European Council on Foreign Relations

Interview: Putin’s ex-speechwriter on China

Simon Kordonsky used to be a senior speechwriter for Vladimir Putin. Today he speaks in his own words as a professor at Moscow’s Higher School of Economics. Kordonsky has taken up sociology, unpicking what he calls the “caste society” that Putinism has built. He recently returned from a high-level research trip to Beijing together with other leading Russian thinkers, whose views influence the Kremlin.

A couple of nights ago I emailed Kordonsky from Beijing, where I am researching China’s Russia policy, to get a better sense of how China is viewed from inside the Russian system. I thought I would let some of my (on the record) note-pad spill onto the ECFR blog as I brave Beijing traffic. 

JUDAH: What does the Kremlin think of China?

KORDONSKY: It seems to me that they hardly ever have China itself in their view finder. The China that is emerging into their world view is an abstract phenomenon, as a reproach to those whose predecessors did not follow the “Chinese way,” and – guided by the US and others – followed advice to build “the market and democracy.” This abstraction is also a potential threat to the Russian Far East that may someday become reality. On the other hand China is viewed as a military partner in alliance with the Central Asian states; a market for Russian technology and  a potential alternative to the European energy market that would allow – in theory – Russia to manipulate the European market. Of course China is also seen as a source of consumer goods.

JUDAH: So is the Kremlin frightened or inspired by China?

KORDONSKY: Prime Minister Putin and his entourage are neither scared nor inspired by China. They are trying to build a state policy towards Beijing, but their efforts are floundering as regional authorities and entrepreneurs are constructing their own private policies, using government funds to achieve their own ends.

JUDAH: What does Russia want from China?

KORDONSKY: The government wants to use China, the Chinese experience and Chinese resources to meet chronic – not strategic – challenges.  For example, officials use China to solve their personal problems, striving with every transaction to get a share, or rent, out of the deal. Therefore we have ended up in a situation where the construction of gas pipelines to China, already well underway, have been started not in accordance with the balance of Russian energy reserves - but by the fact that vast resources can be acquired by the state companies Transneft and Gazprom to fund their construction.  What will fill these pipes, nobody knows, but we can be sure that their constructors will have their fill.

JUDAH: What does Russian high-society think of China?

KORDONSKY: Those that are in abiding opposition to the government gloat over the fact that Russia is behind China in almost all respects. Yet there is general ignorance about China. Those that follow the issue focus on macroeconomic statistics rather than substantive knowledge about what actually happens in China. Then there are those that fool-around, peddling myths of militarised Chinese expansionism.

JUDAH: Does China pose a threat to Russian sovereignty in the Far East?

KORDONSKY: There is a danger in the Far East but it does not come from China or the Chinese. The danger comes from the fact that local Russian authorities and populations will gradually transfer their economic activity in such a way that it centres on a Chinese hub. They will form a new cross-border class and reduce the rents received by Moscow.

JUDAH: Russia’s foreign policy is said to be “turning to the east” – will it succeed?

KORDONSKY: Russia’s policy in Asia seems situational. There is a plan of activities, schedules of meetings with participants of the first rank and summits and forums where speeches and commitments are made. Yet it is not getting off the ground. Russian activity in Asia increased when relations with the US and the EU had found themselves highly complicated by events. Now after the reset there has been a decrease in activity. Attempts by individual political entrepreneurs to create an institution of ‘special representatives of the President’ in South-East Asia and begin to implement at least some of their policies - have so far come to nothing.

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