Chinese whispers

Shoigu and his boss

The ongoing war in the Ukraine is generally perceived as a clash between Russia and the West. The latter is using the Ukraine as its proxy, while the former is supposed to be a free agent answering to no one and moved by nothing other than national interests.

Both parts are open to debate because the situation is far from being so straightforward.

First, the West got drawn into the conflict by default and not as part of some long-term strategy. When the Russians started their ‘hybrid’ war on the Ukraine by annexing her Crimea and some other provinces in 2014, even myopic analysts saw that Putin was out to restore Russia in all her imperial (or Soviet) grandeur.

Western leaders weren’t united in their opposition to that plan, with, for example, Angela Merkel being broadly sympathetic to it. But eventually NATO, the EU and the US reached a vague consensus: Putin must be defeated. Well, perhaps not quite defeated, but stopped. Or barring that, slowed down. All without provoking him into an apocalyptic response, naturally, that went without saying.

Such vagueness of purpose has produced ambivalence of action. On the one hand, the West has kept training and arming the Ukrainian forces, but on the other hand every effort has been taken not to do too good a job of it. Hence the arms supplies to the Ukraine were intermittent and insufficient, certain types of weaponry were off the list, no attempt to use NATO’s air force to protect Ukrainian cities from destruction was made or even mooted.

Neither does one detect any clear idea anywhere in the West of how the war should desirably end. Bien pensant generalities about peace and negotiations remain nebulous, and understandably so. Negotiations only mean something concrete when the desired end is crystal clear. This is far from being the case.

Zelensky talks about Russia retreating to the 1991 borders, which Putin would regard as a shattering defeat ending his political career and, in all likelihood, life. (He knows his boys on the muscle end of things play for keeps. Cross them, and suddenly a hand grenade goes off on your flight, all purely accidental of course.)

Putin is making vague noises about calling it quits on the existing frontline, with the eastern part of the Ukraine ending up as a sort of buffer zone. Now such an outcome would spell defeat for the Ukraine and also for Zelensky’s political (though probably not physical) life.

Ukrainians would be able to console themselves with Finland’s experience. Having heroically taken on the whole might of the Red Army in 1939-1940, that tiny country defended her sovereignty but ceded nine per cent of her territory – more than Stalin had originally demanded.

The Finnish model could be regarded as the most realistic and honourable way for the Ukraine to find peace, but for a few details. First, Finland kept her sovereignty but not really her independence. She became a Soviet satrap, with the Soviets keeping veto power over cabinet appointments and foreign policy decisions. Some of the top Finnish officials were openly KGB agents – and proud of it. That situation produced a new geopolitical term: finlandisation.

In the scenario I’ve outlined, the Ukraine would definitely be finlandised, meekly awaiting a new Russian invasion when the moment would be judged right. Yet indications are growing that most Western leaders find such an outcome acceptable. If they didn’t, Ukrainian F-16s would already be keeping their skies safe and Russian skies less so.

All in all, yes, to some extent, the Ukraine may be considered a proxy of the West. But only to a rather small extent, and with numerous reservations and qualifications.

But what about the other half of the story, Russia acting exclusively in her national interests and taking her cues from nobody? Here we must widen our field of vision to include the vast tracts of terrain east of the Urals.

China is rapidly colonising the Russian Far East, getting mining concessions, inspiring demographic displacement, building new settlements that increasingly take the shape of cities, buying up Russian oil at dumping prices and in general moving in deeper and deeper. China and Russia may be partners, but there’s little doubt as to who is the senior one.

The relationship between the two countries looks increasingly like that between the Golden Horde and Russian principalities in the 13th century. It’s not for nothing that Putin likes to compare himself to Alexander Nevsky, a prince whose heroic battles against Western invaders have turned out to be mere skirmishes, but whose subservience to the Horde was nothing short of Quisling treachery.

It’s against this background that the on-going reshuffle of the Russian leadership begins to make sense. For years, the most aggressive hawk in Putin’s war party, other than Putin himself, has been Nikolai Patrushev, KGB general and former head of the FSB.

He is commonly regarded as the chief architect and major inspiration of the full-scale aggression against the Ukraine. Patrushev is also credited with reliance on nuclear blackmail as a way of keeping the West in check.

Since 2008 he has held the post of Secretary of the Security Council, effectively the second highest position in Russia. A position that he dramatically lost on 12 May, being demoted to an honorary post as Putin’s aide. Overnight the tone of Russian anti-West propaganda changed.

If until 12 May the common theme had been reducing the US to radioactive ash and sinking Britain under a typhoon wave, since that date the threats have become practically vegetarian. If NATO dares to send its soldiers to the Ukraine, say Kremlin propagandists, they’ll be killed. Is that all? What about turning New York, Paris and London to smouldering stones?

At the same time, another close associate of Putin, Sergei Shoigu, was removed from his post of Defence Minister. But unlike Patrushev, he wasn’t demoted – quite the opposite. Shoigu was moved to Patrushev’s job at the Security Council, thus getting infinitely more power.

This looks surprising to anyone who has been watching the purge of Shoigu’s bailiwick, the Defence Ministry, over the past few days. His deputy Ivanov, known for his addiction to living high on the hog, is now in prison awaiting trial for corruption. Joining him in the same dock will be the Ministry’s head of personnel, Lt Gen Kuznetsov.

One doesn’t have to be an expert investigator to know that both generals are guilty as charged. After all, their incomes are in the public domain, and their salaries don’t stretch to Bentleys, private planes and villas in the nicer parts of the Mediterranean, to which the two warriors have become accustomed.

Hence their arrest is motivated by political considerations, not a quest for justice. They could have been arrested with equal justification years ago, along with their immediate superior, Shoigu. Yet, rather than having to explain his own billions, Shoigu has received the second highest post in Russia.

Before, his immediate superior was Prime Minister Mikhail Mishustin, who has emerged from the reshuffle unscathed, holding on to his position, the third highest in government. Now what do the two men occupying the two rungs immediately under Putin’s have in common?

They are both so close to China that some commentators refuse to mince words and refer to them as Xi’s agents. And Xi has been controlling the temperature of Putin’s war from the start. For example, when Putin and Patrushev were ready to resort to tactical nukes, Xi put a quiet word in their shell-like that this wasn’t a good idea.

Both Shoigu and Mishustin are frequent visitors to Peking, where they emulate Nevsky and other Russian princes by seeking instructions. The princes also sought licences to rule, and there are indications that the glorious duo pursue those as well.

Apparently, Patrushev, with his KGB nose for intrigue, cottoned on to what was going on and demanded that Putin sack Mishutin. Yet Vlad saw the frown on Xi’s face and sacked Patrushev instead.

If this analysis is correct – and there are no guarantees in the murky haze of Kremlin politics – then Putin’s days are numbered too. Xi seems to realise that he has got as much political capital out of the war as he could, and there’s no more point suffering economic losses: deterioration of China’s economic relations with the West, growing prices of raw materials, restrictions on exports and so on.

The shadow cast by China’s bulk on Russia is widening by the minute. Like an erstwhile khan of the Golden Horde, Xi may only allow his Russian vassals to be independent up to a point. He may well decide it suits him to call an end to the war, which means getting rid of two of its most fanatical proponents.

One of them, Patrushev, is already gone. The other, Putin… Well, according to some Russian commentators, he is next on the way out, with either Shoigu or Mishutin getting Xi’s licence to rule. Let’s wait and see, shall we?

P.S. On a seemingly unrelated note, Concergebouw, Amsterdam’s top concert hall, has just cancelled two performances by the Israel-based Jerusalem String Quartet. The next step will probably be cancelling Jewish musicians regardless of where they come from. What’s Judenfrei in Dutch?

3 thoughts on “Chinese whispers”

  1. To anyone who grew up during the cold war the idea that Russia is taking orders from China is a bit odd. However, given that the current government is built on the principle of profit, it makes sense: anything for a ruble.

    P.S. Are we to assume the open dates on the Concergebouw’s schedule will be filled by the Palestine Philharmonic Orchestra? (All cultures are equal, but some cultures are more equal than others.)

    1. It’s the Concertgebouw! Mr Boot’s bad typing has misled you.

      Don’t the Dutch remember their own history? In 1939, the Concertgebouw Orchestra, under the direction and guidance of Willem Mengelberg, was probably the greatest orchestra the world had ever known. But when the Nazis arrived in Amsterdam, Mengelberg cheerfully provided them with a list of the Jews who had contributed to his orchestra’s incomparable greatness. The orchestra never quite recovered, though it fared better than its expelled members.

      And, while there’s so far no such thing as the Palestine Philharmonic Orchestra, the Palestine Symphony Orchestra is the old name of the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra. It was founded by Bronislaw Huberman as a means of helping Jews to escape from Hitler’s empire. (It seems that Hitler didn’t mind Jews going to Palestine, perhaps because he thought his friend the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem would be put in charge of them.)

      Sadly, we seem to have more Mengelbergs than Hubermans nowadays.

  2. “[Finland] became a Soviet satrap …”

    You mean satrapy, not satrap. E.g., Belarus is a satrapy, and Lukashenko is its satrap. But the ancient Persian Empire (from which the words “satrap” and “satrapy” are derived) was the least monstrous empire the world had ever known so far – see Ezra and Nehemiah for details.

    For even more details, see Xenophon. In the Cyropaedia we see the establishment of a benevolent system of government, and in the Anabasis we see its corruption. The tragedy of Russia is that benevolence and government have never been connected with each other, and as for corruption … !

    Likewise, alas, China.

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