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Putin's Russia is a trap China should avoid

Strongman leaders get a lot worse after a decade in power

| China
Diplomatic isolation has forced Putin into China's arms.   © AP

Minxin Pei is professor of government at Claremont McKenna College and a nonresident senior fellow of the German Marshall Fund of the United States.

The Chinese Communist Party prides itself on learning lessons from the fall of other dictatorships. After the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, Chinese leaders commissioned academic studies and held seminars trying to figure out how the once-mighty Soviet regime crumbled like a house of cards.

This was by no means a futile exercise. The lessons learned from the Soviet collapse, such as imperial overreach, a costly arms race and economic stagnation, helped the CCP formulate its survival strategy in the post-Tiananmen era. By all accounts, the party profited from these lessons -- until President Xi Jinping adopted a brand-new strategy after gaining power in late 2012.

Now that China has effectively reverted to one-man rule, the CCP may want to take a look at Russia's experience under President Vladimir Putin's two decades in power.

Lurking ahead as the CCP charts a way forward are some of the perils that hastened the collapse of the Soviet Union, such as the unfolding cold war with the U.S., but others are entirely different. Avoiding the mistakes Putin has made should, in theory at least, help strengthen the CCP's rule as Xi begins his second decade in power.

To be sure, the official Chinese narrative portrays the Putin era as a spectacular success, with the Russian strongman reviving the economy, restoring order and reinstating Moscow's great-power status. The truth, of course, is different.

Putin's first decade in office, which coincided with rising oil prices, was credited with Russia's economic recovery. Although he dismantled Russia's fledgling democracy within a few years of his rise in 1999, Putin did not start flexing Russia's geopolitical muscle until his second term. As he started his third term as president in 2012 -- he was prime minister from 2008 to 2012 -- Putin doubled down on the same strategy to make Russia great again.

Putin's record over the last nine years is full of unfulfilled promises and costly blunders. Economically, Russia remains dependent on hydrocarbons, with oil and gas accounting for 39% of the economy in 2018. The Kremlin's ambitious project to develop high-tech industries and diversify the economy remains just hype.

In the meantime, Putin's iron grip on power has turned Russian politics into a one-man show. As a result, Moscow's actions have revolved more around protecting Putin's image and power than advancing Russia's national interests and addressing its long-term socioeconomic challenges.

The most disastrous consequence of Putin's revanchist foreign policy, manifested in his 2014 seizure of Crimea, is Russia's international isolation and escalating confrontation with the West. Putin may feel good about his string of tactical accomplishments, such as the war in eastern Ukraine, Russia's military intervention in Syria and the meddling in the 2016 U.S. presidential election that helped Donald Trump win the White House.

But the strategic costs for Russia are staggering. Sanctions imposed by the West after the seizure of Crimea have inflicted a heavy toll on the Russian economy. The proxy war raging in eastern Ukraine is draining Moscow's limited resources. Diplomatic isolation has forced Putin into China's arms, a tactical alliance he would have shunned if given a choice. Putin maintained a decidedly cool stance toward China during his first decade in power.

If the CCP wishes to avoid the difficult straits in which Russia finds itself, it should heed some of the valuable lessons of Putinism.

The first lesson is to not put the geopolitical cart before the economic horse. Putin's biggest blunder has been to overestimate his strength and confront the West from a position of economic weakness. Russia may possess thousands of nuclear warheads, but its structural economic weaknesses -- such as its overdependence on natural resources, an economy less than one-tenth the size of America's and the lack of a commercial high-tech sector -- cannot sustain an overtly ambitious foreign policy.

Consequently, tactical successes produce mostly illusory geopolitical gains. For example, Putin's military intervention in Syria may seem a brilliant move on paper, but the long-term benefits for Russia are negligible because the Middle East is so far away from Moscow's immediate neighborhood.

Russian military vehicles return from a patrol near the Turkish border town of Kiziltepe in northeast Syria in November 2019: the long-term benefits of military intervention are negligible.   © Reuters

Another lesson that China's leaders can learn from Russia is to not underestimate the costs of confrontation with the West. The U.S. and its allies possess a wide range of tools, such as financial sanctions, tech restrictions and aid to Ukraine, that have significantly raised the costs for Russia after its seizure of Crimea.

The last lesson China should heed is that because a midcourse correction is nearly impossible under strongman rule, things tend to get worse in the second decade in power because most dominant leaders typically exhaust themselves after a decade. If promised reforms fail to materialize in the first decade, most leaders are unlikely to get much done in the second. At the same time, they are more likely to double down on their mistakes rather than rectify them in order to avoid undercutting their authority.

Given the ostensibly warm ties between China and Russia now, it is unthinkable that China's leaders would cite Putin's Russia as an example of how not to run a country. But they are making a huge mistake. Seemingly intent on following the same path Putin took a decade ago, today's Russia could well be tomorrow's China.

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