Country Report: Russia (September 2019)

Three themes pervaded Russian writings on East Asia over the summer of 2019 after the G20 summit in Osaka: 1) China—its model, its trade war with the US, its handling of Hong Kong, and Sino-Russian relations; 2) the Korean Peninsula— above all, North Korean-US relations; and 3) the US role in the region—alliances with South Korea and Japan, impact on Hong Kong protests, and strategic and trade relations with China. Ultimately, all themes are connected to Russia’s position in East Asia and its options as regional dynamics are shifting. In turn, these center on the US impact on strategic stability, as discussed in the first article covered. Whether China, the Korean Peninsula, or another area, the framework selected is heavily US-centered, leaving little space for bilateral moves separate from triangularity.

The events with the widest resonance were the Hong Kong demonstrations, the July 23 joint Russian and Chinese air mission over waters both Seoul and Tokyo claim to administer, and the Sino-US trade war. All are interpreted by some as impacting Russia or Sino-Russian ties.

While Donald Trump is rarely personally faulted, US hostile behavior is seen as almost on autopilot. Its abandonment of the INF agreement is considered destabilizing, leaving the world without rules for the use of nuclear weapons. China is spared criticism, but hopes are placed on eventual three-party talks on strategic stability in a reminder that strategic forces are the dominant factor in geopolitics and Russia belongs in the primary strategic triangle.

The US in East Asia 

In Rossiya v Global’noi Politike on September 12 Sergei Karaganov and Dmitrii Suslov asked how to strengthen multilateral strategic stability, which is now under threat due to US actions and disinterest in negotiations, seeking to have a free hand in case of confrontation with Russia and China. The US is now attracted to a “limited nuclear war” and “preemptive war.” The world now risks being left without rules for the use of nuclear weapons. China categorically refuses to join the US and Russia in talks on reducing nuclear weapons for objective reasons, readers are told: its nuclear arsenal is smaller and differs structurally. A democratic president is unlikely to change much. Both technological advances in delivery systems and geopolitical changes as more nations possess nuclear weapons require a new approach, no longer a bilateral affair.

Confronting Russia and China—because both are unwilling to become junior partners in its international order—the US is stirred by an image of “Reagan’s success” in defeating the enemy through threat of arms superiority or of China duplicating Japan’s scenario of 30 years of stagnation caused by US demands to change its economic policies. All of this is linked to the psychological state of the elite in the West as their world position erodes and they grasp for an enemy even as they press to consolidate alliances in Europe and Asia by placing missiles there, conclude the two authors.

Karaganov and Suslov argue that the US wants to stop talk of strategic autonomy among its partners. Russia is secure due to its new weapons and its strengthened strategic partnership with China. Indeed, Russia does not consider any possible increase in China’s nuclear arsenal a threat to itself. Also, the West is now inclined to use sanctions, trade wars, information influence, and pressure on third countries rather than war. Asymmetric containment is increasingly possible for weaker countries, as seen in China’s more limited nuclear arsenal and North Korea’s ability to force the US into dialogue. Finally, cyber weapons offer a non-nuclear means of containment. If intentional nuclear war is unlikely, the danger of war is growing with strategic stability more difficult. Suggestions are offered to strengthen stability, including a dialogue involving Moscow, Beijing, and Washington. Articles of late have been insistently pointing to the importance of this strategic triangle.


On September 12 in MKRU a “Great Game” between Russia and the US was said to have begun in China. As Moscow and Beijing prepare to celebrate 70 years of diplomatic relations on October 2, the article recalls that Moscow once had given military assistance and become directly involved in hostilities, convincing the Japanese not to risk an attack on the USSR in late 1941 or early 1942 as Germany demanded. In contrast, only in April 1941 did the US begin to assist China with the “Flying Tigers” squadron, later expanding after Pearl Harbor into Lend Lease. As the defeat of Japan neared, the “Great Game” was activated in China; Moscow helped the CCP with arms seized from Japan. The US suffered a big defeat, but it gained revenge in the early 1970s by turning the tables, when China was desperate to recover from the destruction of the Great Leap Forward and Cultural Revolution. In turn, spending outrageously to counter China was a cause of the collapse of the Soviet Union, while China prospered with assistance from the West. Exceptional circumstances delayed Beijing and Moscow turning a new page at the end of the 80s and the beginning of the 90s, but it came. First, China in the 90s took advantage of the collapse by obtaining strategic goods and technology for virtually nothing, which helped many Russians to survive. Even in the early 2000s the US remained the priority for Moscow and Beijing, where pro-American lobbies remained active. 2018, however, is important as the year Beijing awakened to the US due to the extreme trade attacks. Now things will get interesting, the article suggests, offering a triangular approach to Russo-Chinese relations with keen attention to Sino-US relations.

Iurii Tavrovskii in Zavtra on July 24 wrote about the role of China in WWII. Noting that the memorial to Victory in Moscow along with recognition of four powers, the article asserts that the complex was planned when Sino-Soviet ties were in total confrontation. The result was forgetting about the 30s-50s when relations influenced the whole world. WWII actually began in the 1930s in China, many recognize. The world did not react, perhaps from hope that Japan would soon attack the Soviet Far East, and only the Soviet Union came to the assistance of China, signing a non-aggression pact in August 1937, offering substantial credit to the government, sending arms through Central Asia (for a time via camels and horses), and from 1938 sending military specialists and instructors on battlefield operations. Priceless support came in 1938 and 1939 in battles of the Soviet army on the Manchurian and Mongolian borders at Khasan and Khalgin-Gol, dissuading Japan from striking further in the North.

If Japan had won in China, the USSR would have faced the nightmare of war on two fronts. This did not occur, to a significant degree, because of the resistance of China, which, against the odds, refused to capitulate and turned the tide with the battle of Changsha in late 1941-early 1942, following a plan set by Soviet advisor Chuikov, who a year later used this experience in the defense of Stalingrad. China’s heroism made possible the transfer of “Siberian divisions” to the defense of Moscow. Despite the defeat of Germany and successes of US forces on Pacific islands and Okinawa, Japan could hold on in Northeast China with its powerful agro-industrial base. This “second Japan” held until the USSR entered the war against Japan on August 8, 1945, forcing Japan to agree to surrender on August 15. China, unlike France, held out despite tremendous losses, keeping Japanese soldiers occupied who could have attacked the USSR, Australia, India, the Middle East and the Pacific coast of the US. Moscow long sought a second front from the US and Great Britain, but it already had one in China. This complete about-face from how Russians wrote about China during the time of the Sino-Soviet split serves today’s warm ties. The history of WWII is being rewritten to solidify the shared Sino-Russian national identity.

Many have said too little about China’s role in WWII. Truman blocked China as well as the Soviet Union and Great Britain from a four-way occupation of Japan, similar to Berlin. Whereas the US assisted the KMT, the USSR backed the CCP in one of the fronts of global “Cold War.” Upset over Chinese foreign policy after 1949, the West did not want to recall the valiant services of China in the course of WWII, and then the Soviet Union less and less commemorated September 3 as “victory over Japan” day and lost sight of China’s role until the past few years. That has changed with books, films, and tv series. China since 2010 has marked the end of the war with parades, highlighted by Xi Jinping in 2015 with Putin after he had joined Putin on May 9 in Moscow celebrating the joint struggle. In this recent endeavor, opposed to falsifications of the war, 2020 will again see the two leaders on the podium, marking the 75th anniversary of victory. The article calls for a slew of joint studies, films, and memoirs about the joint victory over evil. Putin has designated 2020 as the year of memory and glory. History is bringing the two nations closer is the message, brushing aside how clashing historical narratives had badly strained ties during the Sino-Soviet split.

In Kommersant on August 2 Alexander Gabuev wrote that de-dollarization in trade is going forward successfully in Sino-Russian trade, growing from using the dollar for 76 percent of trade in 2018 to using it for 56 percent in the first quarter of 2019 (or by another count to just 48 percent). But the euro is the big winner, going from 7 to 22 percent, well over the 7 percent of ruble use and 16 percent yuan use. China is paying for imports with the euro, as demanded by Russian oil exporters. Despite much effort from 2014 to ease payments in yuan and rubles, business is voting against them. The yuan is not fully convertible. At the time of a trade war and a slowing economy, Chinese are now eager to get euros to move their capital abroad, suggests Gabuev. This dashes hope in Russia of bypassing the West in currency deals.

On September 5 in Ruslan Faliakhov asked what is standing in the way of trade between Russia and China and how Russia’s turn to the East failed. Explaining that the planned doubling of trade by 2024 to $200 billion is realistic, he warns that this may be due to oil, gas, and timber exports, but that would not mean a real turn to the East. In spite of Trump, China prefers to deal with Americans. At the BRI summit, Xi Jinping promised to give Putin a gift of two pandas and Putin has given Xi an award, signaling personal trust, but only in the sphere of politics and security. Trade has been growing at 21 percent in 2017 and at 27 percent in 2018, and it is climbing in 2019 too, owing to natural resources. Key to trade growth is the “Power of Siberia” gas. It is impossible to find Russian manufacturing goods in China’s gigantic market. China buys soybeans from the US (totaling $12 billion a year), not Russia. In the trade war, US exports have fallen, but Russia’s have barely risen. Despite the fact that the Amur River forms most of the border between China and Russia, there is no worthy bridge over it. The first railroad crossing will open this year to Dongjiang in Heilongjiang from Nizhneleninskoe. Russia has dragged its feet, as in the plan to build an automobile bridge between Blagoveshchensk an Heihe, recently set for 2020 but in doubt.

China complains that cooperation with the Eurasian Union has not gone as expected and is prioritizing the Silk Road to Europe. Although the Moscow-Kazan’ high-speed railway was designated part of the Silk Road in 2013, the inflexibility of Russian laws has complicated matters, in contrast to trade norms elsewhere with which China long ago found compromises. Chinese business is ready in any fashion—internal procedures are completed, given that the process began already in 2015. Without this document, liberalization of the rules of trade is impossible, and much else is on hold. There is talk of investment cooperation, but is that being done, the article asks. China officially does not speak about the cooling of economic relations, but in Russia already nobody is concealing it, pointing to Chinese banks and other economic structures having to follow the restrictions toward Russia of the US and others. Chinese consider Russians difficult partners, the author adds. Five years after declaring the turn to the East, it has not materialized for Russia. The new silk road traverses Kazakhstan, skirting Russia. If the Chinese government does not support US sanctions, export businesses follow them anyways. In the recent words of Russia’s ambassador to China, China has warm economic relations with the US and cold political relations, but with Russia it is the reverse.

On July 24 an article in MKRU claimed that the US plan to destroy China has cured China of illusions. If China has transited from the period of relying on foreign markets and foreign capital to satisfying domestic demand and a higher quality of life, the trade war inevitably still affects the rate of growth, temporarily restraining China, but the US will feel the impact more. Recalling the successful breakup of the USSR, the US arouses separatism in Xinjiang, Tibet, Taiwan, and Hong Kong, stimulates contradictions in Chinese regions and causes other problems for rich coastal areas. It tries to implant liberal values through Chinese students in the US. Now Trump seeks China’s destruction. Few would have anticipated the fall of the Soviet Union a few years before it happened, but China has prepared. It answers sanctions with sanctions, stimulates its economy, and finds alternative markets, including with Russia. Society is mobilized. Finally, China is freed of illusions about the possibility of peaceful coexistence with the US, fully recognizing the value of Russia, upgrading their cooperation.

In ForPost, an article covers China’s trap for the Russian establishment. Noting that how China resolves social conflicts arouses unease and that the Chinese model leaves Russia just a raw material periphery, it wonders if it is worth casting aside the hegemony of the West only to enter a new hegemony. As for the demonstrations in Moscow of late, the article sees a civilizational split: one part of the elite is inclined to Europe or Canada and the other part thinks it is much better to be on China’s side, leaving a centrist group oriented to Singapore. In 2012 authorities were on Europe’s side, given that Russia has democracy, but now the Chinese vector prevails politically while economically the shift is coming too—in a kind of perestroika in reverse. So far, there are no visible ideologues of this evolution, but soon they will appear. Copying America did not mean necessarily friendship with America, nor does Sinification today require friendship with China. Many new ideological terms in Russian political life—“cyberization,” artificial intelligence, and so on—are drawn from Chinese technological achievements and soft power. Many in Russia perceive a threat and tend to argue with these developments, but, in the face of claims of “effectiveness” opponents of Chinese influence have few arguments. Before effectiveness was sought in the US, now in China.  Russians have lost any understanding of the “civilized world,” warns the article.

Today’s interest In China derives from two issues worrying Russia’s elite: 1) the trap of slow growth since 2013, dooming hopes to be a global leader; and 2) the competence of the elite, which confidently and too early talked of casting off the West’s hegemony. China’s economy has thrived, and China loomed as an alternative to Western hegemonism. Yet, Chinese ideologues have changed their tune on the term “hegemony” or badao. A model has emerged under Xi Jinping mobilizing labor in a way unacceptable to states that are more modernized. Socialism with a Chinese face is in no way better than wild capitalism to which one can add degradation of the environment in China. The global hegemony of the dollar endures, but, overall, China is close to the center of the world system, while Russia is on the semi-periphery with a risk of falling into the periphery of the system, as seen in its trade with China, which only needs raw materials from Russia. If one excludes nuclear reactors, industrial exports are next to nothing. No pride should be taken in Chinese love for Alenka chocolates. Instead of asking if China is ready to open its market for Russian products, one should ask what Russia produces that China does not. Russia is a very junior partner. 

The economic growth of the PRC should not be idealized, but there should be no illusions: Relations with the US for China are a far greater priority than with Russia. Russia’s elite somehow thinks that it can combine a peripheral economic role with a world political center. Striving to not buy from the West, it is left with buying from China. Rather than export democracy the Chinese are more flexible in their methods for realizing hegemony, ceremonially satisfying peripheral elites’ ambitions in a way that could be much less humane than late capitalism. While a “cyber dictatorship” may seem very attractive to part of the Russian elite, then unlike in China where living standards were lifted, in Russia social divisions will be more pronounced. Russia’s turn to the East on the surface was an attempt to diversify from natural resource exports, but the choice between two projects at globalization turns out to be a choice to stay on the periphery, which arouses Russian nationalism, even more uncomfortable than would be the case is struggling with Western hegemony. Even in areas where Russia has sold industrial products to China, the competition is rising along with the technical demands. China is sending more rockets into space than Russia and competing hard to sell weapons to the third world. Soon it will be exporting nuclear reactors. Trying to build economic ties on tourism, Russia falls deeper into the periphery and faces more concessions to get Chinese to visit in a highly competitive environment. The problem of forming an EEU market is not institutional and political contradictions but Russia’s inability to saturate the market with its own goods without exclusive deals and its slow realization of infrastructure projects, backward technology, and incapacity to provide financial security. China will naturally fill the gap. It, no less than US and Europe, is interested in keeping its periphery behind in technology and culture. This is the pessimistic conclusion of the article.

Vasilii Kashin on July 25 for the Moscow Carnegie Center explained the significance of the joint air patrol of Russia and China near Korea, bringing military cooperation to a new level. Stressing Russia’s need to keep the focus narrowly anti-American, he warned against getting dragged into Beijing’s other quarrels with Asian countries. Kashin dismisses any violation of Korean airspace by islands claimed by China as technical with little change in the essence of the situation. Also occurring in July was a publication by the Russian government on talks with China over a new military agreement. The current military agreement dates from 1993 and is quite short and abstract. Ties have expanded, including joint exercises. Each year in early December a plan is adopted by both sides for the following year, which may later be supplemented. The military ties have advanced to a qualitatively new level. Each side used to approach the other as a balancer in complex ties with the US, but Russia was first to enter into full confrontation with the US, initiating a more long-term roadmap for Sino-Russian cooperation. Now China has switched as well to such a systemic confrontation with the US. New directions can be expected in military cooperation as a result. The July 23 joint patrol is proof of Russia’s intention to actively take part in China’s policy of military containment of the US in Asia, including against South Korean and Japanese attempts to gather intelligence from the flight of the Chinese bombers. This will force serious new expenses by the US and its allies with no added cost for Russia and China, argues Kashin. Russia is demonstrating its intention to play a larger military role in the region. Until recently it was ignored in scenarios involving Taiwan and the South China Sea. Yet, Russia must keep its cooperation with China narrowly anti-American, assuming that provoking Seoul and Tokyo falls within that framework and that relevance for the South China Sea does as well.

In Valdai discussion club on August 7 Artyom Lukin wrote if a military alliance between Russia and China was beginning in the Pacific, also highlighting the July 23 joint mission of bombers and accompanying fighters as a signal that their strategic partnership is not a paper tiger. It signals to both the US and its allies that the two constitute a real force in the region. A South Korean fighter fired warning shots, while both Russia and China denied charges that they had violated the air space of foreign governments. This was more demonstrative than the simultaneous presence in 2016 of Chinese and Russian ships near the Senkaku Islands. The new agreement on military cooperation is expected to reflect a qualitatively new level of cooperation, making the July 23 mission just a forerunner of larger scale operations. Such developments will challenge the US military and political domination in the Asia-Pacific region. The main aim, Lukin argues, is to challenge the US alliance system and alter the strategic balance in the region, something either of these states could not do on its own. In Northeast Asia and the north Pacific chances are greatest for a Sino-Russian military alliance. The route indicates that Seoul—the weak link in the alliance system—was the immediate target. It is more easily pressured, subject to reminders how life could be complicated. Seoul is also vulnerable to economic pressure from Beijing or indirect pressure through Pyongyang. Both Moscow and Beijing seek Finlandization of South Korea, weakening the United States.

Mikhail Korostikov on August 18 wrote for the Moscow Carnegie Center on Moscow and Beijing simultaneously opposing ongoing protests. The two examples show that peaceful protest is not effective in non-democratic systems. The mayor of Moscow and chief executive of Hong Kong answer to the head of their government, not to the citizens. As the richest cities of their societies, maintaining their distinctive culture, they are like the intelligentsia facing the proletariat. Leaders in both states charge that the protests are provoked abroad. Hong Kong lives in waiting for 2047, as many contemplate emigrating by then, whereas Moscow has no such time limit. Hong Kongers fight against legal changes, and in Moscow the struggle is for the existing laws to be enforced for fair elections. The scale of protests is much larger in Hong Kong with main interest groups active, but in Moscow entities avoid involvement. Moscow police are much rougher. Deeper frustrations beyond the ostensible cause in both cases drive the protests: stagnation in politics and the economy, no future, and the public wanting control over distribution of declining resources.

Alisa Kalashnikova in Novaya Gazeta on August 19 also covered the demonstrations in Hong Kong, explaining their causes and asking if they would reverberate on the Chinese mainland. This objective probe into causality leaves unclear how best to respond. Vasilii Kashin wrote on the Hong Kong protests in Profil’ on August 16 with warnings that they would end badly for the participants within a week at maximum—either with massive arrests or with loss of Hong Kong’s status as an economic center. Blaming protestors for waving American flags and absurdly seeking independence, Kashin sees Beijing as unable to endure this and the US as poised to impose tariffs in altering the status of the city and in punishing China. The leaderless movement played into the hands of the Sino-US struggle with tragic consequences awaiting very soon, concludes Kashin in contrast to the other authors more critical of China.

On August 19 Kristiana Denisenko in wrote of foreign interference in Hong Kong causing the protests, which are now out of control. After concessions, new demands are unfulfillable. The West is using “color” technology, seeking chaos in order to undermine the principle of “one country two systems,” the Chinese ambassador in Russia is quoted as saying. The case for the new extradition law is sympathetically explained, as blame for the protests is shifted to the West. This article likewise sees the struggle in Sino-US context.

On August 16 in Vita Slivak linked Hong Kong to Tiananmen, adding that in light of the difficult economic situation Beijing is facing it will not use its army in Hong Kong and scare off investors. Yet, its leaders recall the lessons of 1989. Objectively recounting the situation, Slivak notes that after some time the Beijing Internet had begun to demonize the protestors, contrasting loyal Shanghai with the shrew Hong Kong always complaining. Instead of a military intervention, he sees China’s armed militia coming to the aid of the Hong Kong police as more likely to avoid paying a big price, as occurred in 1989. Today’s protests are not so dangerous to the political regime compared to the price that would be exacted on the economy, which unlike 30 years ago is dependent on the outside world.

In the Valdai discussion club Timofei Bordachev wrote about Hong Kong and its impact on the mainland. Starting from the position of friends of China and potential allies, Russians are interested in problems that could destabilize China, counting on it to remain a reliable friend versus the West. Thus, it approaches the situation in Hong Kong from the standpoint of whether it could affect all of China and cause trouble for the PRC as an international player. The disorder reflects local specifics and confusion on how Hong Kongers will become part of a new, greater China and of the “China Dream” in place of serving as a bridge between China and the capitalist world. There is little danger of the disorder spreading into the mainland. Chinese authorities strive for soft competition with the US conducive to economic ties, for which Hong Kong is the symbol, but that now is in doubt. China is demonstrating in Hong Kong an ability to play the long game without severe repression. Yet, its geostrategic opponents, aware that they cannot destabilize China as a whole, see an opportunity to show China that the past benefits it received from integration into the global economy may not be sustained. China’s centralized model worked well in resolving tactical problems, but it may be less successful in serving society’s long-term health. The contemporary West, as before, is ready for creative paths out of existing problems of political development, Is China’s model?

North Korea

Andrei Lankov on September 15 in Rossiya v Global’noi Politike discussed the impact of the departure of John Bolton, which was no surprise given the divisions in Trump’s inner circle as Bolton stuck to his longstanding, hawkish principles. This departure could be significant for Trump’s North Korean policy, where he is inclined to make considerable concessions, readers are told. While most commentators, who approach Trump without good intentions, foresee Trump preparing to sign an agreement to take before the voters as if he resolved the “North Korean nuclear question” when no such thing had occurred, there are some observers who credit Trump for accepting the reality that the DPRK has become an irreversible nuclear power, and the US has to live with that, even if it is impossible to acknowledge the fact. Thus, Trump will compromise as a first step to a disarmament agreement, Lavrov concludes. Neither of these options was acceptable to Bolton, who in Hanoi had a big role in rejecting the North’s offer, which would have been an irreversible US step to relax sanctions, given the responses of China and Russia. A majority of experts on nuclear diplomacy in the US join Bolton’s circle in opposing such a compromise, figuring that the US would then lose influence in the North, but Trump did not take Bolton with him to the June summit with Kim as a sign that he was leaning toward a softer position. Now the chance of a deal has increased greatly, bringing a freeze and possibly partial dismantling of the nuclear program in exchange for economic and political concessions by the US. Closing some production centers will be treated as proof by Trump of full resolution of the problem and be received by Russia and other countries is the region as in their interest despite the blow it would deliver to the proliferation regime, which is not in Russia’s long-term interest. Here US acquiescence to the North’s nuclear weapons is seen as in Russia’s immediate interest.

Vostok Media on August 30 asked why North Korean fishermen roam Primorskii Krai waters as if they are at home, operating on a startling scale. During a recent typhoon this came to light when these fishermen headed close to shore and even dropped their nets there and went to stores for purchases. What makes them so bold? On August 22 when there was a hearing on the subject, journalists were excluded, and participants were told to conceal the details after being ordered to turn off their mobile phones. It seems that on the eve of the Eastern Economic Forum exposure of the scale of this penetration could be unwise. The article says that hundreds or even thousands of small North Korean wooden boats arriving at once overwhelmed border patrols. They were close at hand when the typhoon struck. Also, they use drift nets forbidden to Russians and take fish not permitted for reasons of species preservation. Just days ago, the joint Russian-Korean commission on fishing cooperation met, perhaps resulting in some agreement. In 2018 the North Koreans were allowed certain quotas for fishing in the Sea of Japan. In bad weather some tried to fish in Russian waters and were caught. They are seen as causing great ecological damage in Russian waters, and for years Russian fishermen have called for actions against them. Garbage is often thrown overboard. Korean lives are lost with reckless behavior on small boats with primitive navigation during typhoons. Speculation is raised that the highly centralized border patrols are lenient due to orders from Moscow owing to geopolitical reasons. Local resentments are being aired.

Konstantin Asmolov on August 26 in NEO (Novoe Vostochnoe Obozrenie) wrote about DPRK plans for rockets and nuclear weapons. Blaming both sides of the Korean Peninsula for failing to freeze military construction, he focuses on how much the North has developed its missiles in 2019. There is a new short-distance ballistic rocket capable of hitting any part of the ROK and new technology for guiding the weapons similar to Russia’s Iskander, which makes it necessary for the ROK to field a new missile defense system. There is also an ICBM able to reach the US, which is close to production and deployment. Recent tests indicate plans to work out technology that would enable bypassing the Patriot, Aegis, and THAAD systems. Closely following news from the US, Asmolov cites the prediction that by 2025 the North will possess a solid fuel ICBM, reporting too submarine. He promises to cover more aspects of North Korea’s improved military readiness in subsequent writings also in detail.