Putin’s Chinese Whispers

Russia and China’s deep-running antagonism makes them awkward allies

China Dispatches Russia
Superpower politics: President Putin meets Chinese prime minister Wen Jiabao (Takuro Yabe/PA)

Moscow, brown skies. The Tajik and Uzbek underclass sweep the streets. Those who work for oil break through traffic jams with blue-alarm lights or the flick of an FSB pass. Those who work hard curse them from behind the wheel. The paint peels on the walls of the Russian State University for the Humanities as Kremlin intellectuals pull up their chairs for a meeting of the John Locke Club, for thinkers supporting United Russia — the party of power. Fickle-faced students and pale blondes, bathed in iPad glows, ignore the discussion. Yellow lighting. The smell of institutional Russia: wet clothes, wafts of canteen boiled meats and cheap cleaning fluids. The professors wait for their turn to speak, texting under the table, then lecturing on in their lacklustre way on the theme of the day: “How to make United Russia a real political actor.” 

A prominent pro-Kremlin dean takes the floor. Scant attention is paid.

“But of course United Russia can’t be a real political actor. There is only one political actor in this country, and we all know his name.” A ripple of surprise, then nervous laughter turns to murmurs of quiet agreement. 

“The trouble with this regime — despite being here for so long — is they have not managed to institutionalise anything of their system,” confides the dean afterwards. “The parties are plastic. Politics has no meaning here any more.” 

From the study of an economist close to President Medvedev, a view over Moscow’s old Soviet academic quarter frames hulking Rubik-cubes of chipped concrete, sunk well into their decrepitude. Their neglected interiors are a maze of dim linoleum corridors, lined by dark wood panels and punctured brown leather sofas. Smokers light up in the lifts, rickety Urals-produced rust-packs with flimsy plastic floor-buttons. 

The economist is depressed: “Putin says he stands for stability, yet has no narrative to justify why he should return to the presidency. So he has become the stagnation candidate. Without deep reform the economy will slowly deteriorate into protracted stagnation and an atmosphere of disappointment.” 

After suffering the worst recession of all the G20 countries in 2009, Russia began to lose the optimism of high-growth economies, known as the BRICs (Brazil, Russia, India, China), and instead contracted the pessimism of the West. In 2010 forest fires smothered the capital. The fumes of burning peat bogs obscured the Kremlin walls and made everything unclean. “They cannot even protect the rich,” cursed the elite. Confidence in a Russian resurgence has since mutated into fear of stagnation: a term synonymous in Russia with the years of “the three funerals” that followed the oil-fuelled Brezhnev epoch and preceded perestroika. Putin’s stunts are increasingly seen as PR cover-ups for state incapacity. Even the government admits that less than 20 per cent of orders are implemented on time. There is a constant need for “manual control” — personal inspection by ministers to ensure implementation. 

Putin’s Russia is proving a disappointment even to its greatest beneficiaries: the emerging middle class and the Muscovite oligarchy. They once believed that Putin would be “the Russian Pinochet”, a strong man who would suspend democracy to provide stable economic reform. Today they see more continuity with the Yeltsin era than change. They feel frustrated with swollen, venal officialdom. Nor do they expect Putin to deliver the missing social goods necessary to secure what they won in the boom years: property rights, independent courts, high-tech careers for their children and long-term political certainty. By personalising power and undermining political institutions Putin has traded long-term stability for a stable reign. 

Putin’s announcement of his return as president catapulted talk of stagnation into the mainstream. His birthday was marked by Russia’s first international trending Twitter hashtag: #thanksforthatputin, an ironic reference to a Soviet joke thanking the party for everything. Among the most popular was #thanksforthatputin Brezhnev rises from the dead. Putin’s spokesman shot back on TV — “Brezhnev was good for Russia.” 

The pessimism among the elites seems overdone in a country with 4 per cent GDP growth, the third largest global currency reserves, no serious opposition, strong consumer spending and a low debt-to-GDP ratio. Russia is not in steep decline but this only underlines it as a political perception: dissatisfaction with the direction not the pace of travel. Putin’s failure is not just kleptocratic, but intellectual: he has failed to come up with a sequel to his post-Soviet narrative for Russia.

Those with money in Russia want Europe: a modernised apartment is called a euro-remont in contrast to a soviet-remont. Not since the 19th century has the Russian elite been more physically integrated into Europe. Polls show that 57 per cent of professionals want to emigrate and the Audit Chamber estimates that 1.5 million have already done so, almost all to the EU. The lives of the Soviet elite would have involved lonely party positions or postings to army bases in Central Asia or the Caucasus. Putin’s elite live partly in London and Paris; their children and money stashed in the EU. They look more like an “offshore elite” than a vanguard, in a Russia that is increasingly Asian in ethnic composition and political orientation.

The misery of the marginalised intelligentsia is simple to understand. What happened in 1991, the end of the USSR and the re-emergence of Russia, was a bid for a “common European home”. It eludes them still.

Putin’s return as president next year is a defeat for the West. The EU and the US, which had partly predicated the “reset” in relations on working with Medvedev, have barely hidden their desire for him to remain as president. In Moscow, in the blue-glass cubicles of banks and the dreary interiors of ministries, there was a refrain: “Medvedev will stay because the West wants him — we need him as we need Western money and technology to modernise out of the recession.” Putin felt confident enough to disregard that line. He knew full well of the crisis in the West and that the East had a different opinion: China prefers Putin. Little surprise that his first trip after announcing his return was to Beijing. 

Since the mid-2000s Russia has been politically de-Europeanising. Putin’s choice to step down from the presidency in favour of Medvedev in 2008 was justified in the state media as: “We are not in Central Asia.” His return nullifies this claim, placing him firmly alongside Nursultan Nazarbayev, president-for-life of Kazakhstan, and other Asian strongmen. Like the general secretaries of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, Putin will now almost certainly either die in office or be removed unconstitutionally. The FSB and other security agencies, with their involvement in property, corruption and crime, bear more resemblance to an Arab “Mukhabarat” than to MI5 or the FBI. The economic structure of Russia has also been de-Europeanised: following the pattern of Middle Eastern petro-states, it is more dependent on natural resources than the USSR ever was. 

Under Putin, Russia has become more Asian in a demographic sense too. Most of the Jews and the ethnic Germans emigrated in the 1990s, to be replaced by 10-15 million mostly Muslim Central Asians and Caucasians in the 2000s. Ethnic Russians today make up less than three-quarters of the population once this migration is accounted for. 

Abroad, it is a similar picture. China is now Russia’s largest trading partner, surpassing Germany for the first time in 2010. Yoked together in the new BRICS forum and the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO), the authoritarian powers have built international organisations without the West. Chinese troops carry out exercises on Russian soil, while Moscow supplies the People’s Liberation Army with the technology to put a man in space, build a stealth bomber and launch an aircraft carrier. China has replaced Russia as the biggest trading partner of all but one Central Asian state and extends credit lines as far away as Belarus, Armenia and Moldova. Regionally, the SCO is the only successful international organisation as it is unofficially led by Beijing. 

Putin is deeply involved in Russia’s China policy. He has not officially visited the UK or the US recently but he flies to Beijing several times a year. Many of his entourage share his fascination with the Chinese system. His daughter studied Chinese. As Simon Kordonsky, Putin’s stubbly former speechwriter, explained to me, China has captivated the Kremlin imagination as the EU crisis deepens: “It seems to me that they hardly ever have China itself in their viewfinder. The China that is emerging into their worldview is an abstract phenomenon, a reproach to those whose predecessors did not follow the ‘Chinese way’ and — guided by the US and others — followed advice to build ‘the market and democracy’.”

The West in crisis lacks the power and will to exploit a de-Europeanising Russia’s stagnation. That chance is China’s.

The road to the airport was blocked as I tried to leave Moscow. Military police in tundra-camouflage had closed a main thoroughfare to prevent dissenters gathering around the statue of Mayakovsky. Another key axis was jammed so that Putin could quietly drive the visiting Mongolian leadership along the embankment. I listened to the rattling of the Lada as the smell of diesel fused with nicotine and frustration. The driver swore. The rain fell.

On the 747 to Beijing the heavy-breathing of the engine merges with the snores of Russian fertilizer specialists and mutterings of an elderly Chinese tourist group. The morning is a dehydrated haze as I wander around the fast-growing Russian district of Beijing. There are signs in Cyrillic and Chinese, Siberian fur-trappers hawking mink to Beijing ladies, a Soviet-themed club with a performing midget, ticket kiosks for the regular shuttle-buses for Vladivostok. The Slavic customers seem shabby in the Chinese capital. 

 ”So what does China think of Russia?” As I stand in the smog on the curb outside Beijing’s most powerful think-tank, a combination of pollution, humidity and heat give the air the qualities of a solid. The main highways of China’s capital resemble triumphal motorways, a grid around the Forbidden City, lined by the glassy trophies of our times: five-star hotels, oil majors, banks. I am talking to the editor of a Chinese foreign policy journal: “We learnt a lot from Moscow’s mistakes.” 

Since 1991, China and Russia have been mutual utopias and dystopias. In the early 1980s the two powers chose different exits from the dead-end of bureaucratic Communism. For Russia, China’s choices came to look like a utopian success of authoritarianism, capitalism and sovereignty, a triumph over the West that Moscow should have followed. For China, Russia came to look like a dystopian blend of lawlessness, corruption and shrunken power: a litany of every mistake a ruling party can make. During the 1990s Chinese academies studied the collapse of the USSR to derive policies to feed into strengthening their own Communist Party (CCP). Since 2006 a restricted eight-volume DVD set, Consider Danger in Times of Peace, on the Soviet collapse has been mandatory viewing for all central, provincial and municipal party organs. 

“But what does China want from Russia?” China can be whatever it wants to be. As the 2012 CCP leadership reshuffle looms and new skyscrapers throw off their scaffolding, Beijing is abuzz with foreign policy debates. China today has an intensive, but constrained, internal debate on what kind of superpower to become. The rapidity of its rise has taken Chinese intellectuals by surprise, creating several conflicted and criss-crossing intellectual tendencies, which are arguing over how China should assert itself. 

Inside the think-tank there is a small room with a very low ceiling where staff meet the Europeans. There is no table. You are encouraged to recline throughout, Chinese-style, on squidgy sofas at the opposite end of the room from your interlocutors. There are small red-capped bottles of Nongfu spring water if you are thirsty. On the wall, paintings of Big Ben and a white-washed Greek village in a fake gold frame. They hope you are feeling at home. 

In this uneasy comfort I sit and listen to the views of the Chinese foreign policy establishment. They are surprisingly divergent: less a consensus than a cacophony.

There are prominent nationalists and realists in Beijing who view the American strategy of hoping for a “responsible Chinese stakeholder” as wanting to pin them down. They publish works with titles such as “China is Unhappy” or “Why is China Unhappy?”; they want a China that builds up a blue-water navy and commits itself to eventually tipping the balance of Pacific power. These intellectuals take a poor view of Russia — as “second-class whites” — but crucial in securing a safe continental rear so they can focus on countering US pressure at sea. 

The realists that I met were disdainful of Russia: “If there is a conflict with the US the Chinese money will keep Russian airspace closed,” said one prominent Russia specialist, born in Manchuria. “Russia and China are like a dog and a cat. Nice to be together sometimes but we cannot have a common life. Russians think they are superior. They hate us, especially now we have a bit of money.” Memories that swathes of Siberia are former Chinese territory are not part of their nationalist narrative for now, but not forgotten either. At several meetings with experts with a realist inclination I raised the territorial issue, only to be curtly cut short — “We have long given that up, why do you mention that?” — or met with sudden, disconcerting switches into mandarin Chinese. Yet they still admire Russia for one thing: “They are the only country that could really hurt the American military.”

 A competing foreign policy tendency is known as “Chinese great power politics”. Viewing small states scornfully from the capital of 1.3 billion people, these thinkers want Beijing to focus diplomacy on the power poles — the US, Japan, Russia, India, Brazil and the European Union. They view international relations as a never-ending dance of great power manoeuvring. They want Beijing to invest heavily in avoiding a global anti-Chinese balancing coalition. Key to this is what the influential analyst and former diplomat Bobo Lo calls “an axis of convenience” with Moscow. 

“Russia is useful to us internationally and regionally. Internationally we are together in the UN to stop interventions. Regionally we are together in Central Asia in the SCO as it makes it safe for our investments,” explained one leading proponent of great power politics. Yet this tendency feels that China can live without Russia and takes satisfaction from the fact that Moscow is increasingly the junior partner. “You see, we Chinese just want to be a great power again and enjoy ourselves,” smiled one academic. 

China’s own influential globalists have dominated the agenda in the 2000s. Fascinated by the West, they take a dim view of the Putin system as a “not very impressive development”. For the globalists, Russia is the past. This Chinese tendency emphasises that Beijing is actually the greatest beneficiary of globalisation and that global co-governance with Washington, with the occasional input from Brussels on climate change or trade, only stands to benefit them. One globalist-inclined government adviser smiled wryly when I asked if Russia had a role in the Asian century: “Being big in territory is not the key. They are too small in GDP — they do not matter at all in geo-economics or in Asia apart from on some energy issues. They are in stagnation. They are neither capable nor permitted to balance between the US and China.” 

The most distinctive tendency among foreign policy intellectuals is known as “Asia First”. Its proponents believe China needs to focus on being a regional power by dominating bodies like ASEAN or the Asian Forum. Their inspiration is the hidden power of Germany within the European Union. Their minds are also tinged by a sense of “Asia is for Asians”. They aim to dislodge America from its domination of the south-east Pacific through a policy of multilateralism with Chinese characteristics, not by building a blue-water navy to rival the US Seventh Fleet. 

Talking with an “Asia-First” advocate from a party think-tank, I found that they consider the idea of Russia as an Asian power laughable — despite Putin’s efforts to woo Beijing. If Russia has a place at all in their worldview it is within an “Asian neighborhood policy”. We drink tea slowly. “When we think of Russia we think of Putin, vodka, guns and girls. At the moment we are hosting conferences at our think-tank about an Asian community. It would be centred on China, Korea and Japan. We could have a common currency, customs union, tariff system and supranational institutions — like your European Union. Some people have suggested that South Korea would be offered North Korea to join. Some think in exchange Japan could be forgiven, and with a new common currency — a global reserve currency — its debt could be cleared and its economy relaunched. Russia would be given access to the customs union in exchange for loyalty.” 

“But surely,” I reply, “the Japanese would never share sovereignty with China?” 

“Yes, there are a few problems with this plan.” 

What all these Chinese policy tendencies share is the view that before the economic crisis Russia was a convenient and useful partner. Now that the Chinese establishment feels stronger Moscow is considered helpful but inessential. This has started to manifest itself in increased competition between the two powers in central Asia, Chinese companies securing below-market rates for oil, failing gas negotiations and diplomatic strain at the UN and in the SCO. Chinese arms imports have collapsed, the Russian military is reinforcing the Far East and the FSB has made public the first major Chinese spy scandal of the post-Soviet era. And to the horror of Russian nationalists, China has started to “rent” several thousand square miles of agricultural land in Siberia. Sino-Russian ties have peaked; Russia and China are still close, but on divergent paths.

In 2006 a Russian bestseller by the dissident skinhead novelist Zakhar Prilepin started circulating online. It consistently ranked in the top 20 for three years. There are rumours that Putin himself has read it. San’kia is the story of Sacha, a blundering punk-nationalist whose father has drunk himself to death. He begins to “run” with pathetic revolutionaries, baby-faced thugs who can barely tie their own shoe-laces, let alone fight the police. Sacha falls into their company not out of choice but because he is completely disorientated: a cipher for fatherless generation. Concerned by his brawls, an avuncular professor invites him for a word or two. He knows full well how punks smash their heads open banging on the bars of the state. The professor raises his voice: 

“You have nothing in common with the motherland. The same way the motherland has nothing in common with you. There is no more motherland. It’s vanished, it’s gone. There’s no point playing these games — smashing windows, breaking necks and God knows what else. Do you really think that this people, half of whom are alcoholics and the other half are pensioners, need a purpose?”

As angry as he is ignorant, Sacha snorts back: “What then — live here? In this country that will be dead in 30 years, over-run by Chechens and Chinese?” 

San’kia became a bestseller because it touched a raw nerve. Most Russians live in the novel’s world of disappointment: rows of grey, crumpled 1960s Soviet estates known as khrushchevka, a wordplay on Khrushchev, meaning a slum. The iron doors clang open with a standardised bleep and electric stun. Russian homes are secured behind padded double-doors on dank, bare concrete stairwells that smell of urine, festering plants, frying grease and jammed rubbish chutes. In these small apartments this argument between cynicism and nationalism is playing itself out around cups of tea: is Russia even worth saving? Will Putin really rule until 2024? 

Putin does not want to be General de Gaulle, who defined on French terms his post-colonial place in Nato. Nor does he want to be Alexander Nevsky, who defeated the Teutonic knights but paid tribute to the Mongols. He wants an independent Russia. The same focus on power for the sake of power that is weakening Putin’s political resonance at home gives him a keen compass in foreign policy. And he has played a weak hand well. 

For 12 years Putin has guided his country with an uncanny intuition for the balance of power and oil. Having taken a pro-American stance after 9/11, in 2003 he dissociated himself from George W. Bush, a US president he had grown close to, over Iraq. In mid-decade, he presciently bet on Germany not as the sick man of Europe but the essential EU power. He began investing in China before the West had recognised its rise. Putin is now turning his diplomacy towards the EU again. He has long wanted to make Russia the most powerful European state. He wants the continent to return to the concert of powers that existed before the world wars, Nato and the EU. In a recent speech, Putin started playing on the West’s fears of China by calling on the EU and Russia “to join forces or cede the world to others”. The Kremlin now hopes to become the balancing power in Eurasia.

Putin will probably succeed in building an independent Russia, but an isolated and unmodernised one. The irony is that Putinist power politics have left the largest country in the world feeling surrounded, at times even hunted.