Stalinesque delusions of grandeur drive Putin, Xi

Stalinesque delusions of grandeur drive Putin, Xi, by Nina Khrushcheva, granddaughter of Nikita Khrushchev.

Ongoing street protests in Hong Kong and Moscow have no doubt spooked the authoritarian duo of Chinese President Xi Jinping and Russian President Vladimir Putin.

The Moscow protests, the largest in many years, must be keeping Putin up at night, or they wouldn’t be dispersed with such unabated brutality. Yet rather than hold a dialogue with the people, Putin has been demonstrating that he is in control, even preening for photo­s in a tight leather outfit with his favourite motorcycle gang.

File footage: Putin, 2010

Nonetheless, the demonstrations have become a poignant sign of Putin’s declining popularity, includin­g among Russian elites, whose views matter in ways that other forms of public opinion do not. For two decades, the Russian elite’s rival factions have generally seen Putin as the ultimate guarantor of their interests — particularly their financial interests.

But as Russia’s economy has sunk into sanctions-induced stagna­tion, Putin’s leadership has started to look like more of a roadblock than a guardrail. Fewer and fewer Russians still accept that “Putin is Russia and Russia is Putin”, a mantra one heard regularly just five years ago, after the Kremlin’s annexation of Crimea. …

Russian elites know that their country is as ill-prepared to win a nuclear arms race with the US now as the Soviet Union was in prev­ious decades. The recent explosion of a nuclear-missile engine at a test site on Russia’s northern Arctic coast is a grim reminder of a deep-seated incompetence. And, unlike Putin, Russian elites are deeply worried that alienating the US will make Russia a de facto ­vassal state vis-a-vis China.

China:

Given the broader context of Sino-American relations, even the Trump administration would likely respond to Chinese military adven­turism in Taiwan. Besides, the US need not engage in an open military confrontation with China to make aggression toward Taiwan more trouble than it is worth. The US Navy still has the capacity to cut off the sea lanes supplying energy and minerals to China, regardless of whether it is actively engaged in the South China Sea.

As with Putin, overreach seems to be Xi’s default position nowadays, judging by his handling of the trade war and aggressive behaviou­r toward China’s neighbours. In fact, Xi’s muscle-flexing has been so heedless that China now finds itself increasingly isolated diplomatically.

Almost all the world’s leading military and economic powers — the EU, India, Japan, Brazil — maintained pragmatic relations with Xi’s predecessors. But they have since grown increasingly wary of China, with some even moving closer to the US (in the age of Trump, no less).

As in Russia’s case, China’s elite will no doubt have noticed that Xi is turning the country into an international pariah. The outside world may assume that China’s senior leadership is as subservient to Xi as the Kremlin is to Putin. But that is also what many thought about the Soviet politburo and Nikita­ Khrushchev back in 1964. Khrushchev was ousted before the end of the year. …

No one should assume either leader will be spared Khrush­chev’s fate, or even Stalin’s grim death, which was long ­rumoured to have been perpetrated by his own entourag­e, whose members had tired of his despotic overreach.