Russia, China, Crimea, Xinjiang and Putin’s Risky Gambit

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Photo credit – http://www.kremlin.ru under Creative Commons licence.

Photo credit – http://www.kremlin.ru under Creative Commons licence.

My train of thought started with with Ambrose Evans-Pritchard article in the Telegraph on the possible impact of Putin’s Crimea gambit on Sino-Russian relations entitled Putin’s Russia caught in US and Chinese double-pincer. Pritchard has his own prejudices, of course, and the headline is terrible – there is no Sino-American diplomatic co-ordination to effect a ‘double pincer’ – but the article is worth reading. China’s failure to back Russia at the UN Security Council was significant, but not surprising.

It’s a useful corrective on a UK mainstream media narrative on the economic impact of Crimea dominated by self-interested City analysts telling us the West has miscalculated in doing anything other than patting Russia on the back over the past month, as it is claimed that Russia will simply reorient itself towards China in the event of any sanctions.

In what ways can Russia reorient towards China? Russia is still an economy driven by exporting primary commodities, especially oil and gas, and China is a rapidly growing market for both energy and commodities. There is, however, no gas pipeline between Russia and China. China already sources a huge amount of energy from Central Asia and the Middle East (never forget that 90% of Gulf oil flows east). Why should China buy Russian gas and spent a lot of money on pipelines to get it, instead of Kazakh or Turkmen gas through an already existing pipe? Indeed, Evans-Pritchard correctly points out that China is an assertive player in the New Great Game taking place in Central Asia over gas and much else.

I’m surprised that Evans-Pritchard fails to point out the other obvious reason for Chinese coldness towards Russian expansionism. China is extremely wary of encouraging separatism in its Wild West: Tibet and especially Xinjiang, where the pot of ethnic tensions is currently being kept at a hot simmer by continual heavy migration of Han Chinese to this historically Turkic Muslim region. Beijing is almost always a conservative diplomatic player and it is not in China’s selfish interests to upset what was becoming a global consensus that big states don’t annex little bits of neighbouring states.

Ultimately, I think the Russians have miscalculated badly over Crimea. Russia’s economy has massive structural problems – overdependent on energy and especially on gas sales to Europe along with an ageing and shrinking population, not particularly well educated and in desperately poor health. Russia’s demographic statistics are grim, albeit somewhat improved over the past decade: life expectancy at birth is 70; the total fertility rate is only 1.61 and the population has shrunk by 5 million since the end of the USSR despite massive migrations of both ethnic Russians and others from other ex-Soviet republics. While the sanctions imposed by Western states – remember this includes Russia’s most important export markets – are probably ineffectual, the nervousness generated about Russia’s stability at home and abroad is a real economic problem, and capital flight is starting to become an issue. With the Chinese cautious and the West rebuffed, where can Russia turn now for allies? The Middle East, and other energy-rich states with the same sort of economic structure it has already? I don’t see how that adds up, economically or otherwise, for Russia. Exporting gas to Iran isn’t really a starter.

In the short term, surface appeareances may be that Putin has humiliated both Kiev and the Western powers through simple aggression and brinkmanship. In the medium term, what has it gained and at what cost? It has occupied territory with little to offer economically, and the Russian Black Sea fleet already had all the basing rights it needed. Crimea’s regional government is as bankrupt as the rest of the Ukrainian state. Putin has probably ended any possibility of a pro-Moscow government emerging in Kiev for a generation and pushed the EU and USA to finally engage with Eastern Europe’s forgotten big country. Both Putin personally and Russia as a country suddenly look very unstable, ruining the image of thuggish efficiency cultivated over Putin’s years in power. Further risks remain: mistreatment of Crimean Turks could do Moscow enormous reputational damage in Turkey and, more importantly, hitherto loyal Central Asia; Eastern Ukraine remains a potential minefield for everyone and Moscow is hardly treading carefully.

The cautious Angela Merkel, usually measured in her language about other world leaders, warned Obama privately a month ago that Putin was in danger of losing touch with reality. Depressingly, I think that might be right.

Personality sites tend to characterise Putin as the ultimate INTJ strategic mastermind. Under pressure, what is his Myers-Briggs shadow? An ESFP behaving badly – aggressive, acting on impulse, failing to think the consequences of decisions through, and desperate to the be at the centre of attention. I know Jungian psychology isn’t everybody’s cup of tea but – recognise anyone here?

  • Harry Flashman

    An interesting analysis but its flaw is the basic premise that the world and world affairs are two dimensional. Thus either China will be “for” Russia or “against” Russia and that this will apply in all matters.

    I think this is a bit of a western conceit where everything is black or white, east versus west, you’re for us or against us. In the newly emerging world such simplistic analyses are outdated.

    China will make deals with Russia when it benefits the Chinese and the Russians will make deals with China when the Russians feel they are doing well. Other times they will oppose each other, simple as that. These guys have been playing the Great Game for centuries, they can make and unmake alliances in a heartbeat as and when circumstances demand it.

    What we are seeing is the end of western, and of late US, world hegemony. For those permanent adolescents around the world who have made a living out of shouting “Yanqui do home!”, well as they say, be careful of what you wish for. The US is downsizing its army to pre-WWII levels, it is technically the brokest nation in history. The post-American world is already here, the return of 19th (18th? 16th? 14th?) century world politics has arrived. The super-power era is over and the great powers are back (minus the western European nations).

    Look at regional issues, the Russians will return to their back yards not only in eastern Europe but also in their old stomping grounds of the near East and Central Asia. As the Americans leave Afghanistan pretty much as they found it after expending a decade of blood and treasure, the Russians will move back in.

    We’ll see if the Iranians, looking at an emasculated America, obsessed with healthcare and gay rights, stick to the nuclear treaty. Syria’s Assad has already notched up a solid victory against the US with Russian support.

    In Asia Chinese warships take detours around the southern coast of Java, just a few miles from Australian territorial waters, on their way home from the Gulf, Malaysian and Philippine fishermen get warned off their fishing areas, Japan is rearming, who knows what the hell is going on in North Korea?

    In Africa the 21st scramble for Africa is on again and it ain’t Brits, French and Belgians who are leading it.

    In the US back yard of Latin America, left-wing governments are sprouting up like mushrooms.

    As the Chinese cliche goes, we may be living in interesting times. The only thing we can be sure about is that the western Europeans won’t be playing much of a role.

    And Ireland will go back to being a sleepy backwater, I’ll keep me passports handy, just in case.

  • Neil

    The only thing we can be sure about is that the western Europeans won’t be playing much of a role.

    If only they’d recognise that, and stop encouraging the wee man to stand up to the bully only to give it the ‘nothing to do with me mate’ when the bully smacks the wee man in the face. ‘We can send the IMF, but you’re on your own’.

  • http://sammymorse.livejournal.com Gerry Lynch

    China will make deals with Russia when it benefits the Chinese and the Russians will make deals with China when the Russians feel they are doing well. Other times they will oppose each other, simple as that.

    and

    What we are seeing is the end of western, and of late US, world hegemony.

    Harry, my goodness, I actually agree with two things you’ve said! It’s taken over a decade on this blog. By the way, Britain has a more than ‘two dimensional’ view of its interests too. No amount of outrage about Crimea has stopped the City of London processing the finances of Russian oligarchs or Kensington estate agents selling them houses at astronomical prices. British policy on Crimea is shout loudly but carry a giant Q tip, quietly sending signals to the Russians that you aren’t going to use it.

    However, your comments on Russia returning to its own backyard – and actually into a few of the neighbours byu your reckoning – presupposes it has the capacity to do so. As I mentioned, its economy is in a mess and it has a shrinking, ageing, population even though men don’t live terribly long in Russia.

    Russia isn’t returning to Eastern Europe anywhere beyond Donetsk, even in the most extreme scenario, and in most of Central Asia its influence has been gradually but steadily on the wane since 1992. Russia isn’t returning to the Near East any time soon but they’ll continue to make money supplying quality armaments to the highest bidder. The Russia-Israel arms trading relationship is enormous, for example, while the Russians also arm Assad and Iran for fun and profit.

    As for East Asia, yes, all sorts of things could happen. The intensity of nationalism and mutual hatred in that part of the world took me aback when I first encountered it. The problem with neo-realists like yourself is that you tend to take the worst case scenario as the most likely and then work hard to make it so.

    The only realistic strategy for the West given the shifting balance of power globally is to work out a realistic sphere of influence and try and make it stable. That’s probably better for everyone than us starting stupid wars in the Middle East every couple of years on the basis of Messiah complex liberal interventionism. Assuming such a thing as “the West” survives more than a few decades, but I think it will.

  • Harry Flashman

    “Harry, my goodness, I actually agree with two things you’ve said! It’s taken over a decade on this blog.”

    I’m like a bus, you wait ten years to agree with me and then I say two things at once that you concur with.

    When I say Russia returns to its back yard I don’t for one minute believe the Red Army will be revving up its tanks and rolling over borders a la 1956. But as you rightly say, there are areas that are regarded as Russia’s “sphere of influence” (and isn’t that a marvellous old 19th Century high diplomatic term?) just as there are Chinese, Australian, and yes British and German, spheres of influence.

    The world’s policeman has just retired, the old certainties that have existed since 1945 are over. We can expect lots more “Crimeas” in the coming years, all over the world, and we need to get used to it.

    I agree that the “west” isn’t quite finished yet but the writing’s on the wall, it’s more like the Greek, Roman, Byzantine, Turkish or British empires; decadent, bankrupt and soft, they hung on for a hell of a lot longer than anyone expected and were still able to pack a surprising punch every now and again but the end is certain. Europe is currently circling the bowl.

    The result is inevitable; demography, which certainly doesn’t look good for China and Russia, is simply unsustainable for western Europe. Remember Russia and China don’t have the crippling welfare bills based on the world’s biggest Ponzi schemes that western Europe and the United States has.

    The future isn’t necessarily Russian and maybe not even Chinese but the one certainty is that western Europe, and the US if it isn’t careful, is very much the past.

    Enjoy the twilight of empire.

  • http://www.selfhatinggentile.blogger.com tmitch57

    @Gerry,

    Had no idea what your acronyms mean. I have anyone trouble keeping up with Freudian psychology let along Jungian or Adlerian psychology.

  • abucs

    If Russia is ever going to be a major power again it has to reverse the cultural, fiscal and social decline of a weak birth rate.

  • sherdy

    Gerry, I thank you for your article, not because I agree with your summations, but because it provoked Harry into his detailed reply.

    Both of you project different ideas for the future, but I think there are so many imponderables that definite predictions are a risky occupation.

    But at our remove from all this potential political, military and financial melting pot, it will make for an intriguing number of years’ observation.

    Look forward to you two continuing your verbal jousting in the future.

  • DC

    Messiah complex liberal interventionism

    Is that what Belfast’s change in flag policy was?

  • Neil

    Yes that’s a valid comparison. The invasion of Iraq vis a vis the outworkings of democracy in BCC with regard to the fleg. Almost exactly the same really.

    *Shakes head*

  • Gopher

    I fully expect Russia will engineer the succession of Ukraine territory up to the Dnieper.

    As for China only a mug (or the Allliance party) would play a diplomatic card when you don’t have to. Putin has presented the world with a fait accompli no point annoying anyone stealing his limelight. God is on the side of the big battalions and right now its Eastern Orthodox battalions

  • Harry Flashman

    “If Russia is ever going to be a major power again it has to reverse the cultural, fiscal and social decline of a weak birth rate.”

    True but I am always amazed at how people can zero in on Russia’s dreadful demographics and blithely ignore that Europe is in precisely the same situation with the difference being that Russia isn’t saddled with the unpayable welfare bill that western Europe has.

    It’s weird how progressive Europeans based an entirely unsustainable welfare system on continuously rising populations and then dismissed actually having babies as an irritating diversion from living the good life.

    In Germany 70% of female graduates never have any children (Frau Merkel being a good example), in Greece four grandparents have two children who have one child and then wonder why their economy has gone tits up.

    Like so many other unpleasant chores Europeans outsourced having babies to the Third World. Europe is only kept going through importing warm bodies from poorer overseas nations. I am assured by fans of mass immigration that this is a good thing, I remain to be convinced.

    You don’t need a time machine to see Europe’s future, it’s already here. Go to an old people’s home and observe the old white Europeans being spoonfed and having their bums cleaned by fit young Asians and Africans.

    That is not merely a fitting analogy for Europe’s future it is actual European society today where the white indigenous population lives a pleasant life doing non-jobs which involve tapping keyboards for the government or for big corporations dependent on government spending while outside brown people clean the toilets and grow the food.

    What could possibly go wrong with that scenario eh?

  • DC

    ‘What could possibly go wrong with that scenario eh?’

    A beheading in London?

  • http://gravatar.com/joeharron Mister_Joe

    DC,

    I hope you are not casting a slur on all immigrants, especially “brown” ones, or are you just a bigot?

  • DC

    Shut up Joe – watch this:

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gSCqNGHv07M

    British policy failure in relation to integration.

    Same failure in Australia too –

  • Delphin

    Harry can I just point out that Japan is now the oldest population in the world, but others are catching up. The reasons others are snapping at Japan’s heels for the dubious title are not only improved living and health conditions but rapidly declining birth rates. Singapore has reached 1.2 births per woman … (and) South Korea has the lowest fertility rate in the world – slightly less than 1.1 births per woman. China may not be far behind, already boasting an anemic birth rate of 1.6, and “it will soon begin to experience rapid aging … just how rapid is unknown and will depend in part on how quickly China moves to relax the one-child policy.
    It’s not just a European problem you know – I blame the internet so I do.

  • http://gravatar.com/joeharron Mister_Joe

    OK DC. I’ll see your beheading and raise you Anders Behring Breivik or Timothy McVeigh.

  • DC

    I wonder if Harry’s message to British politicians and policy makers would be similar to this guy’s –

  • abucs

    Harry, I think the trick is to just keep telling ourselves we are progressive, enlightened and on the right side of history.

  • Harry Flashman

    “Harry can I just point out that Japan is now the oldest population in the world, but others are catching up. The reasons others are snapping at Japan’s heels for the dubious title are not only improved living and health conditions but rapidly declining birth rates. Singapore has reached 1.2 births per woman … (and) South Korea has the lowest fertility rate in the world – slightly less than 1.1 births per woman. China may not be far behind, already boasting an anemic birth rate of 1.6, and “it will soon begin to experience rapid aging … just how rapid is unknown and will depend in part on how quickly China moves to relax the one-child policy.
    It’s not just a European problem you know ”

    Indeed, Japan is right royally screwed, China’s crazy demographics will lead to some serious problems in the near future, South Korea will go the way of Japan, Singapore will do alright because immigration is key to its survival and they are somewhat picky about who they let in.

    But on the whole I take your point that the developed world is in a death spiral. So who does that leave?

    Well on the basis that the future belongs to whoever shows up for it, the future belongs to SE Asia, India, Pakistan and Bangladesh, the Middle East and the Maghrib along with parts of the rest of Africa and Latin America.

    Now as we have always been assured that all cultures have equal worth and western European culture is no more worthy of esteem than that of anywhere else I am sure that will not be a problem.

    As we know all cultures are equally worthy of respect and everyone in the rest of the world is just dying to live in a multi-cultural, tolerant, liberal, sexually diverse, democracy where all faiths, genders and sexual identities are equally to be cherished and made welcome so I am sure that everything will be tickety-boo in the future.

    I have got that right haven’t I?

  • Greenflag

    ‘I have got that right haven’t I?’

    Almost but just a century and a half off .

    A century ago European imperialists believed the Africans , Indians , Chinese and some even thought the Irish among other smaller European nations could’nt govern themselves and even more should’nt be permitted to govern themselves . Which is why NI has in 2014 devolved ‘garbage collection ‘ self governance instead of ‘independence ‘.

    Ironically these same imperialists believed women could’nt be doctors , pilots , soldiers , etc etc etc or even continue working in the Civil Service after marriage . And sex outside of marriage was a no no and illegitimate children were just bastards unlike the parents who fathered /mothered them .

    I would’nt just blame the internet -modern labour saving kitchen appliances have reduced the need for stay at home mothers as a career option – except of course for the top 5% of income earners who can afford to live on one salary .

    Capitalism thrives on cheap labour regardless of it’s colour or culture . In a western world where the CEO’s of Goldman Sachs and Bank of America get double digit million dollar increases in annual salaries while two thirds of American women at work earn barely minimum wage and where GOP ( the biggest Ponzis of the lot ) are totally opposed to raising the minimum wage as a matter of right wing ideological principle -I can totally understand why American women are opting out of ‘breeding ‘ for the future and have delegated that onerous task to ‘immigrants ‘ who are not yet up to speed . Ditto for the UK and Germany .

    Greed as Gordon Gecko put it is good -isn’t it ?

    As my mother would say – the poor have children and the rich have money . Bernie Madoff had 60 billion dollars and now has just 145 years to serve in prison . Life is’nt fair eh ?

  • Greenflag

    Just as well the Ukrainians gave up their nuclear bombs and did’nt join NATO at independence then is’nt it ?

    Others notably Iran and Israel will look at the Ukraine’s experience and take note .

  • Greenflag

    @ lol ,

    ‘It’s not just a European problem you know – I blame the internet so I do.’

    We have it on good authority from former FG senior politician /Minister Oliver Flanagan now passed on -that there was no sex in Ireland before television .
    Of course he also was a fan of Benito Mussolini and corporate fascism and was known to believe Hitler had some good ideas :(

    But he adamantly opposed to Euthanasia but unlike Harry did’nt consider YouthinAsia worthy of his political notice . The childless Archbishops of Ireland and the Cardinals and clergy were often to the fore in their misserations to the poor to accept as many children as God sent them .