The Interpreter

A special project of Institute of Modern Russia
Photo by Mark Ralston used to illustrate story on Chinese gas deal in New York Times

Putin’s Shift on Ukraine Result of His Visit to Beijing, Kazan Editor Says

Staunton, May 24 – Vladimir Putin began pulling Russian forces back from the Ukrainian border and distancing himself from the secessionists in east Ukraine after his visit to Beijing convinced him that China, however useful tactically, is a long-term threat to Russia and that Moscow needs the West as a counterbalance to Chinese power, according to Rashit Akhmetov.

In the lead article in the current issue of Zvezda Povolzhya, the Kazan editor argues that Putin has begun to recognize that Russia is not quite as much a Eurasian country as he has suggested and that “an alliance with China” will lead to “the Sinification” of Russia and “the slow liquidation of Russian civilization” (no. 18 (698), May 22-28, 2014, p. 1).

Indeed, Akhmetov suggests, given the gas price concessions he had to make to China and the expansion of the Chinese presence in Russia he had to agree to, Putin may now wish he had purchased Crimea from Ukraine rather than seized it because in that event he would not have alienated Europe and the United States nearly as much.

Putin’s plan to “re-orient” the Russian economy away from Europe toward China was “condemned to failure from the outset,” the Kazan editor says, because it quickly became obvious during the Kremlin leader’s visit to the Chinese capital that “Russia is not Eurasia, but rather a completely European country.”

China is, Ahmetov says Putin became aware during his visit, “too distinctive and alien for the Russian world.” If Russians are now upset by the arrival of ten million gastarbeiters from Central Asia, many of whom were already adapted to Russia beforehand, “what will happen when ten million Chinese” or even more – “arrive in the course of the next few decades?”

Unlike the labor migrants from Central Asia, he continues, the Chinese are not going to accept inferiority status. They are used to feeling superior. “Chinese nationalism is not European nationalism. Chinese culture will simply swallow Russian Orthodox culture in a matter of a few historical seconds.”

And the issue the Kazan editor continues, will be not that Moscow will become “Moskovabad,” as many Russians now fear, but that it will be a “Moskvin or “Moskay.”

That the Chinese will flood into what is now the Russian Federation is even more likely now that Beijing has dropped its one-child policy, something that will lead to a new population boom that could leave the world with two billion Chinese, and also because Chinese workers will follow massive the Chinese investment into Siberia Putin has not so much secured as he has been forced to concede.

Indeed, Akhmetov says, the Chinese probably already psychologically view Siberia as “theirs,” and they are certain to view what Putin has done in Crimea as opening the way for them elsewhere. As a result, “even though Russia has nuclear weapons, it is powerless to oppose the demographic infiltration of the Chinese.”

“To oppose China’s expansion,” he argues, Russia is forced to rely on Europe and the United States.” Moscow “doesn’t have any other choice.” Consequently, it has to “immediately end its anti-European propaganda” because the Kremlin now perhaps sees that it would have been cheaper to buy Crimea from Ukraine than offend Europe by taking it.

And that is all the more so because Putin has certainly discovered that “no one in China intends to speak with Putin and Russia as equals.” The leaders there only intend to “use” Russia for China’s purposes.

That Moscow has reached that conclusion is suggested by several recent actions: Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev’s back-pedalling on the creation of a new Russian alternative to Visa and Mastercard and even more by Putin’s pullback of Russian troops which had been near the Ukrainian regions of Donetsk and Luhansk.

Moreover, Akhmetov continues, on the basis of what they saw in Beijing, an increasing number of people in the Kremlin leader’s own entourage are demanding a change of course lest Russia suffer “a repetition of Iran or North Korea” and lest Russia suffer a fate like Poland did after Hitler and Stalin occupied it in 1939.

Whatever else a Russian union with China may be, the Kazan editor says, it is increasingly obvious that it is the equivalent of “the union of Poland and Germany at the end of the 1930s,” a union in which one wins and the other loses and suffers what, without outside intervention, is an irreversible loss.

If Putin’s visit to Beijing was a wake-up call for Moscow about the dangers of enhanced cooperation with China, the emergence of such a cooperative alliance works very much to the benefit of Tatarstan, Akhmetov says. Unlike Russia, “Kazan as a city of the Russian Empire was always oriented toward the east.”

Putin underscored that reality by “demonstratively” taking Tatarstan President Rustam Minnikhanov with him to the Chinese capital, something that the Kazan editor may open the way to an even larger role for the Tatar leader in the future.

It is possible, Akhmetov says that Minnikhanov may soon play in Moscow “a role analogous to [the Kazakhstan party leader Dinmukhamed] Kunayev in the Brezhnev Politburo” and represent an effort by the Kremlin to combine east and west in Russia. And it is even possible, if Putin elevates Minnikhanov to be Russian prime minister, that the Tatar leader could become “a Kosygin.”

“Medvedev, some say, already has agreed to leave the post of prime minister,” Akhmetov continues. Putting Minnikhanov in his place would bring Moscow a variety of benefits: It would change relations with the Crimean Tatars, it would win Putin new support in the regions, and it would provide a bridge as well as a defense against Chinese expansion.

If Putin can’t turn back to Europe because of what he has done in Ukraine and if he has to make the best of his current dangerous shift toward China and the east, the Zvezda Povolzhya editor says, the Kremlin leader almost certainly is going to conclude and soon that he needs Minnikhanov as prime minister.