In a case of striking symbolism, President Vladimir Putin traveled to Beijing on the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, as if seeking reassurance against the specter of a mass public uprising. The dismantling of that icon of the Cold War signified a breakthrough in finally achieving a Europe united by the vision of freedom and democracy. But for Putin, as his past remarks suggest, it was a painfully traumatic experience that left him forever in fear of a sudden explosion of popular discontent (Gazeta.ru, November 4). The Chinese leadership shares his deep hostility to revolutions and tends to see the recent protests in Hong Kong as a manifestation of malignant Western conspiracy—much the same way that Putin saw the EuroMaidan protests in Kyiv as a coup orchestrated by the West (Moscow Echo, October 20). That said, Putin’s agenda for his meeting with President Xi Jinping and for what he hoped to accomplish at the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit was neither convincing nor relevant.
First, Putin needs to secure more effective support from China for his aggressive stance in the Ukraine crisis. Second, he apparently seeks to position himself as a champion of the resistance against the United States’ “hegemony” and to gain international respect for his defiant anti-Americanism. Third, he wants to make new energy deals with China as a follow-up to the gas contract signed in Shanghai last May (see EDM, May 22). And lastly, he wants to assert that Russia, despite its ongoing crisis with the West, remains a major player in the Asia-Pacific region. None of these aspirations has even a slim chance of coming true.
China seems particularly worried about the precedent Russia has set by forcefully dismembering a major European state, and Beijing urges Putin to stop playing with fire and proceed with de-escalating the conflict. The Kremlin’s awkward change of position on the sham elections in the Donetsk-Luhansk war zone, which were crudely faked and have now been denied Moscow’s official recognition, is supposed to show Russia’s readiness to compromise (Kommersant, November 8). The Moscow-backed separatists, however, keep trying to expand their rump “Novorossiya,” forcing Putin to commit new forces to the defense of their nonsensical cause (Novaya Gazeta, November 3). This uncertain control over the crisis dynamics correlates with public disbelief in the ceasefire: 56 percent of Russians expect the combat operations to resume any day (Levada.ru, November 5).
Xi Jinping cannot expect that his expressed preference for de-escalating the conflict will dissuade Moscow from backing the maverick rebels, but he also has to acknowledge that Putin is quite popular in China. The Russian president is applauded by many Chinese for his defiant anti-Americanism expressed so unequivocally in his Valdai speech last month (Gazeta.ru, October 30). This hostility, however, does not fit with Xi’s master plan for building a new type of great power relationship between China and the US, in which Russia’s role would be reduced to that of a supporting character (Polit.ru, November 7). Distancing himself from Putin’s escapades serves the reformist Chinese leader as a useful means to prepare the ground for the far more important meeting with US President Barack Obama at the APEC summit.
Putin’s efforts to gain a greater profile in the Asia-Pacific region by emphasizing rising security tensions are incomprehensible for the other APEC leaders, who firmly believe in putting the economy first. Russia’s only contribution to regional economic cooperation has been the export of energy resources, and its best hope is to open yet another channel for delivering gas to China from the Europe-oriented fields in Yamal (RBC, November 7). But Beijing shows scant interest and, in fact, has serious doubts about Gazprom’s ability to stick to the schedule for executing the demanding earlier Shanghai deal. The looming legal problems for the Russian gas giant on the European market only add to these concerns (Lenta.ru, November 6). The Chinese leadership may disapprove of the policy of sanctions, but it cannot treat Putin as a reliable partner given the complete disarray in Russia’s economic interactions with its most important partners in Europe.
A setback in gas maneuvering may not be the main problem for Putin’s “pivot” to Asia, but Russia’s unfolding domestic financial crisis almost certainly is—the APEC states watch each other’s economic performance closely and jealously. In the couple of weeks prior to the summit, the ruble was falling sharply against the US dollar, the Russian stock exchange hit a five-year low, and capital flight accelerated toward an estimate of $150 billion for 2014 (Nezavisimaya Gazeta, November 7). Moreover, the steady decline in world oil prices eats into Russian state finances, while the badly-mismanaged but well-connected giants like Gazprom and Rosneft demand direct support from the shrinking coffers of the National Welfare Fund. The government has to protect what little coherence remains in its budget policy (Slon.ru, November 8). Targeted sanctions hit at the most vulnerable points in this economic rout, and the attempts to deny their impact, like for instance the anti-sanctions party thrown by the notoriously corrupt VTB bank, only provide more evidence of desperate inability to manage the decline (Forbes.ru, November 7). Asian investors are perfectly aware that even in the Russian sectors not directly affected by sanctions, the risks to property rights have reached levels where normal transactions are prohibitively costly (Novaya Gazeta, November 7).
If Putin had any hopes that upgrading Moscow’s partnership with Beijing or connecting Russia with the fast-growing Asian markets would compensate for the losses from severing his country’s economic ties with Europe, the APEC summit will likely leave him disillusioned. This could have been a healthy reality check, but it is unclear whether, after ramping up Russia’s confrontation with the West even further, he is able to read the economic messages. His increasingly odd reading of history—for instance the opinion that there was nothing wrong with the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact of August 1939—indicate that the system of political decision-making in the Kremlin has become dangerously erratic (Moscow Echo, November 7). The insistence on Russia’s “uniqueness” goes hand in hand with the denial of any wrongdoing whenever reality does not fit this vision. Consequently, Russia finds itself inhabiting a surreal political space behind the virtual walls erected by vicious propaganda. Courage to believe in freedom broke through the Berlin wall in November 1989, and it will take courage to sober up from the poison of Putinism to breach the walls of self-isolation in the months to come.