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Putin’s turning Russia into China’s still-dangerous puppet

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As Vladimir Putin’s Ukrainian gambit totters, and the West’s Russia policy morphs from sanctions to sterner stuff, Russia’s future is worth considering. Assuming Putin survives, modern Russia is likely to transform into a distant mirror of its Soviet predecessor. Putin’s new regime, however, will be distinct in a crucial respect: It will be parlously beholden to China, not an independent “great power.” This raises the prospect of a coordinated anti-American Eurasian coalition with the resources, geographical access and ambition to challenge the U.S. for global dominance.

Russia’s initial offensive was a resounding failure. Its military did not disable Ukrainian air defenses, nor could it support a lightning drive on Kyiv to capture Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky or force him to flee. Russia then doubled down on its axes of advance, pushing forward in the south to capture Ukraine’s major coastal road and conducting a major push on Kyiv to surround and besiege the capital; except for Russia’s capture of Kherson, Melitopol and Berdyansk, this also failed. For the past week, Russian forces advancing on Kyiv have conducted only localized tactical attacks, not an operational-level movement.

Russia’s advance from Kyiv’s northeast has stalled, primarily because it could not take Sumy or Chernihiv, or surround each city with enough troops to prevent Ukrainian harassment against Russian logistics; thus, Russia will continue to crawl towards Kyiv. Russia lacks the men and materiel to cordon off cities to Kyiv’s east and west and to besiege or take Kyiv on foot.

Meanwhile, in the south, Mariupol holds out despite severe pressure and heavy civilian casualties; without fighting through the city street by street, Russia cannot secure the main coastal road that runs through it and onwards to Crimea, Kherson, and Zaporizhzhia. Similarly, Russia failed to circumvent Mykolaiv enroute to Odesa, or to break through its defenders’ positions along the Southern Buh river. They have resorted to bombardment, which will kill many but do little to dislodge committed defenders, whose counterattacks emphasize that the U.S. and other democratic states should greatly increase their military assistance to Ukraine. 

The longer this war drags on, and the more brutal Russia’s treatment of civilians becomes, the more isolated Putin’s regime will be.

The Russian economy already is reeling from Western sanctions. JP Morgan forecasts that Russia’s economy will contract by 11 percent, more than double its 5.3 percent contraction during the 1998 debt crisis; additional restrictions will increase the economic damage. Moreover, by denying Russia access to high-technology exports — and in light of Taiwan’s compliance with American export controls — any modern Russian machinery, computing or industrial equipment that breaks will be irreparable and irreplaceable except at extremely high cost. 

Two internal routes exist that would remove Putin from power: a popular revolution or a palace coup — an end that U.S. policy should actively seek. 

The former option, while possible, is unlikely unless the attrition rate of Russian forces in Ukraine becomes too severe for the Kremlin to hide the damage. Putin’s security state stumbled in Ukraine, its incompetence precluding a quick victory. But Russia’s Federal Security Service, or FSB, is effective at internal suppression, much like its KGB antecedent. Indeed, the Russian state is built to withstand this isolation, with the economics and finance ministries working hand in glove with the siloviki — political advisers with internal security backgrounds — to maintain state services and crush dissent.

The latter option, a palace coup, is also unlikely. Putin’s siloviki know they will be blamed for the destruction of Ukraine, and already are under personal sanctions. Their best bet remains throwing in their lot with the system and hoping Putin can steer the regime through this crisis.

However, sanctions are likely to remain in place long after the fighting ends, particularly if an insurgency in occupied areas prompts further Russian brutality. Thus, Putin and his henchmen must reckon with the possibility of indefinite isolation. 

The result could be Russia’s transformation into a much larger, more resource-rich and less starvation-prone version of North Korea.

Putin tacitly created a cult of personality before this war, casting himself as the avatar of Russian sovereignty. We can expect this to increase. Even now, the Russian propaganda machine has transformed the “Z” symbol, used as an IFF (identification, friend or foe) indicator on Russian combat vehicles, into a pro-regime motif. Moreover, absent access to social media, Russians have little contact with the outside world; those under 25 who did not embrace blue jeans and pop music, and who have only known Putin’s leadership, will join with their Soviet-sympathizing older uncles and aunts, and those scarred by the disastrous 1990s, in support of (or quiet acquiescence to) Putin’s regime. At least until Putin dies, Russia will remain a spookocracy, a personalized police state centered upon its “maximum leader.”

The Soviet Union, however, had a growing population and territories in Central Asia and Eastern Europe. Its technological development lagged that of the West, but it could compensate through sheer financial expenditure. Most critically, it had an ideology, one of global Marxist-Leninism, that many Western European and American liberals found attractive. Hence, it could serve as a benefactor for multiple proxies, ranging from political parties to rebel groups and Marxist governments, and use their support in the struggle with the West. 

Putin’s Russia has none of these advantages. Like the Kim family’s North Korea or President Lukashenko’s Belarus, Putin’s Russia will need a benefactor. It will be a client, not a patron, albeit a prickly, self-important client with a colossal nuclear arsenal.

Xi Jinping’s China is Russia’s only possible benefactor. The Sino-Russian entente reached a new public high with the Putin-Xi Feb. 4 joint statement. But sentimentality is not a characteristic of either dictatorship. Xi views Russia as a continent-spanning gas station also rich with precious metals, and with a population onto which cut-rate Chinese goods can be dumped. Putin and the Russian security state understood this, at least by 2016, when China was unwilling to support Russia publicly in Syria or Ukraine.

However, this entente of convenience is on the cusp of becoming a neo-imperial arrangement. Xi’s shock at the Ukraine War is genuine in a sense — he knew Putin would invade but believed Ukraine would fold within days. Despite his apparent ire, Xi is now at a critical decision-point. Publicly, China must remain circumspect, calling for diplomacy and dialogue, abiding by sanctions in a limited fashion. Leaked FSB cables of Xi’s spoiled plans to invade Taiwan are suspect: The FSB is not responsible for intelligence collection in China, the autumn is not a propitious time to conduct a cross-strait operation, and a major war would carry more risks for Xi than potential gains. Nevertheless, privately, Xi recognizes that Russian action in Europe can distract from Chinese action against Taiwan. 

Hence the leaked Russia-China cables, in which Moscow requested military assistance from Beijing, an assistance Beijing apparently signaled it was interested in providing.

Whatever this war’s resolution, Russia will become utterly dependent upon China for economic sustenance and export markets. In return, Russian energy will blunt the bite of any American and allied blockade, and Russian military capabilities that menace Europe will prevent NATO from refocusing on Asia. Moreover, given its extreme economic dependence on China, and the continuous domestic necessity of demonizing the west, Putin’s Russia will be incapable of resisting any Chinese demands for a renewed attack on the U.S. and its allies in Europe concurrent with a Chinese assault on Taiwan — that is, a trans-Eurasian war more violent than the 20th century’s cataclysms.

Within this half-decade, then, we may see Xi Jinping surpass Mao as China’s master statesmen. Politically and geographically, he is on the verge of placing China at the center of a pan-Eurasian coalition that will defy historical trends, the logic of balancing power, and U.S. security.

Seth Cropsey is founder and president of Yorktown Institute. He served as a naval officer and as deputy Undersecretary of the Navy and is the author of “Mayday: The Decline of American Naval Supremacy” (2013) and “Seablindness: How Political Neglect Is Choking American Seapower and What to Do About It” (2017).

Tags Armed Attack Chernihiv China China-Taiwan tension Chinese aggression Chinese economy Great power competition Kyiv Odesa Political repression Russia Russia-China relations Russian aggression Russian energy ban Russian invasion of Ukraine Russian sanctions Taiwan Ukraine Vladimir Putin Volodymyr Zelensky Xi Jinping Zaporizhzhia

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