Ukraine and the Sino-Russian Relationship
This piece served as the basis for a presentation transmitted via Skype from Kiev, Ukraine to Kingston, Canada for a conference organized on the militarization of Russian foreign policy in June 2016
A young state, founded only in 1991 as the Soviet Union collapsed, Ukraine has since gone from one crisis to another. Its growth pains assumed a new quality in 2014, however, with Russia’s seizure of Crimea and the incursion of Russian military elements into Eastern Ukraine in an effort to block integration of the country into the European Union and NATO.
With these events, Ukraine has become a barometer of relations between Russia and its erstwhile democratic partners. As Ukraine goes, so one might say, so also goes the increasingly bitter and dangerous relationship between Moscow and the West.
This article has three main themes: first, it reviews mainstream thinking on the main scenarios for Ukraine’s evolution over the near-to medium-term; second, it looks at Russia’s current circumstances; third, it turns to the Sino-Russian relationship and the question as to how it can affect the situation in Ukraine and, indeed, well beyond.
Scenarios for Ukraine
As for analyses about the future of Ukraine there are four scenarios that stand out.
The first and most widely commented is one whereby the present situation becomes the status quo, with the situation in Crimea and Donbass becoming frozen – similar, for example, to that in Transnistria, which has been covered by political ice for almost a quarter century now.
A second scenario is one whereby the beachheads Russia has established in Crimea and the Donbass are used as staging grounds for further territorial encroachments on Ukrainian territory, and in this event likely further westwards.
A third scenario would have Kiev deciding that the Minsk agreements are not worth the paper they are written on and seeking to change the situation on the ground in the Donbass through a military offensive. Would this work? Under current strategic circumstances, this is unlikely, particularly as Ukraine’s western partners have been reluctant to supply it with lethal weaponry.
In a fourth scenario, Kiev would decide to cut its losses and agree to the Russian vision for its eastern provinces. This also appears an unlikely prospect as the supermajority in the Rada that would be necessary to pass the legislation that would decentralise the country à la Minsk II, thus officially empowering the FSB types and sundry thugs that are now in control of the Donbass, is nowhere in sight.
It has to be one of the more curious turns of history that Russia, a hypercentralised state, has become the champion of federalism in Ukraine. This is not to disparage federalism in any way but to underscore that federalism only works when the representatives of the various federal units of a state share a consensus on power-sharing. In Ukraine, this is clearly not the case.
A fifth scenario is more marginal but deserves nonetheless to be considered. This would have Kiev abandoning the Donbass in the assumption that this would create greater financial and other headaches for Russia than benefits, and that sooner or later this would play into Kiev’s hands.
All these scenarios remain on the drawing board. But which scenario will dominate – and they could also act in combination with or in succession of one another– will be at the end of the day determined by what happens in the Sino-Russian relationship. This, at least, is my thesis.
But let us first look at what is going on in Russia itself.
There are two very different ways of assessing contemporary Russia. One is to see it making important steps back to the superpower status enjoyed by the Soviet Union. The other is to see Russia as trying to cope with crisis, in circumstances not unlike those experienced by the USSR in the late 1970s and 80s.
A Country on the March
With its actions in Ukraine, Russia has now effectively blocked its access to NATO and the EU membership, as it did with its military actions in Transnistria in 1992 and Georgia in 2008.
Owing to its intervention in Syria, Russia has been able to suggest that it is a more effective ally than the US: its proviso sounds – stick with me, dictator, and you will stay in power.
At the same time, Russia has been using its alliance with Syria to bomb to bits any vestiges of anti-Assad opposition in the country. In the process, it has helped generate refugee flows that have the potential to seriously destablilise not only Turkey and other countries in Syria’ region but the EU as a whole.
With its involvement in the Syrian crisis, Russia has also marked its rise as a Mediterranean power. At the same time, it has used the Syrian campaign to test some of the major weapons acquisitions it has made since embarking on its current wave of military modernisation that was launched after the Georgian conflict and accelerated with the Arab Spring.
In addition, Putin has recruited an impressive array of fellow-travellers in populist circles in Europe with money and the suggestion that Russia and they can profit from tactical, if not strategic, policy collusion. The line-up includes the government in places such as Greece and Hungary and potential leaders such as Marie Le Pen in France. Perhaps even more concerning, American republican presidential candidate Donald Trump has exchanged flattering comments with the Russian President and suggested that the two leaders can do business with one another.
But a preparedness to meet Moscow half-way has also been forthcoming at the political centre. The erstwhile Foreign Minister of Canada, Stephane Dion, whose party has been much more in power than out through the country’ history, appears to have abandoned a commitment to pass legislation sanctioning Russian officials involved in the Magnitsky murder in return for Canada obtaining a seat on the International Syrian Support Group (ISSG), the multilateral body ostensibly working for an end to the Syrian conundrum. This required a wink from Moscow. Dion has since been replaced by a Canadian of Ukrainian origin by the name of Christa Freeland.
Another example is German Chancellor Merkel’s social-democratic German Foreign Minister who has put forward the idea that the sanctions regime could be gradually dismantled in return for Russia cooperating in implementing the Minsk II accords. Just how this would work is unclear but the underlying thought is that the sanctions need to be phased out. There is support for softening and ending the sanctions regime in several EU capitals.
A Country in Crisis
At the same time, Russia is undergoing multiple crises.
First, as anyone who reads a daily newspaper will know, the Russian economy is on a slippery slope. The reasons are clear and depressingly familiar. Russia’s economic model is one based on high energy prices and super-centralised economic decision-making. It was in trouble well before the Western sanctions kicked in in response to the events in Crimea and Eastern Ukraine.
This situation is reminiscent of that which prevailed in Russia in the mid-1980s when similar factors loomed large. In recent days, a chorus of sources that know much more about economics than I do have been predicting that Russia can only withstand another 18 to 24 months at these energy prices and rate of depletion of its reserves. This analysis may have to be modified in view of the recent rise in the price of oil but even higher oil prices will not resolve the structural shortcomings prevailing in the Russian economy.
A possible counterargument is that this is affecting Russians less than it would people of other countries because of the great suffering the population has been subject to in the past.
There is little reason to believe, however, that while Russia no doubt has its own very particular history and culture, its people will not want what people most anywhere want; a decent place to live, a reasonably-paying job, security on the streets, a solid education system, access to a functioning health care sector, and so on. But Russians have also very good reasons to be very careful about being forthcoming to opinion pollers about their political concerns. Almost every Russian family lost people in Stalin’s purges. And Putin’s regime is in many ways reminiscent of Stalin’s rule.
A second dimension of the crisis concerns Moscow’s relations with its neighbours. Russia has impressed some countries but also ruptured several relationships with its aggressive and swaggering, foreign and security policy. It has made a visceral enemy of Ukraine, with whose population it has shared close links for centuries. Substantial portions of Georgian and Moldovan society see Russia as a threat, not as salvation.
Key Euro-Asian Economic Community partners such as Belarus and Kazakstan have been resisting Moscow’s efforts to make this structure a kind of Eastern EU. Why should these states want to surrender a good part of their sovereignty to a rapacious bureaucracy, when they have enough problems countering their own?
Third, Russia faces a governance crisis and its name is Vladimir Putin. The Russian President has become a tsar in all but name. The hypercentralization of the system he presides over has given him enormous power. The other side of this coin, however, is that when the system starts to loose traction, its can unravel very quickly.
In recent months, British and American sources have been putting on something akin to a full-court press on President Putin. For example, there was the judgement of the British enquiry into Litvinenko’s death that Putin was “…probably responsible …” for the former FSB officer’s poisoning.
This was followed by new speculation about Putin’s wealth, recently estimated at between forty and seventy billion dollars by a Russian analyst, who also claimed that the Russian President was one of the richest men in the world. Bill Browder has asserted in Red Notices that Putin is worth 200 billion. However many billions Putin may possess, the question that comes to mind is how does he do this on a salary of US$ 110, 000 a year unless one is engaged in far-reaching corruption.
The revelation about Putin’s purported billions reminds me of France, 1789, when the third estate, the commoners, supported a revolution against the massive wealth of the first and second estates, the clergy and the nobility. The pillars of the Putin regime are the siloviki – the security forces – and the other actors in a state bureaucracy that is, incredibly, larger than even in Soviet times. It would not take too big a match to set fire to this complex.
The Sino-Russian Nexus
So are Vladimir Putin’s days numbered? Maybe but not necessarily. Putin is a master tactician. I think we can assume that he still has a card or two up his sleeve. In my view, the key card is the relationship with China.
A Promising Beginning
ino-Russian relations have undergone several shifts over the last half-century or so: thirty years of Sino-Soviet split from 1960 on, a decade of normalisation in the 1990s, and subsequently a decade of consolidation.
A new phase began in 2012 with the more or less simultaneous re-assumption of power by Putin in Russia and its assumption by Xi-Jinping in China. Putin returned to the Presidency amidst significant protests against the succession scheme he and his predecessor – and successor – had cooked up. Within four months of becoming Communist Party General Secretary, Xi had occupied the other top posts in the Chinese hierarchy, State President and Chairman of the Central Military Commission. So from the vantage point of 2012, the two leaders could look forward to an extended period of working together, at least a decade, perhaps more.
In 2012, the numbers underlying the bilateral relationship looked formidable. Bilateral trade continued to boom. Prices for Russian energy products were stronger than ever. China had the resources to finance projects in cooperation with Russia that were politically desirable, even if not necessarily economically sound.
A certain symmetry in the political approach of the two leaders was also evident. Putin and Xi set out to reinvigorate the effort to establish a multipolar world – code for reducing the influence of the United States and its allies over international affairs and creating more space for their ambitions.
As part of this approach, they undertook to enhance their countries’ military capacity and to project a more muscular foreign policy, exploiting complex issues in their respective near abroads in an effort to rally their populations around a nationalist agenda. Both countries seemed poised to use their resources to build on their existing bilateral cooperation in energy provision and infrastructure in Central Asia. With the US withdrawal from Afghanistan already announced for 2014, they seemed poised to face jointly new tests in Southwest Asia.
Putin and Xi also sought to strengthen political control over independent sources of thinking in the legislature, the media and civil society, and ensure that the courts knew where justice lay. In China, Xi would launch a colossal anti-corruption campaign. This was ostensibly about restoring discipline and propriety in the party. But, as it worked its way through the system, it became clear that this was just as much about neutralizing political opponents. In Russia, in a tragic, landmark event, Boris Nemtsov, a liberal politician and leading opponent of Putin, was assassinated in 2015, the first murder of a mainstream politician since Stalin’s time.
Of course, the two leaders presided over two very different political systems, one communist, the other post-communist. But while Putin has publically repudiated communism as a viable system of governance, Mikhail Gorbachev, the last leader of the Soviet communist party, has observed that Putin is actually more communist than he was.
Reality Sets In
Within a year of the two leaders’ rise to the top, their agenda started to run into trouble. The série noire began when Russian economy, which under Putin had registered seven percent growth since his first becoming Prime Minister in 1999 – with the exception of 2008, when almost everyone’s economy weakened – started to go south. In 2013, Russian growth limped in at 1.3 percent. The numbers for the first half of 2014 were even less rosy.
Second, the Russian action in Ukraine was not wildly popular in Beijing.
Actually, it proved to be the first of several foreign policy issues in the Putin-Xi era where the two countries did not see eye-to-eye, even if every effort was made to avoid overt opposition. So, in the United Nations General Assembly vote supporting Ukraine’s territorial integrity and proclaiming invalid the Russia-organized referendum on Crimea’s annexation in spring 2014, China was one of the 58 countries that abstained (100 voted for, 11 against, 24 were absent).
As for Central Asia, despite their interest in stabilizing the region, Russia and China have yet to forge a viable modus vivendi on how they should work together. Beijing has favoured the idea of using the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), in which both it and Russia are members alongside four out of the five erstwhile Soviet Central Asian states, as a critical policy vehicle for sponsoring infrastructure projects in Central Asia and addressing its security challenges. Russia prefers the structures it has evolved in former Soviet space for these tasks, such as the Eurasian Economic Union and the Collective Security Treaty Organization (a would-be Russian-dominated NATO-like body) established in 1992.
In September 2013, having seen its proposals in the SCO stall, Xi Jinping conducted a 10-day official tour of Central Asia and signed a string of bilateral economic and business deals, even using his visit to Kazakhstan to announce the “Silk Road Economic Belt,” a bold proposal to finance and build roads, rail links, pipelines, and other infrastructure across Central Asia and to create direct routes for Chinese exports to Europe. The following month, Xi proposed a “Maritime Silk Road” focused on South Asia that foresaw major investments in portuary infrastructure.
China has also been guarded about Russia’s foray into the Syrian crisis as of the fall of 2015, urging all parties to make a greater negotiating effort and avoiding any overt support for Russia’s intervention there. Similarly, Beijing reacted to Turkey’s shoot-down of the SU-24 in November 2015 with a call for clarification of what actually transpired. Xi was clearly not interested in sharing Putin’s rage in response to the incident.
Russia has been similarly reluctant with respect to China’s efforts to work for control over the South China Seas. Russia has close trading and political relations with several states of the region – Vietnam and the Philippines in particular – that are at odds with Beijing on its interpretation of boundaries in their contiguous waters.
In 2015, the issue of the health of the Chinese economy came to the fore.
After years of chalking up seven percent plus growth rates, the number for this past year is widely estimated to be under seven percent, with some Western analysts contending that it is even much less, official Chinese statistics notwithstanding. Who can tell? There is no independent oversight of anything in the Middle Kingdom. Chinese markets at year’s end and at the new year’s begin voted with their feet, sending the Chinese stock market – and others around the world – significantly lower.
One way of looking at this is to say that Chinese Communist Party, in power for 66 years, may find itself in a place uncomfortably close to where Soviet Communist Party did at 72 when it lost its monopoly of power in the USSR. After several years of impressive performance growth rates, as of roughly 1974 the Soviet economy went south.
Economists contend that this resulted from an objective need to make the transition from extensive to intensive growth. The failure to do so ushered in Gorbachev’s effort to reform the system while keeping the key institutional fixtures of the Soviet system in place. President Xi Jinpeng’s economic reforms may be attempting to do what Gorbachev tried to do before it became too late.
Be that as it may, the Chinese economy is definitely losing steam. This has compromised Russia’s effort to pivot to China in response to Western sanctions. For example, the landmark gas agreement that Russia and China struck in 2014, celebrated as an example of their new era of partnership, has been under strain as China has sought out other providers for better prices. Similarly, plans for a second pipeline to increase shipments to China now appear doubtful.
So, the picture for Sino-Russian relations in 2016 pales in comparison with the expectations of 2012. But it would be unwise to write off the relationship just yet.
The two countries continue to stage joint military exercises, such as those that took place in the Eastern Mediterranean in May 2015 and in the Sea of Japan in August of that same year.
Their leaders also attended their respective parades in 2015 marking the seventieth anniversary of their countries’ victories in World War II, while most Western leaders stayed away.
They have consulted on the Arctic and declared that they have a common interest in taking advantage of the emerging trading and commercial opportunities that will open up as navigation of northern passage becomes easier.
And, at the most recent SCO summit in September 2015, an event to which Russia’s and China’s other BRICS partners (Brazil, India, South Africa) were invited, an invitation to India and Pakistan to join the SCO was confirmed.
My bottom line is the following: if and as the economic challenges facing Russia and China loom larger, the two countries will be tempted to resort to the foreign policy card in an effort to compensate for them. Furthermore, I believe that they could have a common interest in playing this card, even if they do not necessarily do so in unison.
There are at least three ways how Sino-Russian cooperation can work.
In the current situation, the United States has to contend with the prospect of having to deal with major security threats in both the European and East Asia theatres. This acts as a serious constraint on the policy courses open to Washington and its allies.
In a second situation, Russia or China presumes that a certain action in its near abroad would spark a similar initiative in the other country’s near abroad, creating a chain of circumstances overwhelming the West, and playing into its agenda.
A third variant would have Russia and China marching in coordinated fashion to realize their regional objectives and ready to defy the West in the process. As unlikely as this might seem, there is a modern precedent for such a scenario. In 1939, as France and Germany were negotiating with the Soviet Union in an effort to mount a common front against Germany, Hitler convinced Stalin that he could offer a better deal. The result was an secret pact of non-belligerence, whereby they agreed to divide up the territory of six countries.
Two years later, Germany and the Soviet Union were at each other’s throats but in the meantime the world was engaged in its second great war.
It may well be that our current futures will look quite different from those described above. That said, the key point is that when authoritarian states start running into economic and governance challenges of the qualitative kind, their default position tends to be to play the foreign policy and military card, even when their hands are less than strong.
To return to my introductory proposition, I suspect that the decisive factor determining Ukraine’s future will be what happens in the Sino-Russian relationship and how the West goes about dealing with it.