China Makes Casting Call for Putin's Successor

4 April, 04:13 PM
Xi Jinping and Vladimir Putin (Photo:Kremlin via REUTERS)

Xi Jinping and Vladimir Putin (Photo:Kremlin via REUTERS)

China always plays the long game

Much has been said and written about the Chinese leader Xi Jinping’s visit to Moscow. The main focus has been on three topics:

1) The possibility of a military alliance between China and Russia, and the supply of Chinese weapons for the war against Ukraine;

2) China’s possible influence on mediating a peace settlement between Russia and Ukraine.

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3) Russia's growing economic dependence on China.

No clear movements have taken place on the first two points while the meeting focussed a great deal on the third.

Xi Jinping publicly gave his blessing to Putin's reelection as President of Russia.

However, another topic emerged during Xi Jinping’s visit that, in my opinion, is not given enough attention: China's influence on further changes in Russian internal politics.

First, Xi Jinping publicly gave his blessing to Putin's reelection as President of Russia. There is still a year before the presidential elections there, and it is not customary in diplomatic practice for the leader of one country to express their preferences regarding elections in another. But the Chinese leader ignored these diplomatic taboos, and his support for Putin's re-election is seen as an official political stance. From the perspective of Xi’s worldview and political interests, this makes complete sense. The Chinese Premier himself was recently re-elected for a third term as the leader of both China’s Communist Party and the state itself. Putin suits Xi perfectly, especially in the Russian president’s current weakened state. But, that is just for now. China always plays the long game.

This brings us to the main issue: Xi Jingping's special attention to Russian Prime Minister Mikhail Mishustin aroused considerable interest both in Russia and beyond. The head of the Russian government in the Duma even received a personal invitation from the Chinese leader to pay an official visit to Beijing. In Russia, where the so-called “transfer” (in other words, the topic of the transfer of power) and potential candidates for Putin’s successors have been under discussion for several years, this episode was immediately perceived almost as Xi Jinping’s choice of a protege to be the future leader of Russia. Let us not rush to conclusions, we should pay attention – at the end of last year, there were also visits to Beijing by Secretary of the Security Council of the Russian Federation Nikolai Patrushev (whose son, Dmitry, the Russian Agricultural Minister, is also bandied about as a potential successor to Putin) and Dmitry Medvedev (the former Russian President who was once named Putin’s successor in 2008, and dreams of returning to this role again). All this looks like the beginning of the casting for the role of the future leader of Russia. And this casting is being conducted not by Putin, but by the Chinese leader.

We do not know how and when this casting process will end, or whether Beijing will be able to push its choice into the role of the new Russian leader. But the fact itself is important - China has begun to influence Russia’s internal political processes, and this is further evidence of Russia's growing dependence on China.

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