Why is Putin so admired in China?

Russia and China are intensifying relations : Putin's risky Eastern policy

- Nina L. Khrushcheva is Professor of International Affairs at the New School. Her most recent book (co-authored with Jeffrey Tayler) is "In Putin's Footsteps: Searching for the Soul of an Empire Across Russia's Eleven Time Zones".

Chinese President Xi Jinping was the big star in Russia last week. He smiled in Moscow's zoo as Russian President Vladimir Putin admired the pandas (a standard gift for countries courted by China) brought by Xi. In St. Petersburg, he toured the Aurora - the warship that fired the shot that marked the beginning of the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917 - and then took an evening boat trip with Putin. At the St. Petersburg Economic Forum he quoted Fyodor Dostoyevsky.

At a time when US President Donald Trump - who once described his relationship with his Chinese counterpart as "outstanding" - is waging a trade war against China, Xi needs a new "best friend". And according to his own words, he found that in Putin. But is all this mutual affection really in Russia's best interests?

Xi and Putin rave about the good relationship

Of course, this is not a new development. In the past six years, Putin and Xi have met at least 30 times, and annual trade between their countries is more than $ 100 billion. But the bilateral relationship has recently deepened significantly, which was exemplified at last week's forum, which resulted in more than 25 trade and other agreements covering areas from agriculture to technology. Both presidents raved that relations between their two countries are now better than ever.

For Russia, closer ties with China are undoubtedly seductive. After five years of international sanctions - imposed on Russia after it annexed Crimea - Xi's overtures seem to offer welcome relief. But before Putin places too much trust in Xi, he should refer to a mockery song by Russian dissidents from the 1960s about the unsuccessful early attempts at a Russian-Chinese union entitled “The people are brothers; I'll hug the Chinese ”remember.

In the Stalin-Mao duet, Stalin had the upper hand

In the early 1950s, shortly after taking power in the country, the Chinese Communist Party formed an alliance with the Soviet Union. The relationship was always strained, however, as Josef Stalin and Mao Zedong both vied to lead the international communist movement. Although Stalin had the upper hand, Mao knew that the communist regimes had to form a united front against the capitalist West.

This is why Mao was so upset in 1956 when Nikita Khrushchev, who had taken power three years earlier after Stalin's death, openly distanced himself from his predecessor. How dare Khrushchev question Stalin's exaggerated status (and thereby threaten Mao with a similar fate in a broader sense)? Although the Soviet Union accounted for 60 percent of Chinese exports, the tensions created a decade-long rift.

Today China is ahead

Today, Putin and Xi vie for global leadership to challenge the US and the West, both following the lead of their unscrupulous predecessors. The difference is that this time, with the Russian economy weakened by Western sanctions and Putin's mismanagement, the Chinese head of state has the upper hand.

So far this has not posed any major problems to Russia. The agreement between Russian telecommunications company MTS and Huawei to develop next-generation 5G networks in Russia next year is sure to benefit both of them. But this deal was fueled by China's need to offset pressure from the West. This is based on the USA, which is blocking Huawei on the (questionable) grounds that it poses a risk to national security.

There is a feeling on both sides that the combination of Chinese economic power and Russian political audacity should help both countries to better withstand challenges from the US. But there is little to suggest that the Russians and the Chinese have much for each other. On the contrary: each seems to look down on the other, which shows the risk of a contest between the two that Russia is unlikely to win.

Russians consider themselves superior Westerners to China

I noticed this dynamic firsthand a few years ago. That was in Blagoveshchensk on the Siberian border, just under a kilometer from the Chinese city of Heihe. A century and a half ago, Blagoveshchensk was Chinese. Then, like many other areas of Outer Manchuria, the Cossacks took control there on behalf of the Russian tsar. The local historical museum of Blagoveshchensk shows the development of the city after the takeover by the Cossacks as a civilizing mission. The Russians, it seems, still consider themselves superior Westerners.

As for Heihe, the city got rich a quarter of a century ago after capitalizing on the post-Soviet chaos in Russia and selling cheap goods to the then starving Russians. Heihe's own historical museum presents the Cossacks as "hairy barbarians" (Lao Maozi) and designates the cities far in the east of Russia with their historical Chinese names: Blagoveschensk is Hailanpao, Vladivostok is Haishenwai, and Sakhalin is Kuye.

China's hunger for raw materials is a problem for Russia's nature

Local behavior reflects these perspectives. At the ferry port, the Russians encounter Chinese traders who bring Russian vodka and Russian chocolate to Heihe with sneering grins, while the Chinese walk past the Russians as if they didn't exist.

On the Chinese side, a similar attitude can be observed among the logging companies in eastern Russia. As Steven Lee Myers recently pointed out, China's insatiable pursuit of primary commodities, which completely ignores ecological considerations, can put stress not only on a small African country, but on itself "one that sees itself as a superpower and strategic partner" against American domination considered.

Putin has at times proven to be a formidable tactician, recognizing and seizing opportunities to strengthen Russia's position, even when holding bad cards. The annexation of Crimea made possible by the distraction of the West hampered the peaceful integration of Ukraine into Western structures, albeit at the cost of economic decline and international isolation.

Putin trumps where the West is hesitant

Similarly, the Kremlin's intervention in Syria, made possible by the lack of a coherent US strategy, has established Russia as a central actor in the Middle East. And meddling in the 2016 US presidential election, facilitated by America's democratic deficit, helped throw American politics into chaos.

But in the longer term, these grandiose successes have given Putin more headaches than satisfaction. In fact, the great strategy has never been Putin's forte. The Chinese leadership, on the other hand, which usually has a very long-term perspective, excels here. Xi may not be an exception in this regard. In his anti-West efforts to bring in a significantly superior strategist could be a gamble that Putin - and Russia - will soon regret.

- Translated from the English by Jan Doolan. Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2019. www.project-syndicate.org

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