russia and China.  The aim of the sanctions appears to be to worsen economic conditions and make the people dissatisfied, but talk of a “North Korean threat” is baseless, given how much the North’s leadership could lose. Interested in liquidating the regime, Western capitals do not understand that the North just wants to be left in peace with ideally, a balance between the US and China. Obama refused to pay the price of normalization for denuclearization. Now regime change assumes, as plan B, China’s cooperation in the interest of “peaceful coexistence” if no political system replacement is necessary. Afraid of missiles in South Korea for defense, given that THAAD is a lesson for it, China could cooperate. After a lengthy discussion over whether China had to support such an odious regime for stability on its northeastern border, in 2014 it decided to stick with the status quo, leading to friendly overtures in 2015. Yet they only led to disappointment after the North’s provocations and China had to justify itself to the Americans. South Korea played a very negative role, antagonistic to the North and striving to win China and Russia to its side. The semblance of moderation in Seoul only obscured the real aim of unification on the South’s terms.

What is Russia’s interest? The worse its relations with Pyongyang, the less others listen to it. Lately, it has spent a lot of energy improving contacts with North Korea, resolving $10 billion in Soviet credits and developing a new model of economic cooperation of investments for resources as the “year of friendship” in 2015 boosted contacts. Yet Resolution 2270 posed a barrier, as trade could not rise as planned to $1 billion in 2020 with accounts in rubles. Challenging moves in 2016 by the North saw Russia turn from neutral to negative. Russia wants to reduce the possibility of the US strengthening its presence and to realize three-way projects, as well as others with China. What room for maneuver remains for Russia with China now in favor of pressuring the North? Cooperation is all that stands in the way of Russia’s marginalization. China is for 2 + 2 talks without Russia, and cooperation with China on the Korean problem has become a delicate matter. China was envious of Russia’s increased role, as seen in 2017 when China absolutely disregarded Russia’s interests, as it was suspicious of attempts by Pyongyang to play the “Russian card” against it. Russia should consult with China but keep its own line at the Security Council, concerned about China’s agreements with the US. Cooperation with south Korea is also not easy since it demands stricter sanctions and fuller isolation of the North. In theory, cooperation with Japan could be tried; both could play a go-between role, nervous about China monopolizing Korean affairs. North Korean relations with China are increasingly tense.

On February 8 in Interfax, ambassador to North Korea Aleksandr Matsegora was interviewed about diplomatic life in North Korea during the pandemic. After the September typhoons imports were completely halted, compounding draconian restrictions earlier. Enterprises closed, people lost work, children went just about a full year without school, and diplomats left for home, as embassies closed or left 1-2 persons for “housekeeping.” Diplomats could not leave Pyongyang, go to parks and museums, or use public transport. Their children could not leave the grounds of the embassy. In the stores that foreigners could enter, there was little to buy and at 3-4 times the prior price. Borders will reopen for transport with disinfectant complexes. Russians will quickly move to reestablish contacts on all levels and in all directions.

Oleg Kiryanov in Rossiia v Global’noi Politike on February 3 noted that North Korea’s economy is worse than at any time except the 1990s with little basis for optimism in 2021. Indeed, worse was expected. From the beginning of February 2020 North Korea opted for full isolation, unprecedented in duration and scale since the Korean War. As guards opened fire on border transgressors, movement was halted. A price was paid for success controlling the virus. Trade with China fell 80% to $539 million with only $48 million in exports, while trade from January to September with Russia actually rose 11% to $43 million with $630,000 in exports before falling sharply in October. Smuggling was likely curtailed in 2020, too. Secondary U.S. financial sanctions against governments and companies were a reason for avoiding dealings with North Korea even if UN sanctions did not apply. According to South Korean figures, sanctions by the UN made about 90% of the North’s trade illegal. Flooding and typhoons from July worsened the situation. New controls also limited the role of free markets and of companies engaged in import and export. Thus, the GDP appears to have fallen 8.5-10%. 2021 looks bad, but no crisis is foreseen. China for ideological and other reasons will not allow it, and given tensions with the U.S., even less so. The repressive apparatus in North Korea will keep things under control. Also, Russia cannot be indifferent to its neighbor. Its economic, foreign policy, and strategic interests lead to the following recommendations: track the situation to catch the first signs of crisis; provide serious assistance with the epidemic in mind; provide food and humanitarian assistance on a limited scale, not trying to replace China’s role; join with South Korea to bypass North Korea’s refusal to deal directly with it in the transmission of assistance; continue to work through the UN to remove some sanctions; and maintain Russia’s presence despite pandemic restrictions.


Maxim Krylov on March 13 for the Carnegie Center asked what positive possibility exists for Russo-Japanese relations and responded that Abe raised relations to an unprecedented level and Suga intends to keep them there. Yet there was naturally a pause in 2020, and little is expected in 2021. Even so, Japan finds Russia more convenient than its other neighbors, South Korea and China. Relations are quiet and stable. Japan has territorial problems on all sides, but Russia is the only neighbor in talks over this, emotions are under control, and in the Russian case there is much less that is at stake or contentious. Japan’s desire to resolve the territorial issue leads it to avoid other sources of tension., even as it stands in the way of ambitious projects, such as in joint economic activities on the islands. To the end of 2019 more than 200 projects had gone forward, all of small scale, apart from two energy ones, including a Japanese restaurant in Moscow and a Russian collection of recipes with low salt content. Bilateral trade peaked in 2014, and Russian exports as far back as 2008. When in November 2018 in Singapore, Abe and Putin agreed to base an agreement on the 1956 declaration, there was an uproar in the Duma. Suga lacks the popularity, and the Japanese public is too skeptical of Russia for a deal. In the five years from 2016 to 2021 negativity to Russo-Japanese relations has climbed from 65 to 74%. Another barrier is the launch of the Biden administration, more inclined to pressure Japan. Trump’s isolationist instincts gave US allies more freedom in third-country relations. Yet there is potential for limited improvements in Russo-Japanese relations, as in easing visa requirements, as has already occurred for visitors to Vladivostok.