Russian dictator Vladimir Putin has a problem. Western liberal ideas, such as limited government and rule of law, have begun to spread among his subjects. These concepts are wholly antithetical to his regime, whose purpose is to make use of unlimited state power to enrich its rulers. In order to maintain his grip, Putin needs to cut his country off from the West — and he is doing so.
But Russia’s economy is far too small to be an autarchy. If it is not to be linked with the West, Russia must become part of the East. Accordingly, the Putin regime is moving fast to cement an economic and military alliance with China.
Yet the Russians need to think long and hard about the implications of this. An alliance between Russia and China cannot be a marriage of equals. China’s population of 1.44 billion people outnumbers Russia’s ten to one, and its $14.86 trillion GDP is ten times greater as well. From the Chinese point of view, Russia is simply a vast vacant territory, rich in natural resources, but essentially unpopulated and undeveloped. Indeed, Russia has twice as much land, which the Chinese certainly believe they can put to much more productive use. The crooks who currently own it can be bought out at a price that would hardly dent Beijing’s petty-cash account. In fact, China has already begun moving in this direction, making deals that give it control of the economy of Iran and other stops along its New Silk Road. But if China really wants to dominate the world, acquiring Russia is the way to go. Beijing could triple its territory, recreating an empire unmatched in size since the time of the Mongol Khans, 700 years ago.
The Russians might do well to recall the cruel rule of the Mongols, or the “Tatar Yoke,” as it is still inscribed in horror in folklore and historical memory. Napoleon’s invasion was an affair of six months. The Nazi incursion, as brutal as it was, was over in three years. But the Mongols trampled Russia beneath their horses’ hoofs for three centuries.
Russians combine stoicism with a strong anarchistic streak. This allowed them to endure Soviet tyranny with the attitude encapsulated by the saying, “We pretend to work and they pretend to pay us.” But this won’t do in the Chinese empire. In China, they may pretend to pay you, but you work. Indeed, the Chinese government has means of surveillance and intrusive control beyond the wildest dreams of Stalin. What’s more, they have a population that zealously supports such control as legitimate, conceiving of it as the necessary new global model for the “harmonious society” of the future. As for those who don’t harmonize well, they get the Uyghur treatment. Do Russians want to be sold into being the next Uyghurs?
The Kremlin-controlled Russian media is preparing the sale with a hysterical campaign of anti-Western propaganda. So few Russians are aware of what is going on. Some strategic thinkers in the West have taken alarm over the prospect of a China–Russia consortium, but their response has been to advocate a policy of appeasement toward Putin. That would be a drastic mistake.
If Putin were a bona fide Russian nationalist, it might be possible to deal with him, considering the common ground between the West and Russia’s rational self-interest. But Putin is not a Russian patriot. He is a criminal. He made his first fortune stealing money that had been entrusted to him to buy food for the starving city of St. Petersburg (formerly Leningrad) in 1992. (This was particularly obscene since Putin’s own father had been a genuine hero, severely wounded in defense of starving Leningrad in World War II.) In 1999, he organized a series of bombings of apartment buildings in Moscow to terrorize the Russian population into granting him greater power. He and his confederates robbed the Russian people blind by selling the assets of the former Soviet Union to themselves at kopeks on the ruble. Even worse, he robbed the Russian people of their freedom. These are not the actions of a patriot. They are the actions of a criminal whose wealth and power is in intrinsic opposition to the concept of justice, which means intrinsic opposition to the West. He cannot be won over.
What, then, can the West do? First, we can use our media, including Radio Liberty and Radio Free Europe, to enlighten the Russian people as to the implications of Putin’s plan. Second, we need to do everything we can to help Ukraine succeed. Putin is running a war against Ukraine because there is nothing he fears more than its success. Russians have numerous links, including family ties, that connect them to friends and relatives across the Ukrainian border. If Ukraine were to succeed to the same extent as, say, Poland (which has seen a 500 percent increase in personal income since the dissolution of the Soviet bloc), there would be no way to keep that secret in Russia. People would know that freedom was the way to go. That would finish Putin, and with him his plan to sell Russia to China.
There is much more than the future of Russia at stake. Should Putin sell Russia to China, he would dangerously tip the world balance against the West. We need to do everything we can to stop him.