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Russia: a Chinese colony?

The war in Ukraine has resulted in unprecedented sanctions being placed on Russia. Now confronted by a lack of access to traditionally lucrative markets in Europe, Moscow has turned to China to offset these issues. However, such a shift is naturally full of risks.

January 13, 2023 - Tomasz Kamusella - Articles and Commentary

Photo: Gorno Altaysk, capital of Russia's Altai Republic. Photo: Svetlana Chichinova / Shutterstock

Reports on Russia’s invasion of Ukraine focus on day-to-day horrific events, Ukrainian bravery, the Kremlin’s lies, Ukrainian refugees and Russian propaganda. When discussing the root causes of the Russian president’s fateful decision to attack Ukraine, few commentators venture beyond the hard-working phrase “Russian imperialism”. Yet, it is not self-explanatory, let alone all-explanatory.

Russian neo-imperialism

Indeed, the Russian ruling elite subscribes to this imperial ideology. It appears to give a sort of coherence to the official historical narrative. So that the process of building Russia does not look like a helter-skelter of bloody and opportunistic stealing, conquering and grabbing disparate territories wherever possible. However, that is what founding and “developing” Russia was, or rather has been.

In the early 2000s, Russian imperialism was rebranded as Russkiy mir or literally “Russian world and peace”. In actual use in Russia itself, this concept denotes what could be described in English as Samuel P. Huntington’s formulation of a “Russian (Orthodox) civilization”. Falling back on this concept, Russian ideologues and propagandists pretend that Russia was not, is not and cannot be an empire. That the territorially largest state in the world is a benevolent power, and actually “anti-imperialist” and “anti-colonial” in its character.

Moscow mendaciously blames present-day imperialism on the West’s former colonial metropolises. As though it were Britain and France that still maintained and enlarged through conquest their empires, not the Russian Federation.

Brzeziński’s dilemma

Present-day Russia’s neo-imperialism of Russkiy mir is a rather vague idea that does not directly constitute a doctrine which could be applied in political or military practice. Hence, it was not a key part of the Kremlin’s political analysis, which eventually led to taking the decision to launch a full-scale onslaught on Ukraine with the aim of erasing this state from the political map of Europe.

Three decades ago, following the fall of communism and the breakup of the Soviet Union, the former US National Security Advisor Zbigniew Brzeziński was asked about what would become of Russia in the future. His reply was succinct and starkly binary. According to him, post-Soviet Russia had the option of becoming a “normal European country” (nation-state) or a colony of China.

Russia’s choice

In the 1990s, the West hoped Russia would choose the first option. The country’s reformist and liberal elites opted for capitalism, democracy and a tentative alliance with the West. In a way it was a continuation of the last Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev’s policies of perestroika (a more free market economy) and glasnost (more political freedoms). However, this geopolitical honeymoon in the wake of the end of the Cold War did not last long. The first Russian President Boris Yeltsin settled on autocracy as an appropriate system of governance for the Russian Federation, and allowed for the rise of oligarchic-style capitalism. Finally, Yeltsin solidified this oppressive system that privileges very few by installing a former KGB officer, Vladimir Putin, on top as his hand-picked successor in 2000.

The new Russian president gradually overhauled Russia into an authoritarian dictatorship, before settling for the firm Soviet-style totalitarian course between the limited attack on Ukraine in 2014 and the full-scale war launched against this country in 2022. Meanwhile, in 2005, when addressing the Duma (Russian parliament), he opined that “the breakup of the Soviet Union was the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the [20th] century.” Two years later, at the Munich Security Conference, Mr. Putin accused the US of undue dominance over the world and warned the West to stay away from former Soviet territories in Europe.

In the Kremlin’s opinion, Russia had to regain its lost status as a global superpower. This goal was to be achieved with the threat of the world’s largest nuclear arsenal and thanks to the web of increasingly weaponised oil and gas pipelines, which made Europe dependent on Russia’s good will. When in 2008 the West did not react to Russia’s occupation of a fifth of Georgia’s territory, it appeared to grudgingly consent to the Russian president’s revanchist programme. Moscow checked on the West’s opinion again in 2014, when Russia annexed Ukraine’s Crimea. No hard reprisals followed, with the exception of the toothless sanctions that were gradually lifted by 2019, despite the fact that Russia continued to wage a low-intensity war in eastern Ukraine. Russian money trumped the West’s democratic principles.

Beijing Consensus

Communist China was distrustful of Gorbachev’s reforms. It followed its own kind of communism with “Chinese characteristics” and its own course of reforms. 

The 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre constituted the turning point. Beijing decisively embraced capitalism (perestroika) but firmly rejected any semblance of democracy (glasnost) in favour of IT-enabled turbo-totalitarianism. In 2019, the 70th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China was celebrated. To Mr. Putin’s chagrin, the Soviet Union, as officially established in 1922, had survived only for 69 years until it splintered in 1991.

In the Russian president’s thinking, sticking to China’s “Beijing Consensus” of totalitarian capitalism would have saved the Soviet Union. It is exactly the same system that was implemented in Russia under Mr. Putin’s rule of 23 years and counting. The dictator on the top governs with the use of totalitarian methods, while the economy is run in accordance with general free market principles. Obviously, like in China, oligarchs must obey the dictator’s wishes, or otherwise they are stripped of assets, imprisoned and often assassinated.

2022 war on Ukraine

On February 24th 2022, the Russian president ordered a full-scale war on Ukraine. The decision was predicated on the swift seizure of the Ukrainian capital of Kyiv and a resounding defeat of Ukrainian troops within several days, at most in a single week. Such a swift victory would have reconfirmed the much-sought-after status of global superpower for Russia. Rogue state or not, the world would have had to reckon with the country again, including the United States and China. Grabbing Ukraine’s territory and population, alongside the country’s vast economic resources and assets, would have boosted the Russian economy weakened by the war and sanctions.

The Kremlin also hoped that the West’s resolve would fade quickly, since some European countries led by pro-Moscow populists would choose Russian money and hydrocarbons over democracy. Millions of Ukrainian refugees, erratic supplies of Russian oil and gas, and Moscow’s blackmail in this regard were meant to ensure such an outcome. In this manner, Europe would have fallen back into resurgent Russia’s sphere of political influence, and importantly, into China’s zone of hard economic dominance. The second development would have catapulted Moscow into the position of China’s most important political partner in the supposedly coming standoff with the West.

Hence, a quick victory in this unjustified imperialist war on peaceful Ukraine would have enabled the Kremlin to escape Brzeziński’s dilemma. Russia could have blazed its own “third path” as an old-new superpower on par with the US and China, and well ahead of India. Military prowess, the menacing nuclear arsenal and imperial conquests would have amply made up for Russia’s shortcomings regarding demography and economy. What is more, the Russo-Chinese alliance could have permanently tipped the globe’s political and economic balance against the West and democracy.

With the privilege of hindsight, we now know that the invasion was a miscalculated gamble based on faulty intelligence and a Soviet-style army, which has been constantly robbed blind by its top commanders. Despite the horrific human and economic losses, Ukraine was not defeated, and now is poised to expel the Russian occupation and its troops from its sovereign territory within the span of a year or two. The West did not splinter under the pressure of Russia’s mendacious propaganda, oil and gas blackmail, and meddling in the domestic politics of European countries and the US.

In the international arena, Russia became overnight a pariah state, which can count on support only from the likes of Belarus, Eritrea and North Korea. China and India now distance themselves from the country and its disastrous war and foreign policy. The unprecedented amount and variety of sanctions levelled on Russia are stifling the country’s extractive economy. But contrary to most predictions, it is still doing relatively well, thanks to the West’s payments for the slowly decreasing trickle of Russian gas and oil. In terms of Russia’s budget, the costs of warfare do not surpass this income. Yet, in the autumn of 2022, the Kremlin took another gamble by forcing military mobilisation on the country’s unwilling population. The move bolstered the faltering Russian army, but deprived the economy of millions of essential IT and other specialists, who fled abroad. Not that it is of any immediate political importance, but the country’s public opinion is turning against the war.

Chinese colony

Russia is back in the post-communist cage of Brzeziński’s dilemma. With the link to western markets compromised for generations to come, the Kremlin has no choice but to sell its hydrocarbons at dumping prices to China, India and other anti-western countries in the Global South. Transporting costs to these places, which are located much farther away than Europe, also eat into any already diminished profits. In any foreseeable future, no return is possible to the previous level of post-Cold War political cooperation with the European Union and NATO.

This situation compels the Kremlin to turn to Beijing. However, China is wary not to lose access to the western markets, which would hurt its economy’s export-based growth. The West’s economic, military and humanitarian support for Ukraine shows that fellow democracies tend to come to the help of others that are imperiled by a totalitarian imperial power. It is a warning to communist China that an invasion of democratic Taiwan would be extremely costly in military, political and, above all, economic terms.

A future Russia that has lost its international and economic stature, due to a coming defeat in the ongoing Russo-Ukrainian War, would never become an equal partner to China. At best, such an anti-European and anti-western Russia would survive as a Chinese client state, with its economy subject to Beijing’s needs. The subsequent “sinicisation” of the Russian economy, coupled with the country’s demographic decline, would open Russia to Chinese immigration. Perhaps, in a generation or two southern Siberia would be mostly populated by ethnic Chinese people.

As a result, sooner or later, Russia would turn into a Chinese colony, be it in a political, economic and cultural sense, if not literally. A Belt and Road Chinese political and economic empire would extend from St. Petersburg and Belarus in the west to Vladivostok, North Korea, Hong Kong and Myanmar in the east.

Tomasz Kamusella is Reader (Professor Extraordinarius) in Modern Central and Eastern European History at the University of St Andrews in Scotland. His recent monographs include Ethnic Cleansing during the Cold War (Routledge 2018), Politics and Slavic Languages (Routledge 2021) and Eurasian Empires as Blueprints for Ethiopia (Routledge 2021). His reference Words in Space and Time: A Historical Atlas of Language Politics in Modern Central Europe is available as an open access publication.

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