Posts Tagged ‘Russia’

Almost caught up, but then will invariably get behind, another short piece for the South China Morning Post inspired by events in Ukraine, this time trying to tackle the obsession in the west about China’s support for Russia.

How the West’s focus on China’s ties with Russia misses the bigger geopolitical picture

  • The US and EU’s condemnation of Russia and repeated calls for their allies to do the same reflects a world view in which democracies stand united against autocracies
  • In reality, drawing battle lines is far more difficult when interests and values rarely align
Illustration: Stephen Case, South China Morning Post

The single-minded focus on China’s friendship with Russia misses the far wider range of supporters around the world that Moscow has been able to muster. It is this wider web that really highlights the difficulty the US and Europe will have in marshalling international support to condemn Moscow’s actions.

The myopia reflects the difficulty in playing the complicated game of three-dimensional chess that is international geopolitics, where relationships are coloured by shades of grey and focus on interests rather than values.

There is no doubt China has chosen to side with Moscow over the conflict in Ukraine. But it is important to note that this choice has been carefully couched as not being against Kyiv, but in opposition to the US and Nato’s missteps in causing the problem in the first place by antagonising Moscow.

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Beijing’s choice is also the result of a calculation that Russia remains a critical ally in China’s wider confrontation with the West.

This framing may anger the West, but it is one that Ukraine seems willing to (at least in public) accept. In recent comments, the head of President Volodymyr Zelensky’s office, Andriy Yermak, described China’s position as “neutral”, while saying that Ukraine’s leader was expected to talk to President Xi Jinping soon.

China was Ukraine’s largest trading partner before the invasion, and there is every chance that this economic relationship will pick up where it left off should stability ever return to the country.

Such commentary stands in contrast to Kyiv’s views on India, the other Asian giant that has stood behind Moscow. As the invasion unfolded, Western leaders called on New Delhi to stand behind them in condemning Russia.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government declined, leading Ukraine’s Ambassador to India Igor Polikha to declare he was “deeply dissatisfied” with India’s stance, calling on New Delhi to be “much more actively engaged, given the privileged relations India has with Russia”.

Few who had been paying attention would be surprised by India’s position. The country’s military-industrial relationship with Russia is a long-standing sore in US-India relations, fuelling concerns about defence and intelligence transfers.

Neither New Delhi nor Beijing, however, are outliers. Both have chosen to abstain in United Nations Security Council votes. And, in the wider UN General Assembly vote demanding humanitarian access to Ukraine and condemning Russia’s actions, they stood alongside South Africa, Pakistan, Iran, Vietnam, a range of African powers and much of Central Asia in abstaining (only a few predictable powers like North Korea, Syria, Belarus and Eritrea joined Russia in voting against the resolution).

South Africa even sought to follow up on the vote with another focused solely on the humanitarian disaster in Ukraine, omitting any refence to Russian action.

But there is further complexity within these positions. While Central Asian powers chose to abstain from the UN vote, both the Uzbek and Kazakh governments have chosen to openly reject recognition of the breakaway territories of Luhansk and Donetsk that Moscow has recognised, while also appearing to more actively reach out to Ukraine.

This seeming stand against Russia is one that flies in the face of Kazakhstan’s decision early this year to call on Russian forces to support the government in the face of mass protests, and the Uzbekistan government’s reliance on Russian security to help bolster their border with Afghanistan as the republic’s government collapsed last year.

Looking beyond UN voting, Russia also appears to have a number of friends in the Middle East. On the one hand, Iran has openly sought a closer relationship with Moscow, in large part for the same reason as Beijing – as a bolster against a confrontational relationship with Washington.

But, on the other hand, Saudi Arabia and the UAE have both also shown support for Russia while snubbing Washington – a choice that is driven by a concern about reliability of US alliances and irritation at condemnation of their own actions (their conflict in Yemen) by the West.

The reality is that international relations are grey. Countries are driven by interests that are both short and long term. An adversary today can become an ally tomorrow. The one immutable truth in international relations is that nothing is permanent.

But this is a critical problem for a West that is seeking to build a binary world of autocracies versus democracies, painting this as the defining struggle of our time. It also reflects a core tension within the approach being driven by Washington, where there appears to be a desire to create an alliance of democracies alongside a shifting constellation of coalitions focused on outcomes.

While, in theory, this is not impossible – countries are often willing to maintain contradictory policies while focusing on interests – it becomes difficult when a single-minded obsession with one adversary clouds everything else.

While American and Chinese strategic thinking may be centred on a world in which the other is the main adversary, to the rest of the world, this narrative is more complicated. And these complications do not always hold across interests, and may in fact undermine each other in crucial ways.

There is no easy way to thread this needle. But maintaining a resolute focus on interests rather than values is a disappointing place to start. This is not going to be appealing to those who want to see a world of like-minded allies or democracies ruling the waves, but is more likely to reflect the brutal reality of geopolitics, where values are not as transcendental as we might like to believe.

Raffaello Pantucci is a senior associate fellow at the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI) in London and a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS) in Singapore. He is co-author, with Alexandros Petersen, of “Sinostan: China’s Inadvertent Empire”

More updating from last month, this time a piece for the South China Morning Post which attracted a certain ire online at the time looking at China’s broadly passive approach to all of the trouble on its periphery of late. My point was maybe not as strongly put as the headline, but as ever headline writers are focused on clarity and not subtlety.

Eurasia in turmoil: how China’s passivity foments the chaos

  • From Afghanistan to Kazakhstan and now Ukraine, the Eurasian heartland has fallen prey to three forces: authoritarian incompetence, Russian adventurism and Chinese passivity
  • Beijing may be happy to sit out the chaos for now but it will ultimately spill over and create problems it cannot ignore
A sign outside the the Canadian embassy in Beijing on March 3 in support of Ukraine. Photo: AFP

It has been a tumultuous six months for Eurasia. The Taliban takeover in Afghanistan last August was followed by widespread civil unrest in Kazakhstan at the turn of the year and now a Russian invasion of Ukraine.

While Russia has had a prominent role in each context, it is China’s perspective that people most frequently ask about. Yet Beijing has stayed broadly passive, highlighting the role that China sees for itself in the world.

China may be the new superpower on the international stage, but it appears to have little interest in committing itself to resolving any problems that emerge in its neighbourhood or beyond.

The attention on China can sometimes seem exaggerated. We look for Beijing’s view on everything nowadays, sometimes where it is unlikely to be relevant. Yet the truth is that Beijing is a significant actor in all three Eurasian contexts.

China remains the putative largest single external investor in Afghanistan, is Kazakhstan’s second-largest trading partner (and fastest-growing investor), and since 2019 has been Ukraine’s largest trading partner.

China has undertaken or signed contracts for large-scale investments in all three countries, is an important trading partner and (in Afghanistan and Kazakhstan) has a particular interest given the shared borders.

So it is not entirely surprising that people look for China’s views in these contexts, and expect Beijing to want to step in when things turn bad. Yet, in each situation, China has instead stood by to let others try to fix the problems.

A similar playbook can be observed in all three cases. In the first instance, Beijing apportions blame – often finding the United States culpable for the situation.

In Afghanistan, the American withdrawal precipitated the Taliban takeover, making it an easy connection. In Kazakhstan, mutterings of “colour revolutions” started in Moscow and Nur-Sultan, giving Beijing ample fuel to point towards the US. And in Ukraine, China has continued to point to US-driven Nato expansion as a key underlying reason for the conflict.

Having blamed the US, the next step is to try to embrace tightly. In Afghanistan, this has led to a surge in Chinese activity on the ground, regular aid, close engagement with the Taliban authorities, regular championing of their interests at the United Nations and the constant promise (that has yet to materialise) of larger-scale investment.

In Kazakhstan, Beijing picked up seamlessly from where it left off before the trouble in January, while in Ukraine it is trying to sell itself as an impartial supporter of both sides.

Yet in all of this, Beijing commits very little. The constant presentation of multiple-point plans to resolve situations are largely empty declarations which appear well meaning but are not followed by any real evidence of effort to resolve the situations. Instead, they largely state the obvious and seem to suggest that Beijing is somewhat above the situation as a benign observer.

There is no doubt some element of Beijing’s stasis is not really knowing what to do. China’s offers to act as a peace broker have tended to be hollow, usually offering a table around which the various parties can sit.

While this is a useful role, a proper negotiator will need to work the various groups, understand their interests and force heads together. This is also likely to mean telling people what they do not want to hear, something Beijing is never very interested in doing as it potentially creates adversaries.

But so far, by sitting and watching, Beijing has not done itself much ill. While its international standing may be damaged among those who would like to see it take a more active role, by not doing so, China is leaving itself in a position where it can continue its relations with whichever party comes out on top.

And given Beijing’s strong economic interests in every situation, all the parties involved will usually have a strong incentive to continue to engage with Beijing after the chaos subsides.

But there is a longer-term problem here, which may eventually cause China some regret. The result of this passivity has been a Eurasia increasingly in tumult.

As Washington leads the West in a mostly seaborne crusade in the Indo-Pacific against China, we see the Eurasian heartland fall prey to three forces. Authoritarian incompetence, Russian adventurism and Chinese passivity. The result has been large-scale loss of life, and growing constraints on people’s liberties.

This is the net result of a Eurasian heartland abandoned to local forces, and increasingly overseen by superpowers who see value only in shaping history when they deem it important to their grandeur, and otherwise seem content to simply let things play out, no matter the consequences on the ground.

For now, China might be happy to watch things play out. But, unfettered, these forces are likely to create nothing but misery and a Eurasian backyard in which China will find itself the dominant power watching over chaos.

And while in the short term it might be possible to find some benefit from this situation, in the longer term, it will spill over and ultimately create problems that Beijing cannot just watch from the sidelines.

Raffaello Pantucci is senior associate fellow at the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI) in London

More catch up posting from last month, this time a short piece for the wonderful Nikkei Asian Review looking at how Central Asia is likely to suffer from the chaos generated by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Have a few more since this which make similar points but through different lenses, but for now enjoy this.

Central Asia braces for economic catastrophe

Sanctions aimed at Russia will have serious knock-on effects

Migrant workers from Uzbekistan collect potatoes at an agrarian field in Beryozovka near Russia’s Siberian city of Krasnoyarsk: their remittances to their families back home are a crucial source of income.   © Reuters

Raffaello Pantucci is a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore and author of the forthcoming “Sinostan: China’s Inadvertent Empire” (Oxford University Press, April 2022).

Across what is still referred to as the former Soviet space, there has been a sharp intake of breath. While many have grown accustomed to overbearing Russian behavior, few expected the dismemberment of Ukraine.

For Central Asia, the consequences go deeper than worrying whether they might be next. The intertwining of their economies with Russia means the drastic sanctions being imposed on Moscow will likely hit them too. And for a region that is increasingly being targeted by the West, this will further exacerbate economic suffering.

It is not so long ago that Central Asia was actively calling for greater Russian military support. Following the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan last August, Russian forces rushed in to undertake joint training exercises with Tajik and Uzbek forces, while Moscow sped through military sales to customers across the region.

In January, Kazakhstan President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev called on Russian forces, under the auspices of the Collective Security Treaty Organization, to help reestablish control in the wake of violent protests wracking his country.

For Central Asians, Russia remains an essential security partner. While China is seen as ascendant, it is Russia that remains hugely significant in political, economic and security terms.

The truth is that while Beijing may be the rising power, China tends to be quite passive, as its responses to the crises in Kazakhstan and Afghanistan have shown. Similarly now with Ukraine, Beijing appears largely content to talk rather than actually try to do something on the ground.

While China sees Central Asia as five nations it wants to do business with, Russia takes a more paternalistic view, in some cases even questioning their viability as states. Vladimir Putin has on occasion questioned Kazakhstan’s nation status, just as he has with Ukraine. This worries Central Asians.

Take Kazakhstan, which has a population of around 3.5 million ethnic Russians, nearly 20% of its population, concentrated near its border with Russia. It is very easy to envisage a scenario where Moscow stakes a claim to these people back in much the same way as in Ukraine.

Russia’s invasion of Georgia in 2008 first crystallized this concern. At the time, Moscow not only sought regional endorsement through the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, but recognition of the two breakaway republics of Abkhazia and South Ossetia that Moscow claimed it had gone in to defend. This appeal was roundly rejected, with China in particular horrified by the precedent that Moscow was setting.

Fast forward to today, and while it is clear that Central Asians are uneasy, there is a lot less condemnation. In fact, in a conversation with President Putin, Kyrgyz President Sadyr Japarov appeared to support Russia’s position, prompting Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelenskiy to withdraw his ambassador from the capital Bishkek.

Vladimir Putin shakes hands with Sadyr Japarov during a meeting in Strelna on the outskirts of Saint Petersburg, in December 2021: the Kyrgyz President appeared to support Russia’s position. (Handout photo from Kremlin Press Office)    © Reuters

Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan both found themselves pulled into the information war, with both being forced to deny that they supported Russia’s actions in Ukraine and Kazakhstan that they had been asked to participate in the fighting by Moscow. In Uzbekistan, the government issued a statement pointing out that any national who was found to be fighting for a foreign army would be prosecuted upon return home.

Ultimately though, it will be economic questions that will dominate minds across Central Asia. Millions of Central Asian citizens work in Russia, and their remittances to their families back home are a crucial source of income, something that will be hit by the abrupt drop in the value of the ruble.

The collapse in the value of the Russian currency has also led to massive knock-on devaluations across Central Asia as markets reflect on the consequences of Russia’s exclusion from the international economy.

Russia is a major investor and partner to all five countries. Russia has reportedly invested around $40 billion in Kazakhstan alone since the fall of the Soviet Union, while Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan are bound intimately to the Russian economy as members of the Eurasian Economic Union.

All of this means that when Russia suffers economically, Central Asia feels it. Now, the region is bracing for the worst. Central Asia may have experienced something similar following the 2014 sanctions leveled against Russia, but this time the hit is likely to be exponentially harder.

All of which comes at a moment of great flux in a region still suffering from the fallout from COVID. Add to that, Kazakhstan is still recovering from the national unrest that rocked the country in January, Turkmenistan is in the midst of a leadership transition, and Tajikistan appears to be on the cusp of something similar.

Many geostrategists may be tempted to conclude that Beijing is likely to benefit. And there is no doubt that this will strengthen Chinese options in the region. But the reality is that Central Asia will still be very much tied to Russia, with all the consequent loss of income that will entail. Central Asian migrant labor will struggle to find the same opportunities in other countries.

Now entirely encircled by countries that are being targeted by escalating Western sanctions — Afghanistan, Iran, China and Russia — Central Asia is increasingly finding itself between an economic hard place and a politically precarious one.

Pushed into a corner not of its choosing, the collateral damage to Central Asia from Putin’s Ukrainian invasion is likely to be considerable.

A piece for my UK institutional home RUSI, exploring China’s relations, links and role to the current conflict in Ukraine. Suspect going to be an issue which is going to come up increasingly over the next few months, but the overriding China-Russia relationship does not feel like it is going to change much.

China’s Soft Shoe on Ukraine

Hard geopolitics dominates China’s view of Russian action in Ukraine.

Main Image Credit Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov pictured in 2016. Courtesy of Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs / CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

In the West, China’s views on Ukraine have largely been seen through the lenses that people want to interpret China’s actions. Some fear Beijing will use the opportunity to do something in Taiwan, while others instead suggest that this will lead to a fissure between China and Russia as Moscow tests the international order, recognises breakaway states and causes economic chaos – all things that logically irritate Beijing. Yet all of this stands apart from the fairly blank and often confusing response we have actually seen, where Chinese officialdom initially made statements which lacked internal coherence and seemed aimed at pleasing everybody, and then latterly took a posture of blaming the US. Beijing has aligned itself with Russia from the outset, though it has repeatedly softened its line to reflect a genuine concern about a potential catastrophic escalation, a desire to appear to be trying to do the right thing, and a likely genuine wish not to actively encourage Russian adventurism.

Go back in time to 2014, and Chinese commentators were more circumspect in their response towards Russian action in Crimea. While they did not leap up to praise and support, they did not condemn, and instead offered commentary that seemed to suggest that they at least understood Moscow’s underlying concerns. From Beijing’s perspective, events in 2014 were an extension of the problem that Chinese (and Russian) officials refer to as ‘Colour Revolutions’, a refence to the toppling of authoritarian regimes by public uprisings that can be traced back to the Rose Revolution in Georgia in 2003. That event precipitated a similar uprising in Ukraine a year or so later (dubbed the Orange Revolution), and was followed by a similar government overthrow (dubbed the Tulip Revolution) in Kyrgyzstan in 2005. This chain of events then seemed to slow until 2011 and the Arab Spring, which brought a similar wave of public protest and authoritarian overthrow across the Arab world, and even touched on China’s shores in the very limited ‘Jasmine Revolution’.

While Beijing was not ecstatic about the redrawing of borders on the basis of ethnicity and the recognition of breakaway provinces (a precedent they always fear will be used against them), it could see where Moscow was coming from and worried about the wider consequences of the Euromaidan protests that culminated in Russia’s actions in Crimea. Additionally, it had little interest in condemning Russia, an important neighbour and ally whom it recognises has a very different view on how independent former Soviet countries actually are. Back in 2014, China was preoccupied with many other issues – including a domestic terrorist problem which appeared to be getting out of control – and saw little value in becoming entangled in a fundamentally European problem. In a comment which echoes precisely what is being said today, then Chinese UN Ambassador Liu Jieyi stated that Crimea posed a ‘complex intertwinement of historical and contemporary factors’.

This stood in stark contrast to 2008, when Russia invaded Georgia and recognised the breakaway regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia. At that time, Beijing was irritated that Moscow had chosen to launch its incursion right when Beijing was hosting the Olympic Games (by contrast, the 2022 Winter Games had notably ended at around the time Putin decided to take action against Ukraine, suggesting at the very least a sense of diplomatic timing by Moscow), and actively worked to block Russian attempts to get the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) to support what Moscow as doing. Led by the unassuming and consensus-driven Hu Jintao, China was a power that still framed itself as rising and eager not to make waves. In what could be read as a thunderous rebuke by the then usually mute Beijing, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) expressed ‘concern’ about Russia’s recognition of the two states.

Cut forward to today and Beijing seems much more willing to rhetorically champion Moscow’s perspectives. In earlier statements, it appears to have tried to maintain a line which avoided praising Russia, acknowledged some legitimacy in its concerns and at the same time upheld the UN charter and its calls for the protection of national territorial integrity (a nod to Ukraine’s perspective). But in fact, Beijing said very little. Echoing 2014, MFA spokesman Wang Wenbin stated that from Beijing’s perspective there was ‘a complex historical context and complicated factors at play on this issue’.

But things sharpened rapidly. While these same narratives remain present, a more aggressive tone towards the US came in when spokeswoman Hua Chunying took over the regular MFA briefings. ‘A key question here is what role the US, the culprit of current tensions surrounding Ukraine, has played. If someone keeps pouring oil on the flame while accusing others of not doing their best to put out the fire, such kind of behaviour is clearly irresponsible and immoral’, she said. Foreign Minister Wang Yi has made explicit reference to Russian concerns about NATO expansion, suggesting it as an explanation for the conflict.

While it is no longer surprising to hear such fiery rhetoric from the formerly staid MFA, it is a clear step further than Beijing was willing to go last time. What has changed is not the partnership with Russia, which has remained a constant and strengthened during the past decade and a half, but rather the relationship with the US, which is the principal vector through which Beijing views international affairs.

Viewed in this light, the response to Ukraine becomes shaped by the wider geopolitical context that Beijing sees. There is a substantial economic relationship between Ukraine and China, with China overtaking Russia as the country’s biggest trading partner in 2019. But it is not something that is irreplaceable from China’s perspective, and there is nothing to say that China will not be able to pick up quickly in economic terms after the Russian invasion, no matter who is left in charge. Reflecting China’s willingness to accept a relatively high risk threshold in Ukraine, PowerChina agreed in late 2020 to undertake the construction of the largest wind farm in Europe at a cost of around $1 billion in the divided Donetsk region of Ukraine, near where separatist rebels controlled territory (and presumably now at the heart of the conflict). This highlights Beijing’s willingness to undertake difficult investments, which doubtless the government in Kyiv would have appreciated. It is notable that while India’s tacit tolerance of Russia has generated anger from Kyiv, there has been less comment about Beijing’s very similar messaging, although it is reported to have generated some anger towards China on the ground.

But it is highly doubtful that China will prioritise bilateral trade and investment with Ukraine over its relationship with Russia. It is equally unlikely that Beijing will decide to join the West in a chorus of condemnation towards Moscow. The wider negative geopolitical consequences fly in the face of the grand joint communique issued by Presidents Xi Jinping and Vladimir Putin when they met at the opening of the Winter Games in Beijing. While it is the source of great speculation whether Putin informed Xi when they met of what was being planned, the idea that China now feels played in some way seems unlikely. That the vast Chinese commentariat (and Ministry of Foreign Affairs) were unaware of what the leadership knew is unlikely to be a reflection of a systemic lack of knowledge, but rather suggests a closed centre around Xi that chose not to share information. Xi may have calculated that the Russian conflict would be brief, that it was not really his problem to worry about, and that it was not his place to judge what Putin saw as simply a ‘domestic’ issue.

China may not appreciate the chaos that Russia’s actions engender, but it will also conclude that there is little it can gain from trying to rein Moscow in, except to lose a partner in its confrontation with the US. In fact, there is every chance Beijing will benefit from this situation, gaining a stronger hand over its bilateral relationship with Moscow as Putin alienates large portions of the globe and sees Russia cut out of the international system. And in some parts of Chinese considerations, there may even be some thought given to the benefits that Russia’s actions might bring in terms of creating a wider distraction, exposing fissures between Western allies, providing lessons for future confrontations and more broadly creating an opportunity for China to look like a more stable actor on the international stage in contrast to Russia.

None of this is to say Beijing is pleased with being associated with a bellicose pariah, and there is no doubt that China’s calls for a peaceful resolution to the conflict are genuine. Doubtless, there is some concern about the Chinese students who appear to be stuck in Ukraine. But it is also clear that hard geopolitics is prominent in China’s thinking, and its willingness to support Russia trumps such concerns. Moreover, Beijing, like Moscow, believes that things blow over. In what is almost a complete turnaround from 2008, in December last year an image emerged of the Ambassador to Syria for the breakaway Georgian Republic of Abkhazia meeting with the Chinese Ambassador to Damascus, Feng Biao. The full content of the encounter is not clear, but it was a source of friction between Tbilisi and Beijing. Reflecting continued Chinese curiosity in the region, a Shanghai news outlet recently had a reporter visit, something that was reported in light of the recent Russian recognitions in Ukraine.

A final point to note is that there is little reason why Beijing would feel it is being isolated on the international stage alongside Moscow at the moment. Watch the UN meetings in the run-up to Russia’s invasion, and India’s statements echo China’s refusal to condemn Moscow. Both voted the same way (alongside the UAE), choosing to abstain on the UN resolution condemning Russian action, while Indian finance officials are reported to be examining ways they can circumvent Western sanctions to continue to trade with Russia. Chinese banks have also been exploring ways of limiting their exposure, but the larger food, finance, technology and energy deals signed during Putin’s visit to Beijing earlier in the year highlight a deep economic relationship that is unlikely to change. Neither Beijing nor New Delhi appear eager to follow Western sanctions, although China is more forthright in condemning the use of the tactic. New Delhi may have subsequently done more to try to reach out to the Ukrainian side, but it has continued to avoid any sense of condemnation towards Moscow.

China and India may in other contexts be in violent conflict with each other, but they appear unified in being unwilling to jettison their relationship with Moscow in favour of Ukrainian or Western appeals. And given their collective representation of over a third of the planet’s population, this provides all three countries with adequate cover to wait and see how things develop, while keeping a cold eye on realist geopolitics.

Another short catch-up post for the Telegraph, something they commissioned in the wake of the Russian invasion in Ukraine. It even managed to generate a response on their letters page which is always reassuring.

Western intelligence was mocked after Iraq. With Ukraine, it has redeemed itself

An explosion in Ukraine after Russia launched its invasion in the early hours of Feb 24 CREDIT: Zuma Press / eyevine

Intelligence tends to toil in silence. The only operations we usually hear about are ones that are leaked or when they go wrong. Successful terrorist attacks, for example, are reflections of intelligence failures. In the run up to the war in Iraq, the politicization of intelligence provided cover for an ill-judged conflict and has become a stick by which intelligence assessments are regularly brandished when they seem to threaten dire events. 

Yet on Ukraine, western intelligence can be judged to have been remarkably accurate from what we have seen so far. The only gap appeared to be an understanding of what would actually stop Vladimir Putin from making his move, something that reflects an inability to see inside one man’s head.

Information gathered by intelligence is never complete. It is usually a series of fragmentary images that provide a series of snapshots of a situation. Each piece comes from a different source and has a different level of reliability which needs consideration and evaluating alongside the actual information itself. This makes intelligence analysis and assessment more of an art than science. It also helps sometimes explain failures.

In a curious twist, the intelligence this time was visible for us all to see. The massive Russian troop accumulations on Ukraine’s borders with Russia and in Belarus, alongside the Russian provocations in supporting separatist forces in the Donbas were all reported and covered repeatedly on social media

Some even made it into the mainstream press. And as concern built about what Putin was planning, it was clear that western intelligence sought to brief out and share more of the information that they had to highlight the threat that they saw.

The goal was two-fold. First, to prepare the public for what was coming, and therefore the response that would follow. But more importantly to try to signal to Putin that the west was aware of what he was up to and that his repeated public pleas that he had no intention of invading Ukraine were lies.

 The hope being that this might deter him from carrying through on what they imagined he was planning on the basis of all the activity that was visible on the ground.

The only real missing part of the picture was what Putin himself was thinking and the moment of attack. US President Joe Biden and his administration started signalling a few weeks ago that they expected an attack any moment. They could judge from the forces on the ground that Russia was now able to launch an attack at any moment. But they did not know exactly when it was going to happen. Because this information was likely locked in one man’s head – Putin’s.

This ultimately is always the problem with intelligence information. It is dependent on knowing what people are thinking, and while external indicators can show a lot (and online behaviour in particular is a huge giveaway), intent and action are still dependent on choices people make. Sometimes this is based on logic and planning, other times on emotion.

On Ukraine there is no doubt that intelligence collection was accurate. The troop numbers, the plan and the path of action was largely predicted. And what they expected has come to pass. 

The fear now is that they were entirely right. In which case, the grim plan that was revealed which spoke of lists of Ukrainians to target, incarcerate and execute, and a puppet regime to be put in place instead is also accurate. 

This may be a very public vindication of western intelligence capabilities and a rebuff to those still stuck on the failures of Iraq, but it comes at a heavy cost to Ukraine and the world.

Been very busy with other things of late and have entirely failed to post. As a result a short backlog has accumulated, while some bigger projects and issues elsewhere have kept me rather busy. Anyway: catching up now starting off with a piece for the South China Morning Post on China-Russia relations over events in Kazakhstan at the beginning of the year. Crazy to think how far we have come now with everyone’s attention firmly on Ukraine.

Why China won’t lose sleep over Russian troops in Kazakhstan

Suggestions of China-Russia rivalry for power in Central Asia miss the mark. In reality, while both are active in the region, their roles are more complementary than competitive

Russia is the de factor provider of security guarantees, while China is the economic opportunity everyone wants to tap

The outbreak of violence in Kazakhstan has awakened the question of Sino-Russian competition in Central Asia. The assertion of Russian hard power is interpreted as being an example of Moscow getting the upper hand, to Beijing’s detriment.

Yet this analytical framework is unhelpful in really understanding the situation or the nature of the current China-Russia relationship. Beijing and Moscow have no reason to clash with each other over Kazakhstan. Rather, they will play the situation to their advantage and further freeze out the West from the Eurasian heartland.

China and Russia’s broad interests in Kazakhstan are the same. Both want a stable country that is in their collective economic and military thrall, and ideally with looser ties to the West.

China has the upper hand in economic terms, but this is partially because Kazakhstan is rich in the raw materials needed for the Chinese economy. In contrast, Russian firms see Kazakhstan as a state in which they can ply their trade, and to which they have easier access thanks to the Eurasian Economic Union.

Russian service members disembark from a military aircraft as part of a peacekeeping mission from the Collective Security Treaty Organisation amid mass protests in Almaty and other Kazakh cities, at an airfield in Kazakhstan. This still image is from a video released by Russia’s Defence Ministry on January 8. Photo: Handout via Reuters

Russian service members disembark from a military aircraft as part of a peacekeeping mission from the Collective Security Treaty Organisation amid mass protests in Almaty and other Kazakh cities, at an airfield in Kazakhstan. This still image is from a video released by Russia’s Defence Ministry on January 8. Photo: Handout via Reuters

In strategic security terms, Russia has long had bases in Kazakhstan. The arrival of Russian forces under a Collective Security Treaty Organisation (CSTO) banner is new – both in terms of Russian deployments in Kazakhstan and in a first for the CSTO. But it is not clear how or why this might be a challenge to China.

Beijing has not expressed an interest in deploying its forces in Kazakhstan. China and Kazakhstan have done training exercises together, but these have been limited and done either bilaterally (mostly on counterterrorism questions) or under the auspices of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO), of which Russia is also a member.

Beijing has pressured the Kazakh government to do something about dissident networks of Uygurs, and it has in the past sought to get permission for its private security companies to operate in the country. While the Kazakh government was willing to accede to the first request, they were unwilling to let Chinese private security firms in.

None of China’s activity has been about competing with Russia. China is consistently focused on its specific interests in Kazakhstan.

Containers are loaded onto a train to Kazakhstan in the China-Kazakhstan Logistic Base in Lianyungang, Jiangsu province, on September 17 last year. The base is an important seaport for Kazakhstan export and provides efficient transit for cargo and consumer goods from the Central Asian country. Photo: EPA-EFE

Containers are loaded onto a train to Kazakhstan in the China-Kazakhstan Logistic Base in Lianyungang, Jiangsu province, on September 17 last year. The base is an important seaport for Kazakhstan export and provides efficient transit for cargo and consumer goods from the Central Asian country. Photo: EPA-EFE

Where there was a possible overlap in competition with Russia was on military sales, with Chinese firms having sold high-end weapons to the Kazakh government, like drones, some air and missile systems, as well as technological surveillance and communications tools. It is, of course, possible that these arms sales are depriving Russian companies of contracts, but Kazakh purchasing is done on the basis of quality and price, rather than Beijing trying to edge Moscow out of Kazakhstan.

In fact, China is happiest when someone else is dealing with Central Asian security questions. In the immediate fallout from the collapse of the government in Afghanistan, it was not Chinese soldiers or weapons that were rushed to Central Asian borders, but Russian ones.

On the economic side, Russian companies are active in Central Asia, but cannot compete with their Chinese counterparts, whose appetites are on a different scale.

Similarly, the almost bottomless Chinese consumer market is something that Central Asian producers are increasingly keen to have access to. The entire economic geography of this region is being pulled towards China not because of geopolitics, but because of its sheer economic weight.

The “Silk Road economic belt” strand of the Belt and Road Initiative, which cuts through Central Asia, also ties Russia into China’s wider vision of global prosperity. Consequently, Moscow has little interest in complicating it; rather, it is focused on ensuring it benefits as well.

The point being, this is not a competitive relationship. Beijing and Moscow are both active in Central Asia, but are different actors on the ground. Russia is the de facto provider of security guarantees, while China is the economic opportunity everyone (including Russia) wants to tap.

Seeing this through the lens of competition suggests that Beijing would rather be the one who is stepping in to provide security guarantees, and that Moscow is somehow going to push China out economically. There is little evidence in either capital that this goal is in play. Rather, they both seem happy to operate in parallel, playing a supportive rhetorical role and staying out of each other’s way.

Russian President Vladimir Putin gestures during his videoconference with Chinese President Xi Jinping in Moscow on December 15 last year. Photo: Kremlin Pool Photo via AP

Russian President Vladimir Putin gestures during his videoconference with Chinese President Xi Jinping in Moscow on December 15 last year. Photo: Kremlin Pool Photo via AP

The question is in the medium to longer term – when China starts to worry about being dependent on Russian security guarantees.

At the moment, Beijing seems comfortable. But, at some point, this thinking may change. In many other places, China has increasingly started to try to provide its own security guarantees, and there is no reason to think this might not also take place in Central Asia.

On the other side of the coin, the tipping point for Russia is likely to be when Chinese economic investment into Central Asia starts to turn into unfettered Chinese economic influence and power in Russia directly.

But this concern appears to be receding, as Moscow seems to increasingly welcome and open up its economy to Chinese investment and connections – in large part due to tensions with the West.

But none of this is about Kazakhstan. Rather, this is about China and Russia’s larger posturing and view of their respective roles in the world. Within this context, Beijing is happy if Moscow is going to play a role in tidying up what looks like an increasingly messy bout of political infighting in Kazakhstan, while Moscow is pleased to be seen as the regional security guarantor.

In contrast to many other situations involving China, this is a win-win for them both.

Raffaello Pantucci is senior associate fellow at the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI) in London

With this piece I finally catch up to current events in my writing on Central Asia. I realize have been writing a lot about it late last year, and thus far don’t think events have vastly disproved what I wrote. Certainly, did not predict things, but then no-one really did. This short piece for my UK institutional home RUSI in the wake of events in Kazakhstan has I think stood reasonably well so far, but it remains still to be seen what the longer-term impact of events in Kazakhstan at the end of the year might be.

Kazakhstan in Crisis: It’s About the Country, Not Big Power Politics

The true significance of current events in Central Asia’s biggest country remains domestic.

Protests in the Kazakh city of Aktobe, 4 January 2022. Courtesy of Esetok / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 4.0

The sudden and chaotic start to the year in Kazakhstan has taken even the most seasoned Central Asia watchers by surprise. The extreme and widespread violence and protests have been made even more shocking by the extraordinary decision of President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev to request the deployment of the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) to help bring stability back to the country. Given wider global tensions with Russia, the prospect of a Russian-led military deployment in the country has been interpreted through the lens of Russian geopolitics and President Vladimir Putin’s aspirations, but this misses the degree to which this is about events in Kazakhstan.

Well-Concealed Cracks

For years, Kazakhstan has been considered among the most stable and prosperous of the belt of countries surrounding modern Russia. Endowed with enormous mineral wealth, the country seemed to be tacking a very different path. Autocratic and ruled largely by the same group who had been in power at the end of the Soviet Union, Kazakhstan’s elites had also used their wealth to foster a growing middle class, which included large numbers of smart young Kazakhs whose education was paid for to help the country develop. Glittering events and buildings showcased the country to the world as a very different sort of post-Soviet state.

Yet, cracks existed beneath this façade. The ruling class was dogged by tales of massive corruption. Protests would periodically emerge, a sign of deep unhappiness in parts of the country that had not benefitted in the same way as the capital city. But the country was also home to a thriving NGO community and an active (if controlled) media, and was considered a place where a certain degree of openness was permitted. The government would tolerate some dissent, but would ensure that it never challenged its authority.

This generally positive trajectory clearly masked a more brittle structure than was generally thought. While regional watchers were unsurprised by the violence that marred Kyrgyzstan’s elections in October 2020 – the latest in a sadly long history of such violence – the sudden and widespread protests and subsequent violence in Kazakhstan have come as a shock. While it remains to be seen how organised any of it has been, there seems little doubt that underpinning it all is a deep well of local anger.

Botched Handling of Crisis

Part of this can be seen in the government’s initial reaction. Recognising what was happening needed a dramatic response. President Tokayev initially responded by removing from power the cadre of officials linked to the country’s founding President Nursultan Nazarbayev who were blamed for much of the corruption and inequality in the country. The father of the nation who had shepherded his country out of the Russian-Soviet yoke, Nazarbayev had formally stepped down as president in January 2019, handing over the reins of power to Tokayev – a longstanding member of his close cabinet. President Nazarbayev retained his influence, however, including as Chairman of the powerful National Security Council. His family and allies continued to control key parts of the country’s wealth and hold great power. The smooth transfer to Tokayev, however, was praised, although it was never entirely clear how much had actually changed.

Yet Tokayev’s sop to the protestors did not work. Pictures emerged from around the country of police putting down their weapons and joining the protestors. The decision to remove Karim Massimov, a close ally of Nazarbayev, from his role as head of the National Security Council showed how little faith Tokayev had in his own security forces, while also firmly cementing the removal of Nazarbayev’s cadre from the central leadership.

Pulling Out All the Stops

Hence, the decision to call in the CSTO. Fearing that the chaos in the country was escalating out of control and that his own security forces would not hold muster, it is clear that Tokayev felt he needed an external hand to help steady the ship. Russia initially seemed to dismiss the issues in Kazakhstan, with presidential spokesman Dmitry Peskov telling the media ‘we are convinced that our Kazakh friends can independently solve their internal problems’. The Kremlin also warned others not to interfere in Kazakhstan, while various Russian commentators took this one step further and accused the US of being involved in instigating the trouble in Kazakhstan.

While the subsequent Russian action in sending its forces into Kazakhstan as part of the CSTO mission seems to entirely contradict these Kremlin statements, it is a response to events on the ground and requests from Kazakh authorities. This is not an informal invasion, or a way for Russia to firmly embed itself in Kazakhstan to draw the country back under Moscow’s sway. The truth is that Kazakhstan will always likely be tied to Moscow, no matter who is in charge. The country is bound through treaties, geography, infrastructure and population to Russia. Whoever is in power in Nursultan will have to have a good working relationship with Moscow. And while there has undoubtedly been a growth in anti-Russian sentiment in the country over the past few years as the government has sought to develop its own national identity and pride, Moscow is still an important partner (and locals tend to be even more sceptical of other partners like the US or China).

And even if Kazakhstan were to choose a different path, it would likely be towards China. In fact, both Nazarbayev and Tokayev have sought instead to strike a path between Russia and China, leveraging Kazakhstan’s natural wealth to foster an independent, ‘multi-vector’ foreign policy which attempts to stay somewhere in between the two (and even close to the West, where possible – Europe and the US are important economic partners for Kazakhstan).

Implications

Clearly, the credibility of this narrative is now in question. But this should not be interpreted as the success of Russian adventurism. Rather, it should be seen as a reflection of realities on the ground in a country whose government clearly did not appreciate the depth of its people’s unhappiness, which was playing out some complicated internal politics and which was always likely to rely on its traditional security partner, Russia, to play a supportive role in extremis.

The world should not be confused by the tweeting of Russian commentators in the West and meddlesome pro-Kremlin commentators in Moscow – echoed by parts of the Chinese state media – who suggest a larger plot which encompasses Ukraine and Belarus and falls into the geopolitical confrontation between Russia/China and the West. These events are about Kazakhstan.

This is not mere sophistry. For, if the events are seen only through the lens of confrontation between the West and Russia, then current developments could lead Kazakhstan to turn away from the Western direction it has kept trying to steer itself towards. If, however, the emphasis is placed on the issues underpinning the violence in the first place and efforts are focused on persuading the government to try to actually address those problems, it is possible that a better outcome can be found.

Of course, this will be hugely complicated by the presence of Russian forces under the CSTO banner. And it is possible that we will discover the levels of violence that took place over the past few days will fundamentally change things on the ground. But Kazakhstan is a country whose natural wealth and confidence does give it options – even if, at least for the moment, it seems to have taken the wrong ones.

More catch up posting from last month, this time again a look forwards on what the year holds for Afghanistan and Central Asia for Nikkei Asian Review. Wasn’t expecting the chaos in Kazakhstan that followed, but I think the broader trends pointed to will hold and the trouble in Kazakhstan will play into it as well.

2022 look ahead: Central Asia will cement its turn against the West

Expect China and Russia to step in and take advantage

U.S. Marines are on guard during an evacuation at Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul on Aug. 20: policymakers in Washington have decided to leave the morass of middle Eurasia to others. (Handout photo from U.S. Marine Corps)   © Reuters

Raffaello Pantucci is a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore and author of the forthcoming “Sinostan: China’s Inadvertent Empire (Oxford University Press, April 2022).”

While this year may have appeared momentous, the truth is that we have not yet seen the full effect of the Taliban taking over in Kabul. This will only emerge as potential opposition forces organize themselves, the regional geopolitics fall into place and the unfolding economic catastrophe starts to bite.

At a wider level, the impact of the American withdrawal from the region will also be felt as the region is pushed closer toward Russia, Iran and China as those three powers continue to square off in an anti-Western geopolitical alignment.

One result of today’s intense and never-ending media cycle is the difficulty to judge the gap between cause and effect. If a particular outcome has not occurred within a day or so, the issue slips from the news pages and we forget about it, only to find ourselves shocked when it later reemerges.

After Afghanistan did not slip back into the brutal civil war that many expected, much of the world’s attention moved elsewhere. Instead, a slow-moving economic crisis has created a catastrophe largely taking place out of our field of vision. But the ramifications of this crisis will emerge.

First, the parlous economic situation will drive many people to seek a life outside Afghanistan. While most will head south to Pakistan or over the border into Iran and even onward to Europe, a growing number of Afghans will flee into the Central Asian region, most likely Tajikistan.

People from Afghanistan cross into the Pakistan-Afghanistan border town of Chaman, Pakistan, on Sept. 7: the parlous economic situation will drive many people to seek a life outside Afghanistan.   © Reuters

Second, the Taliban is unlikely to feel the need to contain the country’s narcotics industry, whether by design or lack of capability. Given its status as a high-value cash crop, we can expect more Afghans to turn toward narcotics production, with consequences for criminal networks and corruption across Central Asia, as well as greater fragmentation within Afghanistan.

Third, we can expect some sort of opposition to the Taliban to materialize beyond Islamic State in Khorasan Province (ISKP), which has so far been the only group to consistently target the new government.

While there is some truth to rumors of former regime soldiers and other disaffected groups joining ISKP, the group is unlikely to garner much in the way of international support.

This suggests a vacuum that will eventually be filled by a constellation of the various factions who were ejected from Kabul in August. Currently, the most likely candidates appear to be gathering in Dushanbe, Tajikistan, although a credible and effective leader has yet to emerge.

But the problems inside Afghanistan will pale in comparison with the larger geostrategic shifts taking place in the wake of the U.S. withdrawal.

While many in Washington were at pains to deny it, there was little hiding the fact that the decision to withdraw from Afghanistan was more about enabling the U.S. to focus more attention on the Indo-Pacific. It seems clear that policymakers in Washington have decided to leave the morass of middle Eurasia to others.

This does not mean that the West has completely withdrawn from the region. The U.S. and Europe will continue to be major investors and providers of aid and other forms of support across the region. But it does mean that Central Asia will receive less attention from Washington and Brussels.

Expect China and Russia to step in and take active advantage to affirm their increasing control of the Eurasian heartland.

Bordered by China, Russia, Iran, all of which suffer varying degrees of Western sanctions, Afghanistan and Central Asia will be almost entirely surrounded by countries whose relations with Washington are hostile.

That will likely result in a very hard-nosed form of geopolitics dominating regional discourse. Relationships will be entirely transactional and based around ensuring stability at whatever cost.

At the same time, we are likely to see a fairly cynical approach as to how this is achieved, with China and Russia increasingly refusing to go against each other. Unlike in the past, the confrontation with the West has escalated to the point that Moscow and Beijing see a greater strategic utility in keeping differences — Russia’s 2008 intervention in Georgia, for example — out of public view.

The fact that Russian President Vladimir Putin and Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping are scheduled to meet early next year, the first such in-person summit for President Xi in almost two years, is a reflection of how close the relationship has become.

At an economic level too, the continued economic tightening resulting from COVID-19 is likely to strengthen Beijing’s hand in Central Asia, where many regional economies are already bound to China through investment and trade links.

The current COVID-related stasis favors Chinese trade, which is increasingly delivered through online platforms that are becoming ubiquitous across the Eurasian space and can be delivered along rail and road routes that extend outward from China.

In contrast, shipping goods into China is becoming ever harder, though raw materials seem able to continue to flow without too much difficulty.

The net result is an increasingly one-way Belt and Road Initiative, which will only serve to strengthen China’s economic ties across the region and make countries more dependent on Beijing in ways that will ultimately not help their own economies to diversify.

This is likely to be the story of 2022 for Afghanistan and Central Asia: a potentially unstable Afghanistan alongside a strengthening of Beijing and Moscow’s hands across the region. That is when the gradual freezing of the West from the Eurasian heartland will really start to harden.

Another post from last month now to catch up on, looking this time at the question of how China and Russia might or might not be cooperating in Afghanistan for the excellent Nikkei Asia Review. It is a broader question which merits closer examination, and should the time emerge I hope to be able to dig into it. Some of the questions raised have touched on elsewhere and will feature in my upcoming book.

What are China and Russia up to in Afghanistan?

A coordinated pattern of engagement is starting to emerge

Members of the Taliban delegation, including its head Abdul Salam Hanafi, Afghan acting Foreign Minister Amir Khan Muttaqi and representative of the Taliban political office Anas Haqqani, attend a media briefing following international talks on Afghanistan in Moscow on Wednesday.   © Reuters

Raffaello Pantucci is a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore and a senior associate fellow at the Royal United Services Institute in London.

When Russia hosted a meeting with senior Taliban leaders in Moscow this week — after both Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping sent junior deputies to an earlier G-20 leaders’ meeting on Afghanistan — it raised the question of whether this is part of a broader strategic plan for how Beijing and Moscow plan to work together on the world stage.

Afghanistan represents something of a paradox for both China and Russia. Though fearful of the large American military presence that was on their doorsteps, Moscow and Beijing were secretly happy that Washington was taking responsibility for the security situation on the ground.

Now, irritated at the mess the U.S. has left behind, China and Russia have decided that the way forward is to engage with the Taliban and explore options together. Both engaged publicly with the Taliban long before Kabul fell, and both have left a substantial diplomatic presence since the Taliban took over. At the United Nations, Russia and China have both pushed for Taliban sanctions to be lifted, something highlighted during this week’s Moscow Summit.

China has strengthened its small base in Tajikistan, undertaking a number of bilateral exercises with Tajik special forces, and the Russians have bolstered the Tajik armed forces as well as strengthened their own 7,000-strong military presence there and participated in larger regional exercises with Uzbekistan and Tajikistan.

But it is hard to tell how many of these actions are coordinated, with some reports hinting at Moscow’s frustration at the lack of cooperation with Beijing on the ground in Tajikistan. At the other end of the scale, both have engaged in regular large-scale joint military exercises on Russian soil, including regular exercises overseen by the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), the Eurasian security pact that includes China, Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, India, Pakistan and Tajikistan.

This year’s SCO Peace Mission counterterrorism exercise was specifically referred to as relevant to Afghanistan in the Russian media. Chinese media was more circumspect about the links to Afghanistan, but few could miss the connection. It was made particularly explicit during meetings, held shortly before Kabul fell, between the SCO and the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), a Russian-led military grouping that brings together a range of former Soviet forces.

On the ground in Kabul, there are some divergences. Early on, China and Russia worked together both out front and behind the scenes to try to influence the Taliban government to be inclusive. Russia now seems to have stepped back, while Beijing has leaned in, with China’s ambassador to Afghanistan making loud declarations of aid, then holding a floodlit ceremony at the airport to celebrate its arrival and then present it to his Afghan counterpart.

China has also proven willing to entertain Taliban entreaties for investment. Chinese companies responsible for two large mining projects that had come to a standstill under the previous government are now — at the Taliban’s urging — exploring whether they can restart operations. Discussions are also underway to reopen an air transport corridor with China to facilitate the export of pine nuts, though it is unclear who is going to subsidize the transport costs.

Moscow has not sought to match or offer assistance on any of these actions, instead deciding to restart a parallel international engagement track with the Taliban and other regional partners (including China) and pushing to get the US and west to foot the bill for any reconstruction. This is a way of trying to again influence the Taliban to moderate their behavior and actually build an inclusive government of some sort.

Both Beijing and Moscow recognize that this is going to be a more stable structure, but it seems Moscow is more willing to actually try to do something about it.

The multipoint proposals that China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi put on the table at the G-20 summit earlier this month were a largely repetitive statement of the obvious: no terrorists from Afghan soil, humanitarian support, no sanctions against the Taliban government. Russian envoy Zamir Kabulov’s contribution showed a far more nuanced and targeted understanding of what needs to be achieved. His tough but engaging diplomacy reflects his long personal history on the issue.

What is missing from all of this is clarity of what division of labor that might exist between Beijing and Moscow. China appears to be publicly hugging the Taliban tighter, while it seems that Moscow is keeping them at one remove.

In turn, Moscow appears to be leading when it comes to the international engagement and recognition that the Taliban crave. On the ground, it is Russia that is providing hard security guarantees in Central Asia and leading on the military exercises. But ultimately it is Chinese investment that everyone is looking for — even though money has been limited, with the spigot unlikely to open up very soon.

It is possible that this is also an echo of the roles that China and Russia see for each other on the world stage. Beijing will use its financial resources to win friends and influence while Russia plays the aggressive leader willing to take risks and provide security backstops.

Russia can benefit from leveraging China’s potential as an investor to get the Taliban to act, while Beijing can step behind Russia when it comes to sharper points of difference. To use a musical analogy, maybe Moscow is the showy frontman while Beijing is providing the deep bass backup that keeps everyone dancing.

Still catching up on myself after a very busy period, this a quick policy note for RUSI picking up on some comments by the UK Foreign Secretary about the need to have to cooperate with China and Russia in Afghanistan. The idea of cooperating with China in particular in Afghanistan is something that lots of people have done over the years, and for those who may have been reading my stuff for a while will know I have done projects on since 2014 (looking at China-India cooperation), again in greater depth in 2016 and most recently last year between the UK and China. As Afghanistan’s wealthiest, and going forwards likely most influential, neighbour, it strikes that China is going to be playing a role or should be taking a more positive role. It makes sense to try to ensure some sort of cooperation can be maintained, while the larger relationships will continue to be incredibly challenging and confrontational. Of course all of this push towards engagement is something that only works if Beijing and Moscow also contribute, something that they have hesitated to do so far (in particular in China’s case).

Enlisting China and Russia in Managing Afghanistan

The UK foreign secretary is the first to raise what will soon become an imperative: engaging with China and Russia in containing the fallout from Afghanistan.

Taliban spokesman Suhail Shaheen leaves after a news conference in Moscow, 9 July 2021. Courtesy of Reuters / Alamy Stock Photo.

UK Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab’s recent comments about enlisting the support of China and Russia to act as moderating influences in Afghanistan amounts to a sober admission of reality: the long-term answer to stability in Afghanistan is going to come from its immediate region. The snag with this assessment is that Afghanistan is a state entirely surrounded by countries that are in one way or another sanctioned by the West. It is this adversarial relationship with much of Afghanistan’s neighbourhood that makes it difficult for a power like the UK to influence events, especially when it comes to engaging Moscow and Beijing on something as sensitive as Afghanistan. So, what exactly can the West in general, and the UK in particular, expect in requesting support from China and Russia in the context of Afghanistan?

Not Exactly Enthused

The first fact to note is that, notwithstanding rhetoric, neither Beijing nor Moscow are pleased with the ultimate outcome of an unstable Afghanistan. They may enjoy the West’s perceived failure and ignominious departure, but an Afghanistan ruled by the Taliban is not an outcome they welcome with excitement. Violent Islamists imbued with a sense of victory present a potential inspiration to extreme groups within China and Russia. It is worth remembering that the Taliban has previously provided space from which militants targeting these countries could operate. Furthermore, any short- or medium-term terrorist threat that could emanate from Afghanistan is most likely to appear in its immediate region rather than further afield.

Neither are Beijing or Moscow attracted to an unstable Afghanistan with a weak or internally divided government without the stabilising force of US power. Such a situation would be an irritant which sits near their borders and could have other consequences for their broader spheres of influence and interests across the Eurasian heartland. Beijing and Moscow would rather have a Taliban government that found a way of creating a stable environment, most preferably through some political agreement. There is likely a divergence in views between London, Beijing and Moscow on what the specific composition of this government might look like, but there is probably an underlying agreement about the broad structure.

Keep it Simple, Keep it Focused

While this suggests a restriction to the degree to which China and Russia will cooperate on Afghan politics, it also indicates a certain alignment with Beijing and Moscow, as their goal is similar to that pursued by the UK. All three want stability. But, rather than expend political capital on precise deliverables that may be unattainable, the focus should be kept on larger goals.

A priority must be to apply whatever pressure is possible to get Beijing and Moscow to encourage the Taliban to facilitate a positive outcome to the current humanitarian crisis at Kabul airport. In the medium term, the UK should impress upon Beijing and Moscow the need to increase their humanitarian aid to Afghanistan and its neighbours. China has considerable wealth and influence in Pakistan, where numerous Afghan refugees are already flowing. Providing greater aid and support for this community, while also continuing the provision of coronavirus pandemic-related aid to Afghanistan, should be a priority. Similarly, Iran is experiencing a refugee influx it can ill afford to manage as it continues to suffer from the effects of the pandemic. Beijing and Tehran have recently started to strengthen their engagement, opening discussions on Afghanistan in particular.

Moscow has already demonstrated a desire to restrict US options in Central Asia, but Russia can still be pushed to step up its humanitarian support to help the countries of the region manage the humanitarian fallout. Before the fall of Kabul, Moscow was offering itself as a valued security bolster to the Central Asian powers, and it should be encouraged to build on this with greater humanitarian aid.

In order to help foster greater cooperation, a key plank of engagement is the joint concerns all three powers have about terrorist threats. Pressure needs to be maintained on the Taliban to ensure their territory is not used by militant groups to launch external attacks. The reality is that both China and Russia (through Central Asia) are under a greater threat than the West from such a development. The UK faces a clear risk through Pakistan, and the deep human links the two countries share, which unfortunately extends to South Asian militancy and extremism. Here, discussion between the UK, China and Russia should be easier. All three already agree in broad terms on the shape of the violent Islamist threat (though domestic assessments and counterterrorism approaches vary wildly). A dialogue with Beijing on the topic would be easier for the UK in particular, given it has not, unlike the US, removed the East Turkestan Islamic Movement from its roster of proscribed terrorist organisations, considering it another name for the Turkestan Islamic Party.

Looking to the future, both China and Russia should be encouraged to live up to their various promises of support for Afghanistan, from trying to work in a more collective and coordinated fashion to help impede the flow of narcotics to boosting cross-border trade and low-level economic activity.

At the moment, much of the discussion around the Afghan economy tends to focus on overly ambitious, long-term and frankly unviable economic visions for the country, be these China’s Belt and Road concept or the opportunity to mine Afghanistan’s potential mineral wealth. The reality is that none of this wealth was extracted during the relative stability of the past 20 years of US-led intervention, when there was a government that had the ability and knowledge necessary to help deliver complicated extractive projects. It is difficult to comprehend why this situation would now be improved or the country seem more appealing, even to more risk-tolerant Chinese firms. Furthermore, such projects take years to see benefits, and the people of Afghanistan need assistance now.

And Less of the ‘Great Game’

It would be useful for the UK to do everything it can to ensure that Afghanistan does not get caught in the grinding tectonic plates of international geopolitics once again. Beijing has already started to identify the country as a potential point of conflict with the US and India, and efforts should focus on disentangling these threads to try to encourage cooperation again. Afghanistan used to shine as a place where adversaries like the US, China and India could cooperate, even if only to a limited extent.

At this stage, any engagement on Afghanistan with other powers must be done with great care. The situation on the ground remains highly unstable and the tussles for power are febrile. Regardless of who ultimately takes and maintains control in Kabul, however, Beijing and Moscow will be highly influential players. Engaging with them in some form will be hard to avoid; the key objective is to do so meaningfully.