U.S. and West Should Not Count Russia’s Putin Out Just Yet

U.S. and West Should Not Count Russia’s Putin Out Just Yet
Russian President Vladimir Putin shakes hands with Chinese President Xi Jinping during a welcome ceremony for the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) Economic Leaders Meeting, Beijing, China, Nov. 11, 2014 (AP photo by Ng Han Guan).

How do the crisis in Ukraine and the political situation in Russia look when viewed through the prism of Chinese media? The familiar Western narrative of Russian President Vladimir Putin as a dictator responsible for destabilizing Ukraine and snuffing out domestic dissent takes on a far different coloring. The appeal of the Chinese version of events elsewhere in the world could help explain why U.S. and Western efforts to marginalize Putin and Russia on the world stage have met with little success.

At the Naval War College on Monday, Christopher Marsh, professor of national security and strategic studies at the U.S. Army Command and General Staff College’s School of Advanced Military Studies, outlined Beijing’s perspective on the events in Ukraine and Russia. While retaining an overall commitment to Ukraine’s territorial integrity, China viewed the Russian annexation of Crimea as “illegal, but understandable and justifiable” because of Western interference and encroachment along Russia’s borders. The broader crisis in Ukraine is seen in Beijing as resulting from domestic factors and mistakes made by the Ukrainian government in alienating populations in the country’s south and east. By contrast, Putin’s involvement and responsibility is significantly downplayed.

As for the murder of opposition activist Boris Nemtsov, China sees this as a personal tragedy and a reprehensible crime, but one that in no way excuses the efforts of Western governments to interfere in Russia’s domestic affairs. Moreover, the very existence of a public opposition to Putin in Russia is portrayed by Beijing as a testament to his failings, meant to convey to a Chinese audience that state-guided reform is better for securing their prosperity and safety than even the lip-service trappings of liberal democracy.

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