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

Photo credit – under Creative Commons licence.
Photo credit – 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?

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