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  • Writer's picturePaul Hansbury

WAR WHISPERS

I drafted this post a couple of weeks ago but never got round to posting it. I've read through it and updated it a little. It mostly covers events in May – but, and this is my cheap hook to keep you reading, there's room for a little bit of a dance at the end.


Chinese whispers


Vladimir Putin's first foreign visit after claiming a fifth term in power took him to China in mid–May. The choice of destination was a signal of Moscow's priorities. The two leaders reaffirmed their 'no limits partnership' and conveyed an air of unity. But many journalists felt that the encomium of Putin's public remarks about the relationship were not reciprocated by the Chinese leader. Xi's remarks were 'more perfunctory – even bland,' according to the BBC.


The comity is there but it does not run very deep. One of the key things to look out for was any mention of the Power of Siberia 2 pipeline. Russia wants to show that China has become a major market for its gas supplies and that it has weaned itself off dependence on European markets. But negotiations over the second pipeline, which will run from the Yamal peninsula in Russia's north down into China, have clearly been stuck and it doesn't look like any progress was made during Putin's recent trip.


The Financial Times claims to have some inside information on the negotiations. It's an open secret that China has been driving a hard bargain. According to the FT: 'China [has] asked to pay close to Russia's heavily subsidised domestic prices and [will] only commit to buying a small fraction of the pipeline's planned annual capacity of 50bn cubic metres of gas.' They report that the absence of Gazprom's chief executive, Alexey Miller, in Putin's entourage for the trip indicated an expected lack of any progress. Gazprom, meanwhile, reported heavy financial losses last year and is desperate to sign an agreement. China clearly has a strong hand to play.


Shuffling the deck


Talking of playing hands, Putin reshuffled personnel in Russia last month. In a widely expected move, he replaced Sergey Shoigu as defence minister. Shoigu has always been popular among Russians although one can't imagine Putin has been too happy about the defence ministry's performance over the past couple of years. A number of other senior commanders had been arrested in the weeks beforehand on charges of corruption or bribery, including the deputy defence minister, and the rumour mill went into overdrive.


The new defence minister, Andrey Belousov, has been an economic adviser to Putin. One guesses that the defence ministry's spending needs a stricter hand than it has had till now. I did see a suggestion somewhere that Belousov maintains close ties to Chinese officials but I cannot comment on that. Russia's military spending has soared since its invasion of Ukraine and, while many Russians see short term benefits as arms factories work round the clock, in the longer run it portends economic troubles. The new deputy defence minister also has a background in an economics role. The interesting question now is whether the chief of staff, Valery Gerasimov, remains long in post. If Putin wants to refresh the war effort by shaking personnel up a little, then we could see more changes.


He has also appointed the hawk Nikolay Patrushev and former regional governor Andrei Dyumin as presidential aides. This potentially brings them more squarely into Putin's day–to–day decision making. Dyumin was later appointed secretary of the State Council: a body that advises the head of state. Many commentators think this points to the Kremlin cultivating him and that he must be considered a serious prospect for becoming Putin's anointed successor one day. That looks like a worthwhile bet.


Quo vadis?


The new staffing is presumably supposed to be a refresh for the war campaign. There have been clear points at which Russia has altered its tactics during the war and, as Putin's fifth term in office begins, we appear to be at such a juncture. The renewed offensive around Kharkiv over the past few weeks suggests Russia saw an opportunity to make gains before new US military aid reached the front lines. At least one report I saw suggested that Russia now has half a million troops in Ukraine which is a stark reminder of its manpower advantage.


At the same time, there is already a sense Russia's gains are slowing. Since I wrote a few days ago, the US has eased its restrictions on Ukraine's use of American weaponry. European countries have also agreed to supply a small number of Patriot air defence systems. Together these two changes increase Ukraine's defence capabilities and are seem by military analysts as key to countering the glide bombs that have been central to its recent successes on the battlefield. It is a dangerous moment but a necessary one if the US and its allies are serious about supporting Ukraine.


Russian officials, meanwhile, keep on blaming the US for all the tensions in the world. On 30 May, Russia's ambassador to China tried to portray his country as at one with the Chinese and together with them building a new multipolar world. Washington and its allies, he claimed, were 'deliberately inflaming' the situation round Taiwan and in the Asia–Pacific. He asserted that the two states had a 'model' relationship. That probably wasn't the message that European embassy officials were relaying back to their capital cities since they, like me, were probably looking for signs of actual deepening of the partnership behind the rhetoric.


So different messages are passed on, changing with each retelling. That leads me to the following anecdote. A military order supposedly said: 'Send reinforcements, we're going to advance.' Only, by the time it had wended its way to the hapless final recipients, they heard: 'Send three and four pence, we're going to a dance.' Given the shambles of Russia's initial invasion in February 2022, one wonders what messages got garbled along the command chain as they traced their way to the troops. It is far from clear that the Kremlin is getting its messages across as it wants, whether to its soldiers in Ukraine or 'partners' in Beijing, even today.


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Cover image credit: Putin and Xi in 2015, from the Kremlin (kremlin.ru) used under creative commons licence 4.0.

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