Country Report: Russia (September 2020)

Russians faced at least five Indo-Pacific regional challenges in the late summer of 2020, most of which were not being discussed forthrightly. No doubt the one looming in the forefront was the deterioration of relations between China and India, as their border in the Himalayas saw a large military build-up after a serious clash. As host of the SCO and RCI trilaterals of defense and foreign ministers, Moscow tried in vain to assuage tensions while staying silent about the cost to its strategy in the region if the downward slide continued. A second challenge stemmed from China’s disrespect of the sphere of influence and terms of quasi-alliance that Russian had taken for granted in this bilateral relationship. While in July this issue had roiled nerves and it revived at times, as in the Chinese sale of an anti-missile system to Serbia, little was made of the threat to the close partnership. Third, there was growing fear of being dragged into a cold war or even a military conflict over Taiwan, where Russia sided completely with China and blamed the US. In publications there was no recognition of any Chinese responsibility for the deterioration in relations or that Russia could have used Trump’s warmth to Putin as a way to reset the triangle. Fourth, Abe’s retirement in Japan brought disappointment that a figure seen as friendly to Russia will be leaving the scene with doubt that his successor would be as positive but no hint of regret that Russia had squandered the opportunity to reach a deal. Finally, alarm that the situation on the Korean Peninsula could turn dangerous aroused no second thoughts that Russia could have taken advantage of Moon and Trump’s interest in a breakthrough to play a role in moving diplomacy forward. Behind all of Russia’s reasoning was the conviction that the US is the enemy, its alliances are a threat, China is a dependable partner in the fight against the US, and multipolarity is now of little interest. The logic of polarization has become incontrovertible.

The prevailing reasoning is entirely structural with no role for values apart from the enduring US drive to do all within its power—even to use nuclear weapons if not thwarted—to prevent the rise of a competitor. There is no noticeable divide between the USSR and Russia, each vital to saving the world from the US threat—whether in the Korean War or in the prospect of a two-front war should Washington start a conflict over Taiwan. The key geopolitical factor is how the strategic triangle is aligned; Moscow and Beijing failed by splitting up, and they are succeeding now by joining together strictly for blocking the US and not due to a sense of alliance, Trump has been a huge benefit to them is the implicit message, deepening the political divide at home that weakens the US and launching a cold war with China, which makes it value Russia more. No prospect exists of splitting Moscow from Beijing. It is in an advantageous position brought about by the US extending the decade-long cold war with it to China, creating one versus two. Yet a countercurrent exists, worrying about China becoming more assertive toward states such as India and, to some degree toward Russia as well with the verdict out on whether this will last.


Kommersant on July 18 focused on Washington continuing its economic and political attack on Beijing through new sanctions and support from Great Britain. Trump had announced that Hong Kong would lose its special economic status and repeated that China is responsible for COVID-19, adding that Joseph Biden’s entire career is a gift from the CCP. Earlier sanctions were announced over Xinjiang along with a tougher posture on the South China Sea. O’Brien visited Europe with Pottinger to get agreement on excluding Huawei from 5G networks. If London was agreeable, Paris and Berlin were not, but the pressure on them is growing. The article explains that Beijing is reacting with restraint so far, Alexander Gabuev noted that China seeks to avoid escalation, delaying the conflict in order to prepare better and progress on import substitution, but also in the hope that a Biden victory could lessen the severity of the conflict. China nay avoid painful measures for bilateral ties but it will stand in defense of its national interests.

On September 7 Kommersant reported on China’s sanctions against Prague over the speaker of the senate’s visit to Taiwan. Wang Yi warned that a high price would be paid for this violation of the “one China” policy. The Czech president attacked the speaker’s move as a provocation, and Chinese companies were quick to retaliate, putting trade relations with China (second only to Germany as a trade partner) in jeopardy. Beijing’s harsh tone drew an extreme reaction, not in defense of the speaker but against China’s threats. The delegation to Taiwan consisted of 90 members of the country’s political and business elite. The speaker appeared before parliament declaring, “I am Taiwanese.” He later declared that Taiwan is ready to enter Europe through Prague. The mayor of that city, part of the delegation, had already offended Beijing with his stance on Tibet. The Sino-US confrontation is making it harder for countries in the EU to sit on two stools, and the choice has already been made, politically, economically, and in security. Sergei Utkin noted that even Trump’s policies and style are not altering these long-term ties. There are some tactical differences, he added, but in the overall plan all of the countries of the EU feel themselves to be part of the West, which is not on the same path as China and Russia.

Anastasiya Piatachkova on August 26 in Rossiya v Global’noi Politike asked if sanctions against China are now official as part of a series of changes in the international arena linked to the pandemic. Chinese is now being more heavily censored by the US, and further sanctions seem to lie ahead. India has banned the use of Chinese apps. Mobile phones in India, Japan, and South Korea are no longer going to use Chinese equipment from Huawei, and Great Britain has joined in this. China is also retaliating, albeit informally, against products from other countries. The question is not of what China is guilty but of what it can be accused. The views of Fyodor Lukyanov are reported. The first signs of China using the instruments of economic coercion occurred in the mid-90s, and they became regular in the mid-2000s. The number of cases, the motives for acting, and the range of choices gradually rose in the 2010s. They were applied against Vietnam and the Philippines in the context of exacerbated conflict in the South China Sea, against Mongolia in connection to the visit of the Dalai Lama in 2016, in South Korea in 2016-17 over THAAD, against Japan in connection to a territorial dispute, and against North Korea through participation in multinational UN sanctions.

One could get the impression that the PRC only applies sanctions against weaker countries or neighbors with which it is closely tied in territory or economics, but sanctions were also extended against Norway after Liu Xiaobo received the Nobel Prize in 2010. There are two new tendencies: formal sanctions are being added, and the conflict with the US is provoking the introduction of systemic, long-term sanctions. Only the US side, to a great degree, is interested in a cardinal reexamination of cooperation, although it would be inaccurate to view China exclusively as the victim. It seeks to minimize the tensions, having made unprecedented concessions at the beginning of the Trump administration in negotiations on North Korea and in a January 2020 trade deal with the US. As pressure mounted during the pandemic, the PRC long held back from a symmetrical response, apparently attributing US behavior to the election campaign. Just several months ago experts were uncertain if China would limit itself to rhetoric or would take more decisive measures. In practice, when one side chooses conflict the other on its own cannot stick to cooperation. It has been forced to respond, including tough rhetoric and concrete responses such as sanctions on US officials and Lockheed-Martin and the closure of the Chengdu consulate.

The costs of the sanctions for now are not severe, given mutual dependency limiting their use and ways to bypass them. Some steps remain on paper, even if putting US companies on a list leads to a short-term drop in stocks. American components are being replaced, such as microchips, and American companies are leaving China, which will have a long-term structural effect on bilateral cooperation. Of course, there remains a big reserve to the relationship. Wang Yi reports that 74 percent of US companies in China plan to expand their investments, even if Trump declared that the US can save $500 billion by separating from China. Sanctions are one of the most suitable ways to decouple, and they are intensifying. China acts more confidently against US allies, as in the case of Australia, which sought an investigation into the cause of the pandemic. If India were to take further steps, China would feel it necessary to respond. The main danger is institutionalization of antagonistic intentions. If international pressure on China continued to escalate, China would need to use the entire specter of sanctions instruments.

In Meduza on July 27, China’s efforts to promote itself through the Russian media are declared comical. Since a 2018 bilateral agreement, Russian state media are obliged to publish Chinese propaganda in return for having the same right in China, but that is proving difficult. On July 18 Rossiiskaya Gazeta carried an article, “Human rights are not violated in Xinjiang,” which stands out even against materials in Russian state media, argues this Estonian source. Having signed the agreement to intensify information exchanges, Russian state media regularly publish materials in this spirit. The China Media Corporation is the source of more than 100 items each month. Meanwhile, there are no negative articles about Russia permitted in the Chinese press. Yet the situation is not equal. As Sergey Radchenko is quoted, China will not publish articles on subjects where its position is at odds with Russia’s, such as in defense of the annexation of Crimea. Even the translation of Putin’s recent article about WWII has been blocked on Sputnik’s Chinese website. Russian academics can also publish in Chinese newspapers, as Alexander Lukin did in Global Times criticizing the US. Maria Repnikova notes that Russia is more dependent on China than the other way around; so there can be no equal partnership in information flows. The article concludes that the Chinese propaganda efforts are not successful: those on websites barely get a few hundred views, and posts on VKontakte rarely get more than a dozen likes. The wooden language of propaganda is ineffective, equated even to 1950s Soviet propaganda.

Ekspert online carried an article titled “Good-bye, China” by Ol’ga Meshcheriagina on August 21 on US and European companies leaving the country. Even if much of this is costly, they are ready to bear the cost, Bank of America calculated that these companies would do without a trillion dollars over five years by transferring production out of China. More important than politics are the effects of the pandemic. Many companies are planning to return production from abroad. Even before the pandemic, the tendency to shift from globalization to localization was apparent. Before Trump declared a trade war with China, the process was under way. The pandemic accelerated it as did the trade war, Already, for several years China has not been the most popular destination for transferring production. Southeast Asia and South Asia are preferred, not one’s home country due to cheap labor and taxes to keep competitiveness. Yet transfers are costly, and China will retain its place. It has long prepared for this day, e.g., in 2015 with the program Made in China 2025 to reduce technological dependence. As its costs rise, the pace of growth slows. It is possible that China has already received all that it desired.

Interfax on August 24 interviewed Aleksei Maslov, director of the Institute of the Far East on China’s foreign policy and BRI. It begins by noting the transformation of Sino-US relations into open antagonism has impacted the entire system of international cooperation, first of all Chinese plans for global penetration into the world economy, beginning with BRI. Explaining that BRI has been so successful because it relies on huge Chinese investments, which many countries consider necessary to develop their economy, above all in Central Asia and Eastern and Central Europe.  The countries of Russia’s southern underbelly want to support it, but they lack money and technology. China well understands that they require an idea free of any ideological subtext, in contrast to all prior US ideas. China actively presses for zones of free trade without tariff barriers. But is this a path to globalization? China is actually following the type of globalization the US had established—the same international institutions. To about 2014 this was acceptable to the US, which received vast amounts of cheap goods and could export its industry. Eventually, the US understood that to weaken China, it had to torpedo its own system of globalization, simultaneously forging a new one, possibly without China and Russia, but China is too far along for that.

In 2013 China revived old socialist slogans, such as a “common destiny for mankind,” referring to Asia, Africa, and Latin America, starting with Central Asia on Xi’s trip there. It was a paradox for the West, lacking specificity and awaiting interest in other countries, which quickly materialized. Some saw it in economic terms, but there was a deep political content, given Chinese rejection by then of the global model. BRI is nothing less than the establishment of a new macroeconomic region. Helpful to China was the absence in most countries of China experts who delve deeply into the logic of Chinese initiatives. Many simply did not comprehend how China pursues its traditional political culture, not conquering territory via military means, always preferring to subject regions through invasive economic offers. BRI became popular, peaking in 2015 and again spiking in 2018. Chinese investments in 2019 plunged. The return on infrastructure depends on the level of two-way international trade, but most countries run up big trade deficits with China. This leaves countries in debt to China with no way to pay it off. With its projects China represented the global alternative to the US presence, directed, financed, and administered by only one country. Only by joining BRI would investments flow on China’s terms, not through negotiations.

In China critics asked if their country was not following the Soviet path of pouring money into Latin America and Africa, which was lost when the Soviet Union collapsed, leading to a pullback in 2016 in buying hotels or entertainment centers in favor of infrastructure, large-scale industrial objects, technological start-ups, and car factories—usually already built. It began to buy major ports and their buildings, as in Greece and Italy. Seeking control over the Panama Canal and sea routes, China aroused a sharp response in the US. No longer was China just the “world’s factory.” It was now a competitor in advanced technology. Russians expected China to respond to US moves as Russia would have in a fighting mood. Instead, China has prioritized diplomacy with some countersanctions, preferring peace for its trade to grow, as some warned about violating the legacy of Deng Xiaoping. China’s soft response is unexpected for Russians and Americans.

Russia has not had a big place in BRI. There was talk of docking the EEC and BRI, and in 2018 a document was signed, but most projects never started since the Chinese side lacks real interest in joint projects. Only one promising project endures—joining the fragments of roads in western China through Kazakhstan to Orenburg and then the central part of Russia. It has a lot of benefit logistically, sharply shortening the distance and avoiding the difficulties of Siberia and the Russian Far East. The Kazakh section of this highway is already done. The main question is what will be transported and who will control this. Sino-US tensions have had a negative impact on Chinese plans at home and abroad, especially BRI, but the US cannot force China to abandon this plan. Countries have received money and cannot escape from the credits, as was done with the USSR. There will be no war, judging from China, which will force the next US president to sit down for talks. The US could not break Russia, and it will not break China. But China’s aggressive policies of buying will remain and probably become a key theme of the new talks.

Mikhail Khodarenok on August 4 in noted that Serbia had purchased three batteries of Chinese anti-aircraft missiles instead of Russia’s S-300, as earlier expected, offering very favorable financial terms. One Russian is quoted as saying that the reliability of Chinese weapons and military technology leaves some doubt, and China’s system is not battle-tested. Also noted is the contradictory character of Serbia’s political elite: many tie the future of their country exclusively with the West. The president, to a degree, is pro-Russian, but this is not decisive.

On August 13 Vzgliad explained why Serbia has turned to China. The reason is the threat of US sanctions for purchases of Russia’s anti-missile system. in the logic of this acquisition. Belgrade buys some weapons from Russia, this new system from China, and is looking to the West, suggesting no consolidation in the attitudes of the military-political leadership. Serbia along with Hungary is one of the two main Chinese partners in Eastern Europe, receiving huge investments in infrastructure, trade, and industry. No doubt, the new weapons were offered on favorable terms to strengthen this partnership. China will also transfer the technology, which was not costly to develop since the system is a copy of Russia’s, which was stolen. Finally, this purchase is a political gesture in support of Serbia’s neutrality. Serbia was recently the first European country to buy Chinese combat drones. The hope for China is that other European countries cutting back on military spending due to the pandemic will also look to cheaper Chinese arms. Some expect tough US measures to prevent Serbia becoming a bridgehead for Chinese arms sales in Europe, e.g., ousting Serbia’s president.

In, Mikhail Khodorenok wrote about how China has built the largest naval fleet in the world of about 350 ships compared to the US at 293, although the US leads in tonnage. What will happen when China’s quantity is accompanied by corresponding technical quality? The article draws on US assessments of China’s growing capabilities. The US is rushing to modernize its own fleet and nuclear arsenal. China will still need some time to prepare for military action. on August 26 assessed the triangle of Moscow-Beijing-Washington, arguing that the laws of mathematics are at work. The combination of the USSR and the PRC had prevented the Korean War from escalating into a world war with the use of nuclear weapons, but China’s subtraction from the socialist bloc changed the balance of power and forced the Soviet Union to prepare for war on two fronts. Having in 2018 started a cold war against China as it stepped up the cold war against Russia for more than a decade, Trump has lost China, but China and Russia remain independent without a full-fledged alliance. The trend is for closer economic and military interaction. Thus, the US has left itself with the prospect of war on two fronts, in a situation similar to Germany, Japan, and the Soviet Union. Washington has overextended itself to the limit, even facing Iran, North Korea and other fronts, while irreconcilable contradictions divide it politically. Now the strategic task is to separate Russia and China and keep them from joining forces.

Trump is giving the Kremlin significant information on China’s nuclear and missile capabilities, as China is unwilling to negotiate to curb the nuclear arms race, promising Russia it could rejoin the G7 directed against China. This approach is failing since the US is challenging Russia’s national security interests and memories remain there of the West betraying the Soviet Union after the victory against Germany and then tearing the Russian geopolitical space apart after the collapse of the Soviet Union and launching a new cold war, proving that the first was not about communism but a geopolitical competitor. Likewise, Beijing remembers the blockade of the PRC after 1949, the Korean War, and the sanctions from 1989. Trump began a cold war against China not because of socialism but due to its growth in national power. While China and Russia are now practically impossible to separate, they are too dissimilar to simply become allies. Historical memory has left remnants of distrust. Relations are complex, but Russia and China must prevent US attempts at fission. This article reflects deep strategic triangle thinking, linking 75 years of history to the present and only hinting at strains between Russia and China.

MKRU on August 11 said that Trump’s obsession with China is taking a grotesque form.
Hundreds of thousands of Chinese students and interns are suspected of espionage, and Confucius Institutes are portrayed as enemy residencies, where they teach the basics of the language and culture of the Middle Kingdom. Even during the previous election campaign Trump accused Beijing for causing all the troubles of America as the leitmotif of his articles and speeches. At Yorba, Linda Pompeo summed it up: “Ambassador O’Brien has already spoken about ideology. FBI Director Ray spoke about espionage. Attorney General Barr – on the economy. We had a very clear task, a real mission. It was to clarify various aspects of America’s relationship with China; huge imbalances in these relations that have developed over decades.”

Nixon’s memorial library was chosen to erase his main foreign policy achievement. The US has been bent on a color change in China and could not accept failure. The victory of the West over the East in the Cold War, therefore, could not be considered final. Only the Soviet nuclear umbrella had protected the PRC in the Korean War and over the Taiwan Strait later from US nuclear attack. But xenophobia toward China predates the “red scare” with the “yellow peril.” Against the background of more frequent beatings of Chinese in the streets, expulsion of students and flaring up "black-and-white" conflicts in American cities, one can expect the fomenting of the "yellow danger" and the adoption of extremely dangerous decisions. Yuri Tavrovsky concluded, Russia and China under Trump have been officially declared America’s top strategic rivals. The enmity with them is acquiring an increasingly uncompromising, antagonistic character. Truly, “winter is coming.”

In Zavtra on July 30, Tavrovsky also wrote about China in the nuclear triangle, referring to America’s cold war against China and warning about an adventurous US decision in the pre-election period, even a nuclear strike. During the Cold War, only the Soviet acquisition of nuclear weapons stopped the US in the Korean War, and when the US was tempted later against China. Now the US has returned to an aggressive approach to China, including entertaining a first, disarming strike. Tavrovsky hypes the threat to China, perhaps in an effort to demonstrate China’s great need for Russia as an ally, loyal to the principles of strategic partnership. He emphasizes the July 23, 2019 flight of two Russian strategic bombers carrying nuclear weapons alongside two Chinese planes over the Japanese and East China seas and Putin’s announcement that October to help China establish a missile attack warning system. The revival of the interaction between Moscow and Beijing in strategic security is a serious obstacle, readers are told. Together they will not allow a repeat of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, preventing a new nuclear war. Readers can conclude that the US actually plans to launch such a war if they take this analysis seriously.

On August 8 in Nezavisimaya Gazeta, Tavrovsky asked about Trump’s Taiwan strategy. He wrote that Pompeo had called the entire US policy towards China ineffective since the days of Nixon and for "spinning back" the events of the past five decades, returning to the times of confrontation with “Red China”—a speech equated with Churchill’s Fulton, MO speech of 1946 on the “Iron Curtain.” In this Yorba Linda speech, Pompeo made clear that a new cold war had begun, confirming that the chain reaction of the final “divorce” between the US and the PRC triggered by the closing of China’s Houston consulate was under way. Tavrovsky added that Beijing is seriously discussing the possibility that Washington will sever diplomatic relations. The US restoring diplomatic relations will be on the agenda, but will Taiwan move to declare sovereignty and directly challenge China? China is warning of the disastrous consequences of such a move. Military confrontation in the Taiwan Strait may become a reality. The US is hoping to use a clash to slow China’s impressive economic recovery or even as a pretext to postpone or cancel the November elections, seeking to restore Trump’s popularity with scant concern for Taiwan’s fate. The island could become a springboard for US medium- and short-range missiles. Placing the island under the US nuclear umbrella, Trump would assume the PRC would not dare to attack it. Trump would stay in power, damage China’s international prestige, and win the cold war without firing a shot, at least in its initial stage, concludes Tavrovsky.

Sino-Indian relations        

Kommersant on September 10 assessed relations among China, India, and Pakistan in light of a two-day SCO foreign ministers’ meeting in Moscow, including the RIC format. The delicacy of the situation of dialogue amid escalating tensions was clearly noted. New muscle-flexing had followed a meeting of the Chinese and Indian defense ministers only a week before. The article presents the clashing statements of the two sides over what had occurred. Now the two sides are transferring more forces to the line of control. Meanwhile, India has sent more troops to the border with Pakistan in response to intelligence of possible incursions and evidence that China may be using Pakistan to divert India’s attention. Details of the RIC and India-China talks have not been disclosed, Russia could only voice platitudes about the importance of trilateral interactions for peace and security. The article conveys no sense of optimism about the SCO.


On August 29 Kommersant bemoaned Abe’s departure in Japan. The Kremlin highly valued Abe’s adherence to the principle of resolving all disputed bilateral issues through talks, but there were no serious results. Now developing relations with Moscow may disappear as a priority. Three key failures are accentuated: constitutional reform, abductees in North Korea, and a peace treaty with Russia, the main obstacle being the Southern Kuriles. If the greatest success was the 2016 agreement on joint economic activity on the disputed islands, so far there have only been isolated trial balloons. Moscow and other world capitals expressed regret at Abe’s departure, but former Ambassador Alexandr Panov warned that no other Japanese political leader is so supportive. A period has begun in which if bilateral relations do not deteriorate they will at least be less active. Yet Dmitrii Strel’tsov suggested that Suga could be an exception. While the illusion of rapid resolution of the border question has faded in Japan, he is likely to make bilateral relations a priority.

In Vedemosti on August 30 Gleb Mishutin and Svetlana Bocharova doubted that Abe’s successor would be as eager to work closely with Russia. Abe met 27 times with Putin, and Russia expressed regret over his resignation, noting his invaluable contribution to bilateral relations. Japan is in an especially difficult position due to China’s rise, and normalization of ties to Russia is hindered by the absence of a peace treaty. Despite the personal sympathy between Abe and Putin, settlement of the territorial dispute was doomed from the outset. The Russian side will not have any moral obligations to the new leader of Japan, the article adds, and given the amendments to the Constitution there is no longer a legal pathway to a resolution. The only way Russia could benefit from a peace treaty is if Japan were no longer obligated to the US via a security treaty, and the US will not allow that or a Russian-Japanese rapprochement. No mention is made of economic benefits from a breakthrough with Japan. The logic is reminiscent of the Soviet era.

The Korean Peninsula

On August 2 Profil’ asked why Ambassador Harry Harris’ mustache bothers the Koreans. He was born in Japan of a Japanese mother. This was set aside, but the mustache became a symbol of humiliating national dignity as a reminder of the style of Japanese occupiers of Korea. Young radicals tried to break into the ambassador’s home, demanding that he depart. But Harris stayed and finally shaved his mustache. The article comments on hair in East Asian history without veering away from an objective recounting of the outcry over Harris that riveted South Korea.