Posts Tagged ‘Russia’

A new post for a new outlet – this time for the British political magazine Spectator’s website drawing together impressions on some recent travel through the heart of Eurasia. Rather than the title suggests, it is about more than just Russia. Look forward to hearing feedback and to be writing more on these themes. This aside, spoke to the Financial Times about the China-US clash and the growing pressure on Huawei which was subsequently picked up by Silicon.

How the West failed to bring Russia into line

28 November 2018 | 5:15 PM

Moscow does not feel like a city under siege. Cracking jokes about Novichok, Muscovites are sanguine about the conflict they are currently in the midst of with the west. Rather, a sense of hardening has settled in, with most presuming the current deep freeze with the UK and west is permanent and adjusting their realities accordingly. There is little evidence that our action is having the desired effect; 

instead a new geopolitical alignment is settling in – something that is only confirmed by further visits to other Eurasian capitals and conversations with officials and experts from other powers like China or Iran. The longer it grows, the deeper and more permanent it becomes. Rather than a new Cold War, we are entering into a moment of clearer multipolar hostility.

Having recently returned from a two week trip which included stops in Moscow and Astana, Kazakhstan, one thing is certain: winter is bitterly cold in the heart of Eurasia. But while a simple narrative would translate this weather as chill wind welcoming in the new Cold War, this misses the broader and more nuanced picture which is visible from both of these capitals. These reflect a shift which is taking place at the heart of the Eurasian continent and with which we need to rapidly engage or miss out on one of the major geopolitical changes of our times.

The narrative starts in Moscow where there is little evidence of relenting in the face of western pressure. Russian officials and experts continue to advance lines which show little admission of defeat or culpability in recent events in Salisbury or the Hague. The closest they will get to admission is to say that such intelligence operations are more properly handled behind closed doors. More often than not, blame is apportioned to UK officials who are accused of stirring up trouble in an attempt to distract from Brexit. 

Such cynical conspiracy theories are par the course in Russia. But what is interesting is that they are accompanied by a strong sense of confidence. Economic indicators are not wonderful (but when have they been in Russia? And at the moment they are to some degree buoyed by rising energy prices), but there is little evidence of this having major effect on the public. On the one hand this is evidence of our consistent inability to comprehend Russian willingness to endure hardship. But it is also the reality of a sanctions regime that is not delivering what we might be hoping. The Russian agricultural industry has undergone a sweeping revival in response to the sanctions regime, while Russian defence contractors are doing a Machiavellian job of selling the same military hardware to both sides of a number of conflicts around the world. And Moscow’s rich natural resource wealth continues to attract not only booming Asian markets, but our own western firms that are locked into long-term projects on the ground.

But the confidence this has engendered goes deeper than this. Moscow now sees itself as an integral player in numerous conflicts around the world. In part this is self-generated relevance through insertion into existing conflicts to give the leaders more cards to play. But it is also seen grudgingly in the Eurasian heartland as the constant expression of Moscow’s behaviour. Here Russia is seen as frustrating, but a consistently significant player than cannot be ignored. Iranian experts will point out Moscow’s ability to talk to everyone around the table, while Chinese experts will spend the time to pay respect to a power that, when asked privately, they describe as their inferior in many different ways. 

Caught in between, Central Asian powers can increasingly see that their geopolitical narrative is shifting from Moscow to Beijing, but they nonetheless continue to speak Russian as their lingua franca and acknowledge the importance of their relationships with the Kremlin. Shortly before my stop in Astana, the capital hosted a meeting of the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), a Russian-driven institutional response to Nato which continues to be one of the most coherent non-Nato Eurasian security institutions. People in Astana wondered about whether the exercise was a show of strength for the audience in Moscow, a display to pushback on encroaching Chinese influence or more simply a way of showing non-CSTO member Uzbekistan of the value of joining. There was very little evidence of any of the messaging being targeted at the West; they have started to stop caring about us.

More significant than Russian influence, however, is China’s growing footprint in what Victorian geographer Halford Mackinder described as the ‘geopolitical pivot’ of Eurasia. The story in itself is not new – we have been hearing about Belt and Roads through the Eurasian heartland for some time – but this has now been accentuated by a sharpening trade war between Washington and Beijing.

In London and Washington, the interpretation of this clash is of an attempt by the new US administration to better respond to China’s vertiginous rise. Sat in the Eurasian heartland the view is very different. As president Nazarbayev of Kazakhstan put it in Astana, as the ‘counter-globalisation movement’ was building, China proffered its Belt and Road Initiative, proposing an opportunity built on connectivity. China is funding opportunities in his country and his neighbours, and they see the potential that this offers them. We may see debt traps and corruption, but they see the potential opportunity and like the connectivity narrative. The West in contrast is using economic relationships as weapons; it seeks to impose sanctions to coerce behavioural change in Eurasian powers like Russia and Iran.

The problem is that these weapons are becoming less effective: new industries emerge within countries to fulfil needs that can no longer be met by imports, for example, while parallel financial systems also quickly emerge. In Tehran, people now talk of using Renminbi to process payments; in Russia people are increasingly using Chinese payment systems, and Beijing continues to establish independent systems that are able to circumvent sanctions while continuing their economic relationship with the United States and the west. This, of course, is very much a ‘having cake and eating it’ approach. And even in pro-American European capitals, leaders talk of trying to find ways of circumventing sanctions with Iran. The system is clearly not working but is fostering a permanent change at the heart of the Eurasian continent.

It is not a done deal. We still hold a great many cards. Many prominent figures still seek to send their children to our colleges and schools. They all love to visit our historical capitals and enjoy the open and comfortable lifestyle we take for granted. As one oligarch put it to the Financial Times, ‘a new world order is obviously better than the current one. But no one here is a big fan of the Chinese life.’ People are waiting for the west to wake up, but the longer we take, the more permanent the shift will be. Mackinder was right in capturing the importance of the Eurasian heartland for global power – currently it seems it is leaders in Moscow and Beijing who are paying attention to his lessons.

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Slightly late posting a piece for Prospect a week or so ago about China-Russia relations. Covers ground that has been touched on before at greater length in Current History and China Economic Quarterly pieces. Undoubtedly more on this topic to come. Separately, spoke to The Times about the two captures ISIS ‘Beatles’, my recent China-South Asia piece was picked up by a Forbes columnist, and for those who can understand Italian, an event I spoke at in Rome (alongside the chair of the NATO Parliamentary Assembly, the UK Ambassador, the head of Counter-Extremism in Italy, and we were joined at the end by Marco Minniti, the Interior Minister) has now been posted online.

China and Russia: the perennial frenemies

As Russia’s relations with the west go into deep freeze, watch as Putin warms to the east

Back in 2014, relations between Russia and the west took a nosedive as Moscow annexed Crimea, then invaded eastern Ukraine. The west’s opprobrium was largely shrugged off by Russian president Vladimir Putin who instead headed to Shanghai where he was feted by President Xi Jinping. A $400bn gas deal between their two countries was signed. As we watch western relations with Moscow slide even lower in the wake of the attempted murder of Sergei Skripal in Salisbury and the Syrian crisis, do not be surprised if we see President Putin turning, once more, towards the east.

The paving stones for a visit were laid a couple of weeks ago during the Moscow Conference on International Security. Bringing together allies from around the world, the aim of the conference is to showcase Russia’s international relationships. This year, Beijing was represented by its Defence and Foreign Ministers. Both used the event as an opportunity to highlight the importance of bilateral relations. Foreign Minister Wang Yi described relations as at the “best level in history” while Defence Minister Wei Fenghe went further stating “The Chinese side has come (to Moscow) to show Americans the close ties between the armed forces of China and Russia… we’ve come to support you.” Reinforcing this, at around the time of the conference the Russian news agency TASS announced the delivery of an S-400 Triumf missile defence system to China. They also discussed President Putin’s pending visit to China later this year, another opportunity to highlight the strength of their ties.

For those minded to see axes of evil around the world, this pro-Chinese orientation by Moscow seems to fit the bill. As essentially one-man and one-party states, they are natural allies. But this superficial understanding of a relationship misses the contradictions and disgareements at the heart of their relationship: China and Russia are bound together, but they do not necessarily like it.

Back in July 2000, soon after his first inauguration as president, Vladimir Putin gave a speech in Lake Baykal in southern Siberia near the border with Mongolia, in which he worried about Russia’s far east. “If we do not make real efforts to develop the far east in the very near future,” he said, “the Russian population will mainly be speaking Japanese, Chinese and Korean in a few decades.” Yet just 17 years later, Putin’s Prime Minister Dmitri Medvedev was in Beijing praising the rise of the Renminbi and speaking of Russia’s interest in connecting with the currency, further opening Russia to Chinese investment. From fearful neighbour to pusillanimous supplicant, the shift in the Sino-Russian relationship is almost complete.

On the surface of course, relations are better than ever. Chinese officials will highlight how Moscow is a first port of call for new Chinese leaders. Xi Jinping went even further than his predecessors, not only going to Moscow but heading to Sochi a year later for the opening of the Winter Olympics—the first time a Chinese leader had attended such an event. Clearly eager to make sure his Russian hosts were happy, President Xi described the games as “splendid.” President Putin has made more visits to Beijing than any other foreign capital, and consistently turns to Beijing when he is looking for support on the international stage.

“From fearful neighbour to pusillanimous supplicant, the shift in the Sino-Russian relationship is almost complete”

Yet, there is a more complicated story. Last year in Moscow I sat in the audience at a conference panel discussing Eurasian visions. On the rostrum were two prominent Chinese experts who proceeded to give superb presentations on China’s view of the new Eurasian Silk Roads in fluent Russian. Cracking jokes, quoting Russian authors and explaining Beijing’s policies, these men had the mostly Russian audience enrapt. Over lunch later, a Muscovite friend joked how the Chinese experts’ Russian was better than theirs.

In contrast, a year or so earlier I had listened to one of those Chinese experts complain about how difficult a partner Russia was, and how their natural preference laid with relations with the west. Moscow was an unreliable and unpredictable partner whose strategic choices were ones disruptive to the placid world view that Beijing favours. Nor is this wariness one-sided. Talking to friends in Moscow during my last visit, people spoke of unrealised investment promises and a growing concern at the erosion of their nation’s strategic influence thanks to China’s actions in Russia’s backyard.

Such duplicity is in some ways not surprising. Anyone who has looked in detail at relations between any states will find a complicated mass of contradictions, where human dynamics, history and strategic imperatives will often wrestle with each other. But it is particularly striking in the Sino-Russian case. Both are powers driven by a fundamental world view of stable authoritarian state power as the ultimate answer to the difficult management of human societies. Both are fearful of the messianic and democratising west that brings instability, chaos and ultimately state collapse in their wake.

This fundamental imperative keeps the two together, while in secret they fret about each other’s activity. Russia’s behaviour in its perceived sphere of influence is the best example of this. Beijing was deeply unhappy about Russia’s actions in Georgia in 2008, and Ukraine more recently. When Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov reached out to his Chinese counterpart in 2014 to get support for Ukraine, the best he could muster was a statement that China and Russia held “broadly coinciding points of view… over the situation.” The idea that the westphalian order of state borders could be so wantonly disregarded and then breakaway provinces recognised strikes to the heart of China’s worries about its own state survival. Fearful that others might start doing the same to some of its own renegade provinces, Beijing was notably less than outspoken in support on Ukraine and actively blocked Moscow’s moves to get Central Asian powers to recognise what had happened in Georgia.

Yet at the same time, what statements did emerge about Ukraine in particular highlight how while Beijing might not like the end point that was reached, it did understand the imperative behind the initial Russian-led activity. For Beijing, the idea that popular revolutions can overthrow regimes—as appeared to be happening in Ukraine—is a worrying prospect. It points towards a confusing world order in which the primacy of state control comes into question. The Arab Spring, for example, was seen in both Moscow and Beijing as a catastrophic set of events which upended a relatively stable world order. The consequences of which they still see today.

And it is this ultimately which will keep the two powers bound together. Notwithstanding the growing Russian dependence on Chinese investment and the stealthy Chinese encroachment on Russia’s backyard—both in Central Asia where Beijing is increasingly the most consequential actor on the ground, or in Russia’s own empty and resource rich vast eastern regions—Moscow will continue to court Beijing as a close ally and friend. A friend Russia will need even more now that its relations with the west are on such a downward trajectory. And while Beijing may disapprove of Russia’s habit of stirring up the international order as a matter of principle, it will not stymie its behaviour or overtly condemn it. In fact, as we saw in Moscow recently in response to a more aggressive posture from Washington, China will overlook Russia’s disruptive activity to more pointedly confront the west.

These are two powers bound together in an embrace the west will struggle to ever pull apart.

Another short piece for the Evening Standard this past week after the anniversary of the Westminster attack and also linking the general strategy of asymmetry done by terrorists to that being deployed by Russia.

A careful but firm response is the way to stop attackers

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It is a year to the day since the murderous terrorist rampage that killed four innocent bystanders and a brave police officer in Westminster. The news is now dominated by a different menace. The attempted assassination of Sergei Skripal and his daughter (which caught another policeman in its wake) is different in origin but similar in intent. Both involve an attempt to undermine our society by striking at soft targets through violence. We need to be firm in our response, but not rise to the bait and do our enemies’ jobs for them.

Though it may not feel like it, our security services are strong: and those who try to attack us know it. They fear an overwhelming response were they to launch a full military attack and, in the case of terror, their efforts are defeated, though at a terrible human cost. They are weak. But they aim to exploit divisions in our society, and how we respond affects our success in defeating them.

Individual terrorist motives are hard to understand but the overarching point of attacks is to awaken us to conflicts that those involved believe are already happening. Adversaries are eager to try to pry apart our alliances and undermine faith in our security.

While it is impossible for us to stop people taking aim at us, we can make sure that we do not play into their hands by doing their jobs for them. Exaggerated rhetoric in response to risk is exactly what they want.

Both terrorism and Russia pose dangers. But these threats have to be managed, and not made worse, rather than eradicated. This is not an admission of defeat. We will have to sustain some relationship with Russia in the longer term, though Moscow is gearing towards continued confrontation. But there are others there who do want to engage with us and we need to find ways of strengthening our links with them.

Terrorism, unfortunately, is a constant within our societies, and one that will be made worse if we respond with rhetoric that talks up the divisions and strengthens the claims of extremist groups. They think they are fighting a religious clash of civilisations — if we respond in similar terms, we risk making the very case they are advancing.

A year on from the Westminster attack, it feels as though the terrorist threat has calmed down to some extent. After a terrible year, security agencies appear to have been successful and arrests and attacks has slowed.

It has become something of a cliché to talk about standing strong in the face of terrorism and praising British resolve. Yet this is the best response to attacks which, while hideously damaging to those caught in the crossfire, are not going to bring our societies crashing down — unless we do our adversaries’ jobs for them and inflame the very fissures they are trying to pull apart.

Raffaello Pantucci is director of International Security Studies at the Royal United Services Institute.

Another piece for the Telegraph after the St Petersburg terrorist attack, though the title is rather deceptive as the piece is mostly about the phenomenon of radicalisation amongst Central Asians, a topic that appears sadly relevant again after the incident Friday in Stockholm.

The Saint Petersburg attack is a reminder that sophisticated terror plots are still a real threat

A victim is carried in a soft stretcher

The Metro attack was the worst terror attack in Russia for several years CREDIT: ANTON VAGANOV/EPA

The attack on St Petersburg in some ways resembles a throwback to an earlier time. With the recent spate of low-tech incidents involving knife-wielding and car driving extremists, the perception was that the nature of the terrorist threat had evolved. The as of yet unclaimed atrocity in St Petersburg is a reminder of how terrorists continue to deploy explosives to advance their causes, and how Russia remains a priority target for international terrorist networks.

It is not yet clear who is responsible for the attack in Russia, though initial indicators suggest that it was by an individual of Central Asian origin who may have previously been radicalised. This comes after an arrest earlier in March at Moscow airport of a Tajik citizen who had reportedly been sent by Isil to launch an attack in Russia. According to reports in the Russian press, the Tajik had been deployed to connect with networks already in the country who were to supply him with equipment to launch a terrorist strike. Central Asians were also implicated in the attacks late last year on the Ataturk Airport and Reina nightclubs in Istanbul, and in an attack on the Chinese Embassy in Bishkek last August.

None of this may appear surprising to the lay observer. Central Asia has long been perceived as a hotbed of radicalisation. And yet in reality, it is a threat that has never quite expressed itself. Central Asian warriors have been a feature of the conflict in Afghanistan and more recently Syria and Iraq, but they have not been responsible for many attacks beyond these battlefields. Increasingly this appears to have changed.

It is something that is of particular concern to Russia, which has deep human, economic and security links with Central Asia. In part through the large community of labour migrants working in Russia from the region, but also directly with the countries of the region. Reflecting this, the new President of Uzbekistan is paying his first formal visit to Moscow this week, an event that has been eagerly anticipated since his election as leader in December 2017. Undoubtedly security questions will now feature as a larger part of the conversation.

From Moscow’s perspective, the menace of international terrorism is something that has been a persistent concern for some time. Of late, it appeared as though Russian security forces had been able to, for the most part, keep a lid on the problem. The attack on the Metrojet plane flying from Sharm el Sheikh was something that was beyond their control in Egypt, and at home the last major attack was in 2013 at Volgograd in the run up to the Winter Olympic games in Sochi. But the attack on St Petersburg shows the threat that Russia faces persists, and it is one that is likely to continue to become more acute as the battlefield in Syria and Iraq shrinks and groups seek to apportion blame and punish the outside powers who are perceived to be fighting against them.

There is a further danger within Russia that this growing narrative of Central Asians being seen as responsible for the incidents will strengthen suspicion among the Russian public towards the hundreds of thousands of migrants from the area. This community provides a huge service to Russia in the form of essential labour, while also providing a huge economic boost back home in remittances. The perception of threat from this community may be high, but the reality of it is actually small, a balance that Moscow needs to manage very carefully.

Finally, this attack highlights once again how terrorism is a multifaceted and complex threat that will continually find ways to penetrate security and murder civilians in advance of a political message. In the wake of incidents in Europe including the Westminster attack, the sense was we were moving towards a threat which was more focused on low tech attacks involving weapons easily available in our everyday lives. The reality is that terrorist groups retain the intent and capacity to launch more sophisticated assaults. The recent threat against aviation and the ban on large electronic items on certain routes is a reflection of the continuing threat of highly sophisticated plots; the St Petersburg attack shows how bombs in bags are still an equally effective vehicle through which to murder and attract attention to your cause.

Security agencies around the world will continue to need to pay attention to a wide range of potential threats, expressed in a variety of forms, in many different locations. The threat may yet become more acute as Isil faces defeat in its homeland.

Raffaello Pantucci is Director of International Security Studies at the Royal United Services Institute

Things are slowing down a bit now in the wake of the Paris atrocity, though unfortunately am sad to say the story is likely to not go away. Still some interest around the topic though, and spoke to the Sunday Times about the noisy Sally Jones, to the Huffington Post about how ISIS compares to historical threats, as well as the South China Morning Post about China’s view on the downing of the Russian plane and the Straits Times about what China might do to contribute to the anti-ISIS coalition. More on all of this am sure as ever. In the meantime, a new piece which was acually published prior to the Paris atrocity about China-Russia relations globally for the China Economic Quarterly. Huge thanks to the editors for their patience and invitation to do this. Greatly appreciated and definitely a subject that will be returned to.

China And Russia: Locked In Reluctant Embrace

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The dynamic of the Sino-Russian relationship is one that has long perplexed Western decision makers and thinkers. At a geopolitical level they appear in lockstep in an anti-western front, but below the surface they seem willing to engage with the west against each other’s interests while also sharing some fundamental disagreements. The reality is that Moscow and Beijing have a sophisticated modus vivendi that both allows for a clear disparity in the relationship in Beijing’s favor, while at the same time retaining an equal sense of importance of the broader strategic relationship. The overriding priority for both remains to ensure that they have an ally against the West and as long as this need remains the axis of authoritarianism will persist.

The archetypal space to explore this complex divergence is Central Asia. On the one hand it is a region where China has gradually increased its footprint to become the most consequential actor on the ground, while on the other it remains linked inextricably to Russia through multilateral vehicles and long-standing ties. And while in other parts of Eastern Europe or the Caucasus Russia has reacted negatively to encroaching external influences with armed conflict (like Georgia or Ukraine), in Central Asia the slow creep of Beijing’s influence has happened largely with Moscow’s acquiescence, though not without some counter-reaction.

China’s interest in Central Asia stems from a desire to improve the economic situation in Xinjiang. Seeing economic development as the answer to ethnic tensions between Han and Uighur in the region, Beijing has embarked on numerous large-scale economic projects to develop the western region of Xinjiang. However, for effective economic development to take place in Xinjiang there is a need for the region to have greater connectivity outwards. A fivehour flight from Beijing, Urumqi is as landlocked as the Central Asian countries it is near, and for it to prosper adequately, it needs to develop routes and roads into the region and ultimately to European markets. Consequently, as Beijing has poured money into the region, there has been an ancillary push into Central Asia with policy banks, state owned enterprises and private citizens all seeing the opportunity and need that lies in developing routes and markets into the Russian space.

Chinese cash displaces Russia in Central Asia…

The consequence of this has been a steady growth of economic influence across the region as Chinese capital and companies move into the region to repave, rebuild and open up Central Asian markets while also taking advantage of the region’s natural wealth to feed the Chinese economic machine. Previously a region largely the domain of Russian extractives firms, and, in the post-Cold War period, large Western players, Central Asia has seen CNPC and other Chinese energy firms moved in to stake claims. But significantly, Chinese firms have not stopped at only extracting energy, with firms showing up re-metering national gas infrastructure, re-developing solar furnaces, and building new power plants, refineries, and transmission lines across the region. The most rapid global pipeline growth of the past decade can be seen in the region, as Chinese firms plan, fund and built in quick succession a series of pipelines bringing hydrocarbons back to China from Turkmenistan, Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan.

All of this has largely been done to the detriment of Russian firms, who retain key stakes in most regional energy efforts but find themselves unable to compete with China’s easy funding and rapid construction. The American evacuation of the Manas airbase is a case in point. Initially awarded to a Russian firm linked to Rosneft, the company had to withdraw due to lack of funding, leaving a Chinese firm to step in and take over the contract. In Turkmenistan, a longstanding animosity between Moscow and Ashgabat culminated with the main pipeline to Russia blowing up and not being rebuilt. Instead, Chinese pipelines appeared and China is now the nation’s key partner—so much so that Turkmenistan might question the wisdom of its almost complete dependence on China.

…but Russian weapons are still welcome

Despite China’s economic incursions, Russia remains the most credible security provider. Untested by conflict outside its borders, China’s military is still a relatively timid force that is wary of launching direct confrontations or placing themselves in situations that would lead to such conflict. Whenever there is security trouble in the region, the powers look more to Russia to provide them with support – in particular in the more unstable nations of Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, both of whom have looked to Russia to help provide some stability in the wake of interethnic violence (Kyrgyzstan) and to strengthen their border with Afghanistan (Tajikistan).

Moscow has also made better use of regional organizations than has Beijing. The Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), sponsored jointly by China and Russia, is in the most externally observed, but least effective regional multilateral vehicle. The Moscow-driven Common Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) and Eurasian Economic Union (EEU) are all more active in changing the context on the ground. The EEU in particular is seen as an attempt to recreate the Soviet space and is driven by Moscow as a specific attempt to reclaim the economic dominance and influence it used to hold. Encompassing Russia, Kazakhstan and Belarus, with Armenia and Kyrgyzstan the latest joiners, the EEU gives Moscow the power to dictate border tariffs and standards across the entire region.

In Central Asia the EEU is seen as direct push-back to Beijing’s growing influence. Yet the reality is that the EEU can do little to stem the rising influence of Chinese cash. And for Beijing’s traders keen to take advantage of Xi Jinping’s vision to create a New Silk Road Economic Belt through the region to European markets, the existence of a single tariff zone from Kazakhstan to Belarus will save them money and time in getting goods from China to Europe. Direct trade with Central Asia may be down, but, as traders in Kyrgyz markets at Kara Suu and outside Bishkek pointed out during a visit in early 2015, these markets had been shrinking for years due to closed local borders and weakening local economies. The addition of a failing Russian economy only further softened local currencies and further reduced remittances from Central Asian laborers in Russia, which in the case of Tajikistan or Kyrgyzstan account for almost a third of GDP.

On the whole, Beijing policymakers seem to view the EEU as complementary to their Belt-and-Road strategy; and even if they did not, they have reason to be skeptical of the EEU’s longevity. Belarus and Kazakhstan have already blocked some trade across their borders, and it remains unclear how Kyrgyzstan is going to be able to effectively integrate and thrive in an economic union where it has few advantages.

China has the upper hand in bilateral affairs

All of this takes place against a backdrop of a failing Russian economy that is increasingly looking to Beijing for growth. Whilst previously resistant to letting Chinese firms invest in upstream energy assets, Moscow allowed the Chinese Silk Road Fund to invest in the Yamal gas field. In a sharp turnaround from previous paranoia of Chinese expansion into Russia’s east, Moscow has actively encouraged cross-border trade between Heilongjiang and the Amur region, with the governor of the region going so far as to say that he would welcome Chinese workers coming into the region to help repopulate it. The Russian press is increasingly full of stories of actively encouraging trade across the border, something that stands in stark contrast to speeches by President Putin in 2000 about losing Russia’s East to Asia.

In all this investment, China clearly retains the upper hand. The Power of Siberia pipeline remains a project largely on paper as CNPC lobbies aggressively to get the deal finalized on its terms. And although the large gas deal signed between Russia and China was supposedly resolved earlier in the year after almost 15 years of haggling, the reality is that the agreement was largely cosmetic. It came at a moment when President Putin wanted to be able to show the world that he had strong allies in the face of a growing animosity between Moscow and the west over Ukraine. Within hours of the deal being signed, stories surfaced of re-negotiations taking place and a continuing lack of agreement over the pricing structure of the deal.

At a geostrategic level there are further tensions between the two great powers. Vietnam is a long-time client state to Russia that depends on Moscow for military equipment, including naval assets that Vietnam feels it needs to bolster its claims to islands in the South China sea that it disputes with China. India is another long-term Russian ally that has border disputes with China and a long-standing inferiority complex to its neighboring Asian giant.

It is also clear—despite its lack of public criticism—that China is displeased by Russia’s adventures in Ukraine and Georgia, as it worried about the precedent of annexing parts of neighboring countries and recognizing break-away provinces. Nor is it enthusiastic about Russian intervention in Syria where it seems unlikely that more combatants on the field will resolve the situation. As a status quo power that sees the future as firmly within its grasp under the current world order, Beijing disapproves of Russia’s efforts to undermine current structures.

The SCO was supposed to be a vehicle for joint maneuver in Central Asia, but has bogged down in disagreements. Beijing’s interest in having it focus more on economic issues has been blocked by Moscow. And in turn Moscow has promoted a rapid expansion of the group, against China’s wishes. Unwilling to directly confront and exclude others, China has found itself forced to bow to external pressure in letting the organization expand against its better judgment.

Authoritarian birds flock together

Notwithstanding these tensions, the two powers retain a tactical geopolitical alignment. Partially this is for the purpose of mutual support in the UN Security Council. As two of the permanent five members, knowing that they will consistently support each other (by either veto or abstention), means that they need never feel isolated in the body.

Shared political insecurity also draws them together. Both governments are equally paranoid about the overthrow of authoritarian regimes. Both speak equally acerbically about the negative influence of democracy and the wave of color revolutions that swept through the former Soviet space in the mid-2000s and the subsequent ‘Arab Spring.’ Watching as chaos came in the wake of the civilian overthrow of regimes from Georgia, Ukraine, Kyrgyzstan and then later Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and Syria, both ascribe these incidents to a missionary foreign policy advocated by western capitals. Fearing that ultimately this wave of civilian insurrection ends up with regime overthrow in Beijing and Moscow, both see each other as fundamental allies in a world divided between western democratic zealots riven with uncertainty and stable one-party states ruled by strongmen and parties.

These underlying geopolitical realities outline why this axis of authoritarianism continues to function as a genuine alliance of sorts despite fundamental differences and an ever-growing imbalance in power between the two. Russia may increasingly be selling itself to China in a manner that will become irreversible, but it is doing this to a power that it fundamentally sees itself locked in step with. It was President Putin who first enunciated in 2000 the fear that Russia would lose its east to Asian influences, but it is also President Putin under whose reign China has become the Russia’s biggest geopolitical friend.

More catch-up, this time a longer magazine sized piece for the excellent current affairs journal Current History. This explores the China-Russia relationship with a particular focus on Central Asia sitting in between them. Clearly more on this topic to come – including a piece soon focused a bit more on the econ and geopolitical equation more broadly. I have pasted the first paragraph below to give you a flavour, but the whole thing is available as PDF below as well.

China and Russia’s Soft Competition in Central Asia

China and Russia have a long history of conflict and competition in Central Asia. Sitting between the two great superpowers, the landlocked Central Asian nations appear to have little choice or control over their destiny, and are often considered to be pawns in a perpetual great game. Yet this narrow view misses the broader picture of the Sino-Russian relationship. It is undeniable that the region has been slipping out of Russia’s immediate economic sphere of influence for some time, but China has been making inroads with Russia’s full acquiescence. For Moscow and Beijing, Central Asia is increasingly a region of soft competition where they are very aware of and attentive to each other’s interests, rather than a source of conflict and tension.

Overriding any differences concerning the steppe are the larger realities of the Sino-Russian strategic relationship on the international stage, where the two permanent members of the United Nations Security Council continue to support each other’s refusal to bow to a Western-dominated global order. Russia may appear to be the loser in Central Asia, but the two powers have established a modus vivendi that suits the interests of both. The real geopolitical losers are likely to be the Central Asians, slowly slipping from Russia’s orbit into China’s.

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Somewhat belatedly, I am reposting here an article that I had published in the Chinese 东方早报 (The Oriental Morning Post) during Xi Jinping’s visit to Moscow a week or so ago. The article does not seem to have been put online, so I have posted the English text that I submitted below. I currently cannot figure out how to attach a PDF here, so cannot add the tear page, but if you are interested, please drop me a line and I can send it over. Related, I did an interview for Danish radio on the visit, focusing in particular on Central Asia. I am also going to use this opportunity to highlight interviews I did for the Italian AGI and The Atlantic on China in Central Asia. As ever for more on my work in this direction, please have a look at the site I manage with Alex focusing on our project on China in Central Asia.

China and Russia will maintain a pragmatic partnership

There has been a great deal of speculation in the press about the significance of Xi Jinping’s decision to make Russia his first foreign trip as leader of China. The implication of much of the discussion is that China is about to reorient itself to turn Moscow into a priority ally, creating some sort of a new axis in international affairs. The reality is that little is practically changing in this relationship beyond reaffirmation of the fact that both sides see the other as a power with which it suits them to be perceived as being aligned.

The relationship in the past few years has evolved substantially. Discussions about enhancing military cooperation and the prospect of joint technological development projects were highlighted during Defence Minister Shoigu’s visit to Beijing late last year, national energy giants CNPC and Rosneft have signed deals to build refineries near Tianjin and explore similar opportunities in Russia as well as looking at doing a large $25-$30 billion loan for oil deal – the Russian firm is believed to be seeking the loan from the Chinese firm in a repeat of a deal from a few years ago. At a political level, President Putin visited Beijing very soon after his election victory, so in some ways this is reciprocating. And on the international stage, China and Russia broadly find themselves in agreement with regards their postures on issues like Syria or Iran and generally prove willing to support each other’s positions in the United Nations Security Council. They both found the ‘colour revolutions’ of a few years ago alarming, and view the ‘Arab Spring’ in an even darker light. Trouble from rebellious provinces is an issue they both share, and they see western plots inside domestic problems.

But beneath this cordiality there is a tension. In the run-up to President Xi’s visit, much has been made in the Chinese press that some final agreement may be about to come about on the topic of gas pricing, a discussion that has been ongoing between China and Russia for over a decade. Unable to reach an agreement, we have seen a number of high level visits come and go with no conclusion in sight of the deal. This time, we are told, it may actually happen. And the logic may finally be there: China’s growing gas relationship with Turkmenistan means that it is going to be less reliant on finding Russian sources, something that will in turn pressure Russia to come to some agreement to not lose its hand in the discussion with China.

This aside, there is the question of Central Asia more broadly. A region that Russia has traditionally seen as its strategic backyard, but where China is increasingly becoming the more relevant actor. Economically, this is displacing Russian interests, though it remains clear that the Central Asian powers continue to see Russia as the more important security guarantor regionally. The story of the past decade, however, is the money and investment flowing in mostly from Xinjiang rewiring Central Asia so its roads all lead to China. Russia is seen to be pushing back against this through the institution and implementation of the Customs Union that at the moment only encompasses Belarus, Kazakhstan and Russia. But this is a still developing project and it is unclear how it will ultimately impact Chinese economic growth in Central Asia.

Looking beyond Central Asia, there is the dilemma of Afghanistan and the tensions between India and Pakistan. This triumvirate of countries is a complicated one with both Moscow and Beijing having very different views. Russia has always supported ally India, while Beijing retains strong ties with Islamabad. A delicate balance that has the result of keeping both India and Pakistan out of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO). And on Afghanistan, while there is evidence that China is slowly coming to the realization that more must be done and soon, Russia remains trapped in the shadow of its history in that country and refuses to commit much.

The point is that China and Russia are not an easy pairing. They may concur on a few things, but disagree on others too. But what they do share is a concern about western dominance in international affairs and a feeling that the American approach is not always necessarily the right one. And it is maybe here that we should look for deeper meaning in the Russia-China relationship. It is not so much that they are partners of principle, but they are partners of utility. Each sees the value in having a strong counterpart whom is willing to stand up to the United States and the West. Left alone, they would end up being isolated in international affairs and have to deal with the brunt of international wrath when they stood up for unpopular issues. But united they are able to provide some cover for each other and extend the travel schedule of any western foreign minister seeking to lobby their support for issues at the UNSC or elsewhere.

China and Russia remain partners of convenience. Their tentative gestures towards a real strategic partnership are likely to continue to edge gradually forwards, and mutual support will continue on the international stage, but the reality is that this is never going to be a holistic and firm axis in international affairs. Instead it will remain a utilitarian partnership that will provide each other with a useful ally when facing down against perceived western interventionism.

 

Raffaello Pantucci is a Senior Research Fellow at the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI) in London