On our way to bombard Atlanta, the battleship HMS Ridicule has detoured to the Baltic Sea for reconnaissance. Unlike the Russia-China joint exercise, we will not fire our big guns. We’ll just throw some garbage overboard, and empty the bilges.
China has a grudge against Russia. In a series of “Unequal Treaties”, beginning with the Li-Lobanov Treaty of 1896, Russia annexed Chinese territory from what is now Outer Manchuria. For this reason, the Siberian population of Russia, aware that some of their most populous centers are on what was Chinese land, have a deep-rooted fear of China. The Sino-Soviet border conflict of 1969 reinforces this fear.
Until the Russian Empire annexed Siberia in the 17th Century, the bulk of it was occupied by primitive tribes, and the rest by the Khanate of Sibir. All were considered by China to be primitive savages. But the Russian Empire was different. Highly organized and partly Western, it practiced the coercive colonial imperialism-backed-by-force that was in vogue at the time. Russia and Japan were the among last powers to take a bite out of China. And unlike the others, Russia still has what it bit off.
This kind of grudge has been such a potent fuel for the conflicts of nations, it has a name: irredentism. In many cases, governments have been upset by irredentists, who gain power by promising to throw the young men into the meat grinder to regain the land. The Franco Prussian War of 1870 is classic. It’s arguable that this war, not the Treaty of Versailles, was the root cause of World War II. The French lost, and with it, Alsace-Lorraine. This painting depicts kids being brainwashed into dying to get it back.
Irredentism is a tool of political demagoguery. But uniquely to China, it is a stable political doctrine. Mao expressed to Kissinger that a hundred years was soon enough to regain Taiwan. The Chinese may pretend to forget about Outer Manchuria. Unlike European irredentists, they aren’t beating the drum for war.
But there are other ways to address the Unequal Treaties. Russian subversion in Europe, facilitated by the strong links between the Kremlin and the current crop of oligarchs, has an analog in historical China policy. The borderlands of Russia, what are now the swath of former Soviet states, including the Russian border itself, were once the objects of sophisticated manipulation by the Celestial Kingdom. A template is ready at hand.
To defend, Russia has the doctrine of first-use of nuclear weapons, and stockpiles of Novichok. This won’t help them a bit. Unlike the quick tempered bellicosity of Western irredentists, China’s approach is a foreign policy doctrine about 500 years old. The play of it will extend beyond our lifetimes. Eventually, Vladimir Putin’s descendants will be fluent in Standard Mandarin.
The tactic used against the borderland savages was to corrupt them with luxury. This has direct application in Russia, where loyalty has a strong relationship to financial benefit. Putin’s slush fund exists for this purpose. Although control in Russia has many facets, including politics and coercion, they work best when not in conflict with the desire of loyalty to go with the highest bidder. Russia has lost that battle before, during the presidency of Boris Yeltsin.
A government has lost the fight against corruption when civil authority can no longer resist the tide of money. Putin is gambling that he can prevent the progression. But over time, economic cooperation becomes interdependence. As contact between societies breaks the bounds of formality, the opportunities to suborn the Russian state multiply. One day, Putin, or more likely his successor could wake up, and discover the fate of a sci-fi horror movie: the Siberian Russians have been replaced by Pod People.
This is not a value judgement of Russian culture. My roots are in Eastern Europe, including Russia. Some of my ancestors were “radicals.” One of my greatest pleasures is to argue with a Russian intellectual. In that spirit, Russians might take a look at their culture and prune it a bit. Some of it, the “darkness”, stands in the way of the vitality of a modern society. The part that makes arguing with a Russian intellectual such a pleasure, they ought to keep.
We are saving our massive 16″ shells, loaded with ridicule, for Atlanta. Full speed ahead!