For old Russian chess masters, the position is well known. It is a zugzwang: when any legal move will worsen the player’s situation, that of Moscow. Here it may be China’s luck. There are a few lessons Beijing can draw from Russia’s predicament.
Last week’s summit of the five ex-Soviet Central Asian republics (Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, and Turkmenistan) in Xi’an indicates that China wants to step into the region, sensing that Russia is losing its grip there. Beijing apparently fears a power vacuum in Central Asia, which is crucial for its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). Moscow is absorbed in its war in Ukraine, and there could be a political crisis in the country.
Thirty years ago, with the fall of the Soviet Union, China saw the Central Asian republics becoming independent and increasingly unstable. Yet for fear of irking Russia, China didn’t move to try to stabilize the situation. Then other political actors stepped in, including the United States, much to the chagrin of Russia and China. Now China wants to avoid and prevent that.
China’s President Xi Jinping on May 19 unveiled an ambitious, comprehensive proposal to help landlocked Central Asia in its development—from building infrastructure networks to boosting trade—while shunning “external interference.”
It is unclear if India, Russia, Iran, or just the United States should be considered “external interference.” In January 2022, shortly before the Ukrainian invasion, Russia supported a coup in Kazakhstan, and some Kazak leaders ran to Beijing for help.
Beijing offered to create synergistic development strategies with the five Central Asian countries. “The world needs a Central Asia that is stable, prosperous, harmonious, and well-connected,” Xi said.
At the same time, the countries should jointly oppose “external interference” in the internal affairs of regional countries and attempts to instigate “color revolutions,” protests supported by the United States. They should also maintain zero tolerance against terrorism, separatism, and extremism, Xi said. It reminded the five counties of past support for anti-Beijing activities in China’s western region of Xinjiang, inhabited by Uyghurs, a Turkic minority close to the populations of four of the five republics.
“China is ready to help Central Asian countries improve their law enforcement, security, and defense capability construction,” Xi added.
It is not clear how much real traction the proposal will have. The republics are keen to hook up to China’s economic engine and link to its eastern ports. But local people are also wary of China’s pervasive economic penetration and are alarmed by the recent widespread crackdown on Uyghurs in Xinjiang.
In any case, the five countries are currently going ahead with the plan, and in the future, China could smooth out many edges in its activities in the republics if it can pay close attention.
Russia out of Asia?
In any case, China’s move signals a Russian loss of power in the region and could actually hasten it. It builds on another significant concession. Beijing reported Russia is, for the first time, conceding to the Chinese use of the port of Vladivostok.
It is a breakthrough for the landlocked northwestern provinces of Jilin and Heilongjiang. Although details are still murky, the deal exposes Vladivostok to being de facto absorbed by China.
The Russian city has only 600,000 people, compared to some 100 million Chinese pushing over the border. Plus, China’s economic powerhouse could easily steamroll whatever business activity the Russians have in the city once the gates are open.
China’s northeast, formerly Manchuria, for some 40 years an economic laggard in the country, is in the past year booming, driven by Russian demand for cheap industrial products that are no longer available through Western exporters since the beginning of the war. Opening Vladivostok could change the region’s economy but would de facto cause Moscow’s local political leverage to dwindle. Already many Russians from Siberia vacation in Hainan and shop in Shanghai. The trend would only speed up.
It was a scenario Russia tried to avoid for over a century. During this time, Russia apparently believed that the key to controlling Vladivostok long-term was to isolate the city from the neighboring overwhelming Chinese environment. Now Moscow is breaking its century-old vows.
Russia is doing so evidently because it needs the Chinese halting help to survive the war. For China, it also creates a precedent. Whatever happens to Russia in the future, once Vladivostok is connected with its Chinese backyard, it will be harder to slam the gates shut.
Then, in sum, Russia is slipping out of Siberia to have China’s support for the war in the West and because it is difficult to hold on to its far east while being occupied by a conflict elsewhere.
Losing East and West
Meanwhile, Russia is not winning in the West either. The three main goals of the Ukrainian war (controlling Kyiv, splitting the EU, and pushing the US out of Europe) have been lost. Former iron allies are wrangling out of Russia’s bearhug. Belarus denied Russia its bases for the winter offensive; its president Alexander Lukashenko was allegedly ill and was out of the public eye for about three weeks. Moldova is withdrawing from its alliance with Russia, and another staunch pro-Russia ally, Armenia, is reaching out to Western powers, uncertain of Russia’s future heft.
Meanwhile, the war in Ukraine is not moving forward. After five months of offensive and on the eve of a Ukrainian counter-offensive, Moscow didn’t even conquer the town of Bakhmut. There are deepening fissures between the Russian army and Wagner, the mercenary contractors spearheading the recent assaults. Mysterious terrorist attacks have killed two prominent pro-war “influencers” (Tatiana Dugina and Vladlen Tatarsky), plus a bizarre drone tried to hit one of the Kremlin’s domes.
In sum, Russia is losing to the East and West, and reasonably there is no real reversal in sight.
Russian President Vladimir Putin failed in his Ukrainian gamble, but more broadly, his development mode was a failure. After the 1998 Russian financial crisis, Moscow’s elites gradually came to convince themselves Western capitalism wasn’t Russia’s cup of tea.
They couldn’t return to failed Soviet socialism, so they harked back to czarist times. Society came to be organized like then. There was a new czar, Putin, with an existential bond with the revamped Russian Orthodox Church headed by Patriarch Kirill.
There was no longer a court of land-owning old aristocrats monopolizing the economy but a court of new oligarchs monopolizing industry and resources. It was all secured by rich oil and gas exports and a mighty nuclear arsenal. It all replaced and remodeled the massive czarist grain exports and invincible army. The pattern was well-oiled in the bones of the Russian people and more readily applicable than the mysterious ways of international capital tossing the Russian economy left and right.
The czarist pattern implied a 19th-century national pride, i.e., territorial affirmation against the Chechen uprising first, then against all other enemies, actual or imagined, at the Russian borders. Nationalism was the cheap compensation for the Russian needy, cut off from the enormous wealth accruement of Moscow’s court. It was national pride rather than access to middle-class security, unattainable without a proper market economy.
It was a slow slide that gained speed over time and was, for a time, also secured by US attempts to appease Russia and get its support against the American strategic enemy, China. Perhaps, it lasted until the price for appeasement exceeded its possible upsides with the invasion of Ukraine.
Then the present Western and Eastern failures of Russia are the failures of the neo-czarist model and the failure to adapt to a full-fledged market economy. If so, it calls back to reevaluating the whole Russian experience of the 1990s. Gorbachev and Yeltsin didn’t cause the fall of the USSR; they tried to pull out and salvage whatever was possible in a country that was falling apart.
Did the US and the West do enough? Did they hurt Russian pride? Maybe yes, maybe no. Indeed, the US and the West did something for Russia. They invested, sent help to Russia, and backed the moving of Ukrainian and Kazakh nuclear arsenals to Russia. The Russian invasion and perhaps the recent Xi’an summit would have been impossible without that move.
In retrospect, if, after the 1998 Russian crisis, Moscow had not swerved to its old habits but insisted on its market-oriented road, it would not be here. It would be somewhere else.
History is no video game where one can start over, and there are set development patterns. Ifs and buts do not make history, as Croce put it. Still, after a ruinous quarter of a century, one can’t help but think that many things went wrong not with Gorbachev and Yeltsin but with Putin. Although, in all fairness, it is understandable that after the 1998 crisis, Russian elites fancied the proven czarist model rather than the new, untested Western one.
Here are two different lessons. For Russia, it’s perhaps time to check the losses. The longer the war, the more Putin’s Russia will be gone.
For Beijing, it is different. It may all come down to China’s luck, the country’s polar star in the past half a century. Thanks to the Russian crisis, not only can Beijing inch into Central Asia and envelop Vladivostok and eastern Siberia, but, most importantly, at a crucial junction of its history, it could avoid falling into what is clearly Putin’s trap.
Is it time for China to hark back to imperial structures or double down on opening up? The answer may not be the most pleasant and comfortable, but it must be the truest.