Will the coronavirus break China-Russia relations?

Putin's uncertain domestic political future

Hi everyone,

Will the coronavirus break China-Russia relations?

Putin's uncertain domestic political future

This edition of the newsletter will cover the following China-Russia topics: the COVID-19 coronavirus in Russia, COVID-19 in China, COVID-19’s effect on China-Russia relations, Central Asia, Belarus, and South Asia.


COVID-19 could upend many assumptions in China-Russia relations. The coronavirus crisis is Vladimir Putin’s greatest challenge in his over two decades in power, and there are some signs of tensions between Putin and Moscow Mayor Sergei Sobyanin. Putin could very well emerge from present difficulties, but it is not clear if even he can maintain the current modalities of China-Russian relations.

Putin is desperately trying to preserve Sino-Russo relations amid its most serious crisis since the 1980s. COVID-19 originated in Wuhan, and the PRC not only failed to contain its spread but also took actions that facilitated the virus’s international transmission. Putin and the Russian authorities believe, probably correctly, that Russian popular and elite opinion could quickly turn against the PRC and against Chinese nationals. In the early days of the coronavirus crisis, Putin banned Chinese nationals from entering the country, for three reasons.

First, banning Chinese nationals from entering the country lowered the risk of transmission to Russia. Second, Putin likely anticipated that some Russians would commit ugly, racist acts against Chinese individuals, with potentially seismic diplomatic implications. Third, Putin sought to shift blame for any outbreak from China to Europe. The authorities have been more open about publishing results for Europe-related cases than China-related cases.  

The crisis has revealed Putin’s sharp political instincts: despite considerable odds he appears, at least for now, to have contained any anti-Chinese backlash in Russia. Still, he may have miscalculated by placing Sobyanin at the head of the coronavirus response. Putin likely assumed that the Moscow Mayor would bear the blame for any unpopular economic restrictions or public health failures, but Sobyanin is now publicly criticizing the inadequacy of public health resources and attempting to shift responsibility to Putin. Sobyanin may be using his platform to position himself as a man of action, a teller of truths, and a credible national leader. It’s noteworthy that Boris Yeltsin rose to power through Moscow city politics.

Putin could still emerge from the crisis, but he is swimming upstream. Russian elites appear highly agitated by the crisis, the economy will likely suffer at least a technical depression, and popular resentment of Putin will likely rise as the human and economic costs of the virus mount. Putin did not cause the coronavirus, but his investments in the two individuals most responsible for failing to contain its international spread may contribute to his downfall.

Even if Putin retains power, Russo-Sino relations will likely become colder. Economic and societal ties were already weak and occasionally adversarial before the crisis, and the coronavirus will likely strengthen protectionist, nationalist, and anti-PRC forces in Russia. Geopolitical tensions could also arise this year due to coronavirus-related economic dislocations, Putin’s domestic political maneuverings in Belarus, or both.

Central Asia faces a triple economic shock from low energy prices, COVID-19’s effect on interpersonal interactions, and declining remittances from Russia. The region is a secondary or even tertiary priority for Beijing and Moscow, but Chinese hegemony in Central Asia - and growing influence within the Eurasian Economic Union - could unsettle many Russians. Belarus is also presenting major uncertainties in the relationship. The country is fumbling its coronavirus response, and Putin could attempt to exploit its weaknesses ahead of Belarus’s electoral event scheduled for August. The PRC, on the other hand, recognizes that Putin’s absorption of Belarus would prove disruptive at a time of peak vulnerability for the world economy.

It’s a busy time in China-Russian relations. Stay tuned.

1)   The coronavirus in Russia

The coronavirus is the single biggest shock to Russia’s economic and political system since at least the 1998 financial crisis, with hundreds of confirmed cases and thousands more suspected. COVID19 will likely lead to a public health crisis, a technical economic depression, or both. It could upend Putin’s 20-year dictatorship, shatter Russia’s relationship with China, or both. There is already evidence of an elite split over the coronavirus, and Putin may have a serious rival in Moscow Mayor Sergey Sobyanin.

Putin is a highly adroit tactician and extremely capable at navigating Russia’s domestic politics. He might be able to retain power, but he appears more vulnerable by the hour.  

Putin says Russian PM keeps him up-to-date on COVID-19 situation – TASS

“Russian Prime Minister Mikhail Mishustin provides a daily report to Russian President Vladimir Putin regarding the spread of the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) in the country.”

Comment: Putin is placing himself at the head of the coronavirus response, signaling this is a make-or-break moment for his regime.

Putin Delays Referendum on Plan to Stay in Power Over Virus – Bloomberg

““We must understand that Russia simply due to its geographical position, cannot isolate itself from the threat,” Putin said in a televised address Wednesday. “The absolute priority for us is the health, well-being and safety of the people. Therefore, I believe that the vote should be postponed to a later date.””

Putin calls on Russians 'to stay home' due to coronavirus – TASS

“"I believe that the vote needs to be postponed to a later date. We will see how the situation unfolds in the regions and in the country on the whole, and will make a decision on a new date based on expert opinion," Putin emphasized.”

Putin praises Kommunarka hospital for high-quality work – TASS (Photo by Alexei Druzhinin/Russian Presidential Press and Information Office/TASS)

Comment: Photo of Putin at a coronavirus facility, assuming he didn’t use a body double. One way or another, this picture will be in the history books.  

No real picture of COVID-2019 situation in Russian regions — Moscow mayor – TASS

"Some regions seem not to understand [the situation with the coronavirus spread]. Well, they [regional governors] see just a couple of cases. The matter is that the level of testing is very low. There is no real picture," said the Moscow mayor, who is a deputy chairman of the Russian government’s coordinating council on coronavirus response.

Comment: This is obviously a very striking statement. It’s not clear if Mayor Sergei Sobyanin coordinated this statement with the Kremlin, or if he expressing the frustrations of many other actors in the Russian political system. Sobyanin could become the most serious competitor to Putin if he is not already. Boris Yeltsin was party chief in Moscow before he ultimately ascended to the Russian Presidency.  

While Sobyanin has been at the forefront of Russia’s anti-coronavirus efforts, TASS doesn’t appear to have displayed his picture for months. Articles that discuss Mishustin, Sechin, Medvedev, Shoigu, Lavrov, Peskov, and of course Putin often have an official’s picture at the top of the page.

Putin likely placed Sobyanin on the coronavirus council in order to undercut a potential rival. Heading a pandemic response team is, colloquially, “a shit sandwich”. If the response team prevented an outbreak, critics would claim they overreacted; if a pandemic broke out, the response team is the natural scapegoat. Sobyanin may be attempting to shift responsibility back to Putin.

Note that Sobyanin is referred to as “deputy chairman” – a week prior Putin referred to him as “head of the working group.”  

Sobyanin doesn’t even rate a chapter in Mikhail Zygar’s masterful All The Kremlin’s Men. It’s not clear how the PRC views the Mayor: Chinese state media doesn’t discuss him too much. A topic for future issues of The Report, perhaps.

Russian official questions Vladimir Putin’s coronavirus data – Financial Times

Comment: FT reports that Putin has held public and private meetings without wearing a face mask; he also shook hands with a doctor overseeing coronavirus patients.

People’s Daily describing the same meeting between Putin and Sobyanin – People’s Daily [Chinese language]

“On the same day, Mayor Sobyanin of Moscow suggested in a meeting with Russian President Putin that in order to prevent the new coronavirus epidemic, the elderly in all major cities in Russia should be isolated at home. Sobyanin pointed out that Moscow and the Moscow State Government have stipulated that elderly people over 65 years of age should be separated from their homes, and similar measures should be taken in Saint Petersburg and all cities with a population of over one million.”

Comment: The PD sidesteps the most interesting exchange at the meeting.

About 500 people in Moscow suspected of having COVID – TASS

"Quite a lot of people are staying at home after returning from abroad, untested. Those who can afford it, are just staying at home, in self-isolation, and feel all right," [Moscow Mayor Sergei Sobyanin] noted. "But there are much more of those infected. That is why, seeing this dynamics, we have begun to take other measures and expand testing," Sobyanin added.”

Coronavirus spread in Russia under control, says Putin – TASS

“Besides, Putin noted that local authorities have better understanding of whether schools and other educational facilities should be switched to remote operation." We agreed when we created the working group, led by Moscow Mayor Sobyanin, that this group would constantly monitor through regional heads, besides monitoring through the Ministry of Health; the relevant structures would conduct parallel work through regional heads and act depending on this," Putin added.”

Comment: From, March 18th, one week ago. Note Putin attempting to deflect responsibility to Mayor Sobyanin.

Russia Should Quarantine Itself to Halt Coronavirus, Billionaire Deripaska Says – Moscow Times

“The businessman wrote that if the necessary measures are not taken to prevent the virus' spread, the consequences would be more serious than the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991.”

Comment: Deripaska: “provide people with the opportunity to spend 60 days(!) at home.”

Rosneft CEO urges not to ‘dramatize’ coronavirus problem for oil market – TASS

“"In my opinion, [said Sechin] coronavirus is indeed a serious problem, which should be taken into account while balancing the market. But, on the other hand, there is no need to dramatize the situation. As we can see now, China has almost coped with the epidemic. The recovery [of patients] and the decline in newly detected cases have very positive dynamics, that is why it seems that a certain remedy against the coronavirus has been found, which is isolation."

According to Sechin, oil prices are expected to get adjusted within six months and may be back to $60 per barrel by the yearend…

The Rosneft CEO went on to say that the company’s oil production costs were low, at $3.1 per barrel. "Our operational expenditures are generally low, at $3.1 per barrel. We have the entire set of mechanisms to bring about our plans," he added.”

Comment: Deripaska and Sechin don’t appear to be reading from the same script. These are still early days, but Putin’s nightmare – an elite split – appears increasingly probable as various oligarchs and siloviki scramble to secure their interests amid the coronavirus and, potentially, Putin’s diminished authority.

Future Without Putin No Longer Taboo Issue – Mark Galeotti for the Moscow Times

Comment: Speaking of elite competition, from Sept 2019 but worth a read.

Russia's coronavirus count under scrutiny as Putin government denies hiding cases – CBC

“But several doctors and health-care workers contacted by CBC News believe the real caseload is far higher and that Russia could be hiding hundreds of coronavirus deaths by labelling them as something else…

One family doctor who's been in practice for more than a decade in Moscow told CBC News their clinic has seen a number of patients recently who likely had coronavirus, but doctors did not report them to federal health authorities because they were concerned about the conditions inside the quarantine sites where they would be sent….

The doctor also said many coronavirus cases go unreported because physicians don't want to see their offices shut down and quarantined by Russian authorities. "That would mean no salary and no revenues for them and their families. This is Russia and this is the reality."”

Sharp increase in Moscow pneumonia cases fuels fears over coronavirus statistics – Reuters

“The number of cases of pneumonia, which can be caused by coronavirus, increased by 37 percent in Moscow year-on-year in January, according to Rosstat, Russia’s statistics agency… Yet Moscow’s own health department issued a statement on March 13 saying pneumonia cases in January and February were actually 8% and 7% lower than last year.”

Russia says it has very few coronavirus cases but the numbers don’t tell the full story – Moscow Times

“But at least one concern has been raised by medical experts in recent days over the fact that the test, which detects the virus by replicating DNA using a primer that fits coronavirus DNA, is not sensitive enough to accurately register positive tests. According to the Moscow-based PCR News website, which reports on medicine, Vektor’s kit uses a cycle total of 10 to the fifth power per millimeter to register a positive test. “This is low by modern standards,” PCR News wrote Friday. “If a patient is clearly infected but the concentration of the virus is lower than 10 to the fifth power, the test result will be negative.””

Over 163,000 coronavirus tests carried out in Russia – TASS

“"As of March 21, some 163,529 laboratory tests on human material for the novel coronavirus have been carried out," the watchdog said. Some 52,000 are currently under medical supervision over coronavirus in Russia.”

Fortress Russia Begins to Show Cracks as Coronavirus Spreads – Reid Standish for Foreign Policy

“In a recent video posted on the group’s YouTube channel, the [Doctor’s Alliance] also warned about a lack of protective gear in hospitals outside of major cities in Russia’s regions that could lead to more infections. The video also featured anonymous calls from doctors who said that they were being told to clear entire hospital wards in order to accommodate a flood of patients suffering from “pneumonia.”

Moscow Mayor Sergey Sobyanin, who was recently appointed by Putin to head a coronavirus task force, also enacted a series of controversial policies targeting the Chinese community, such as raids on work sites with Chinese laborers and asking city bus drivers to report when Chinese-looking passengers got on board. The measures earned a rare rebuke from the Chinese Embassy in Moscow, which complained directly to the Kremlin.”

Litany of Blunders: Treatment of Coronavirus Patient Highlights Russia’s Shortcomings – Moscow Times

“One of the patients who was in the room with Berov, Aslan Subkhankulov, told Baza that medical staff had asked the patients not to tell anyone that they were kept together. Berov also told The Moscow Times that he and the five other patients were allowed to go to the bathroom unsupervised and roam down corridors frequented by other staff and patients. In a video shot by a patient in the hospital viewed by The Moscow Times, a doctor is seen walking down the hallway without protective gear.”

Is Russia lying to WHO on virus data? – Andrew Rettman for EU Observer

“Russia has defended its credibility on coronavirus data, after Belarus said its neighbouring country was "ablaze" with infections - and the EU accused Moscow of other "blatant lies".”

Comment: Read President Lukashenko’s full comments in the Belarus section below. He appears to be warning that Russia is ablaze with panic, not coronavirus cases.

Putin keeps political plan on track despite virus crisis – FT

“Neighbouring Belarus has five times more infections per capita than Russia, and France, which has roughly half Russia’s population, has more than 50 times the number of cases. Belarus president Alexander Lukashenko this week accused Moscow of false data, claiming “all of Russia is ablaze with coronavirus.”

Comment: Read President Lukashenko’s full comments in the Belarus section below. He appears to be warning that Russia is ablaze with panic, not coronavirus cases.

Russia Halts War Games on NATO Borders to Fight Coronavirus – Bloomberg

“More than 10,000 soldiers had begun practicing near Moscow for the May 9 parade on Red Square despite a ban on public gatherings outside, Russia’s Nezavisimaya Gazeta reported last Tuesday, citing unidentified people in the military.”

The US may have postponed its massive European war games, but Russia sure as hell didn't – Task and Purpose

Comment: This article is from March 23rd – the Russian military only canceled its exercises later that day. The United States massively scaled back its Defender-Europe 20 exercises on March 11th. Between the delayed cancelation and the mass gathering of troops on Red Square, it seems that the Russian military has perhaps not taken the coronavirus as seriously as it should have.

Confronting the Challenges of Coronavirus, Russia Sees Its Worldview Vindicated – Dmitri Trenin for Carnegie Moscow

“Moscow has walked a tightrope in managing relations with Beijing, especially after shocking China by closing their shared 4,300-kilometer (2,700-mile) border. Russian officials’ attempts to screen Chinese tourists in Moscow for the coronavirus drew a similarly angry protest from the Chinese Embassy. However, after Russia insulated itself physically and Chinese visitors had departed, Moscow began to extoll China’s response to the virus. Russia has further sided with China in its coronavirus messaging war with the United States, perpetuating Beijing’s claims that the virus is a U.S. biological weapon deployed to stop China’s rise…

Virtually all known cases of the virus in Russia originated in Europe (Italy, Spain, France, Germany, and Austria are among the most popular holiday destinations for Russian travelers).”

Comment: All “known” cases of the virus originated in Europe – would the Russian government publicly announce that Chinese carriers had brought the virus to Russia? Given the harsh crackdowns on Chinese tourists and travel bans, Russian officials appear to have been very concerned that Chinese individuals were a vector into Russia.

Coronavirus cases in Russia rise to 367 – TASS

“The coronavirus infection has been brought to Russia from European countries, the crisis center said.”

2)   The coronavirus in China

Timeline: The early days of China's coronavirus outbreak and cover-up – Axios

Petition urges US gov’t to clarify army lab shutdown as doubts grow over COVID-19’s origin – People’s Daily

“The petition came days before Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian said on Twitter that the lethal virus could have been brought over to Wuhan by the US army. Zhao later retweeted a website link that provided further evidence that the virus originated in the US. The website speculated that the virus had gone from Ft. Detrick to e-cigarettes to Hawaii then to Wuhan.

At a press conference on March 18, China’s chief medical advisor Zhong Nanshan rejected the widely held assertion that the virus originated in Wuhan and slammed such claims as irresponsible. “The epidemic of the novel coronavirus pneumonia indeed took place in China, in Wuhan… but it does not mean its source is in Wuhan,” Zhong said.”

Comment: This rhetoric is profoundly irresponsible. It could lead to war between two nuclear-armed superpowers.

46 new confirmed COVID-19 cases reported on Chinese mainland – People’s Daily

“Chinese health authority said Sunday it received reports of 46 new confirmed COVID-19 cases on the Chinese mainland on Saturday, of which 45 were imported from abroad.”

Comment: Reported figures are not reliable, of course, but don’t be surprised if the Chinese authorities continue to publicly report (low) figures of community transmission. Reporting low levels of community transmission 1) sends a signal to lower-level officials that they won’t be singled out for sharing bad news, which encourages accurate reporting; 2) adds credibility to national-level figures, which is important for China’s domestic and international audience; and 3) ensures that individuals and policymakers continue to take the threat seriously. 

China's Wuhan reports zero increase in COVID-19 cases for 4th day – People’s Daily

China takes countermeasures against restrictive measures on Chinese media agencies in U.S. – People’s Daily

“China on Wednesday announced countermeasures against restrictive measures on Chinese media agencies in the United States, according to an official statement.”

Comment: This could be a direct “countermeasure” – but kicking out foreign media could also foreshadow greater repression amid financial shocks and the potential resumption of coronavirus transmission within mainland China.

3)   Xi and Putin telephone call

Xi vows more cooperation internationally to control rapid spread of disease – People’s Daily

“China vows closer international cooperation with Russia and other countries to control the novel coronavirus pneumonia pandemic, which experts say further demonstrates its vision of building a community with a shared future for mankind. In a phone conversation on Thursday night with his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin, President Xi Jinping said that the epidemic broke out ferociously, and China had to rise to the challenge and respond to it bravely

Xi stressed that at this special moment when both countries are fighting the illness, China and Russia have been supporting each other and cooperating closely, which has demonstrated the high level of China-Russia relations in the new era. Putin said that remarkably effective measures taken by the Chinese government have not only contained the spread of the disease inside China but also made important contributions to safeguarding the health of people in other countries. Russia greatly appreciates and is pleased with China's efforts, he said, adding that China has set a good example for the international community by lending a helping hand to other pandemic-affected countries in a timely manner. What China has done represents a resounding answer to the provocation and stigmatization by a certain country over COVID-19, the Russian president said.

Meanwhile, a certain country that is trying to politicize the pandemic, label the virus and stigmatize China is running into opposition from the global community and such attempts are contemptible, Ruan added.”

Comment: The phone conversation occurred Thursday night but the English-language People’s Daily reported it only on Saturday [the Kremlin and Chinese-language state media reported it earlier in the week]. Note the differences between the three versions, all describing the same telephone conversation. The English-language PD article includes language about a “certain country” – i.e. the United States – while the Kremlin and the PD’s Chinese-language articles do not.

Telephone conversation with President of China Xi Jinping – The Kremlin

“The presidents thoroughly discussed the situation around the coronavirus pandemic, given that Russia and China established close cooperation in fighting the infection from the very outset. The Russian side highly assessed the results achieved by the Chinese leadership and the Chinese people in countering the spread of the disease. Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping spoke in favour of further mutual assistance and deeper cooperation in healthcare and the development of new medicines. In addition, the leaders exchanged opinions on a number of other aspects of promoting friendly Russian-Chinese relations.”

Xi Jinping Holds Telephone Conversation with Russian President Putin – Government of China [Chinese-language]


“Xi Jinping emphasized that during the special moment of fighting the epidemic, China and Russia supported each other, watched and helped each other, and carried out close cooperation, which reflected the high level of Sino-Russian relations in the new era. China-Russia cooperation has a solid foundation and a strong endogenous drive. The two sides should take the China-Russia Year of Science and Technology Innovation as an opportunity to promote cooperation in various fields between the two countries to achieve more results. China firmly supports Russia's important measures to achieve long-term security in the country. Comment: [长治久安] almost certainly references Putin’s plans to extend his rule to 2036. It is believed that under the leadership of President Putin, the Russian people will continue to forge ahead along the development path in line with their national conditions and continue to achieve new achievements.”

Comment: Explicit support for Putin, although that’s a standard feature of PRC state media and not necessarily related to a potential challenge from Sobyanin.

Russia to deport 88 foreigners for violating coronavirus quarantine

 “China’s embassy in Russia has demanded an end to what it said are discriminatory anti-coronavirus measures against Chinese nationals, saying they are damaging relations and alarming Chinese residents of the Russian capital. On Thursday, Moscow Mayor Sergei Sobyanin asked China to respect the measures being taken and urged the Chinese embassy to encourage its citizens in Moscow to comply with the quarantine measures.”

Comment: Putin would have approved a law enforcement action with immense implications for a highly sensitive relationship, right?

4)   The coronavirus and China-Russia relations

The Russian government is trying to contain an anti-PRC backlash and even anti-Chinese racism, but the public health and economic crises have only just begun. Pressure on the relationship will likely build as Russian citizens suffer from the virus. In the short-term, don’t be surprised if the Russian government quietly discourages Chinese nationals from entering the country or if it cracks down on nationalist protests. The long-term effects are uncertain, but COVID-19 poses extraordinary downside risks for the relationship.

Coronavirus: Russia to ban Chinese citizens from entry amid outbreak fears – SCMP

““The entry of all Chinese citizens via Russia’s state frontiers will be suspended from February 20 for work travel, private travel, study and tourism,” said Tatiana Golikova, the deputy prime minister in charge of health, according to agencies. She said the decision was taken “because of the worsening of the epidemic in China and the fact that Chinese nationals are continuing to arrive on Russian territory”.”

Comment: Weak society-to-society ties and mutual ethnic chauvinism are longstanding features of China-Russia relations. Russian authorities predicted, probably correctly, that Chinese individuals in Russia would face hostility and even violence amid coronavirus fears. The Russian authorities, possibly in concert with their Chinese counterparts, may have limited the number of Chinese individuals in Russia to contain the outbreak, but also to prevent any ugly incidents that could have sparked a diplomatic crisis.

China to Russia: End discriminatory coronavirus measures against Chinese – Reuters

“The complaint, detailed in an embassy letter to the city’s authorities and published by Russian newspaper Novaya Gazeta late on Tuesday, deplored what it called “ubiquitous monitoring” of Chinese nationals, including on public transport in Moscow… The Chinese embassy letter followed unconfirmed local media reports that Mosgortrans, which runs Moscow’s vast bus, trolleybus and tram networks, had told drivers to try to identify Chinese passengers and inform police of their presence.”

Comment: Again, monitoring was put in place, at least in part, to protect Chinese nationals and the China-Russia relationship from Russian ethnonationalists. It should not be surprising if Chinese officials indirectly requested monitoring. Regardless of their non-public actions, PRC authorities had to complain publicly about these measures, for domestic purposes.

Death toll from novel coronavirus in China grows by 22 in past day – TASS

“All 22 fatalities were reported in Hubei province, where the outbreak first started.”

Comment: “Where the outbreak first started.”

Russia may become first country to deport Chinese nationals in response to coronavirus – LA Times

Chinese Ambassador to Russia Zhang Hanhui submits credentials to Russian President Putin – People’s Daily [Chinese language]

Comment: Ambassador Zhang replaced Li Hui, who is now Deputy Director at the Foreign Affairs Office of the People’s Government of Beijing Municipality. Interesting that the change took place in early February.

5)   Central Asia

Central Asian will take severe economic hits amid low commodity prices and constrained travel (somewhere between 3-10 million Central Asians work in Russia and send remittances home). Will China step in if there is an economic or security vacuum in Central Asia in the coming months? And how would Russia respond?

Dashboard: Coronavirus in Eurasia – Eurasisanet

Comment: RFE/RL’s Turkmen service is reporting that Turkmenistan sealed off the capital on March 20th without explaining why.

COVID-19: First Uzbek Coronavirus Case Recorded As Kazakhstan Declares State Of Emergency

Comment: Almost every Central Asian country has instituted a state of emergency and closed schools.

Over 570 Russians evacuated from Uzbekistan’s capital – TASS

6)   Belarus

Belarus is very concerned about Putin’s plans on the country. Minsk is trying to pull closer to Beijing and even some Western countries: Belarus and Poland are holding combined military exercises. Belarus is also, for now at least, holding military exercises on its own even after the US and Russia scaled down their own exercises. The country is not protecting itself from COVID-19 and risking suffer severe public health and economic consequences. Assuming that Putin retains power, Belarus’s August electoral event could provide him with opportunities.

Belarus criticizes Russia's decision to close border over coronavirus concerns – Medusa

““For us, what’s biggest (as a responsibility, not as a problem) is the economy. Unfortunately, all these movements in the direction of coronavirus have had a dramatic effect on the economy. It’s gotten to the point that our dear Russia, I’m stressing this, has closed the border with Belarus,” Lukashenko said, arguing that his country is confronting the disease calmly, while “all of Russia is ablaze from coronavirus.””

All Alone, Belarus Plays On – New York Times

Comment: Belarus soccer (or, less correctly, “football”) still going on despite the coronavirus.

'Psychosis'? Lukashenka Shrugs, Opponents Are Appalled By Lack Of COVID-19 Measures In Belarus – RFE/RL

“As quarantines and other restrictive measures are announced almost daily elsewhere in Europe, the authoritarian leader who has ruled Belarus for more than a quarter-century has taken a different approach. It's one that critics, who accuse him of dangerously downplaying the risks ahead of a presidential election in August, say is no approach at all.

"Openly admitting the pandemic, Lukashenka could gain more support, but as a classic autocrat, he thinks that he has no right not to have the crisis under control," said Alesia Rudnik, a Belarusian journalist and analyst based in Sweden.”

The US Defender-20 exercise was mostly called off. Belarus is marching on anyway – Stars and Stripes

“Belarus says it will launch a series of military drills in response to Defender-Europe 20, the U.S.-led exercise that was scaled back to such an extent over coronavirus concerns that even Moscow nixed its own countermaneuvers.”

Belarus suspends postal services to all countries except Russia, China – Belta [Belarussian state media]

“The company explained that airlines that deliver mail from Belarus are canceling more and more flights over coronavirus. Air service in some countries was canceled altogether. Taking this into consideration, Belpochta will receive letters, parcels and EMS packages destined only for China and Russia.”

Breathing masks now made in China-Belarus industrial park Great Stone – Belta [Belarussian state media]

“Due to the current coronavirus situation OOO Assomedica, a company that resides in the industrial park and makes a broad range of medical products, has mastered the production of breathing masks and disposable bacterial viral filters for adults, children, and infants.”

Belarus sends 20t of medical products to China – Belta [Belarussian state media]

“All in all, Belarus shipped 20 tonnes of humanitarian aid to China. The cargo was put together based on China's requests, Healthcare Minister Vladimir Karanik said. “The cargo includes 4.5 tonnes of antibiotics that are most commonly used to treat complications of a viral infection, over 10 tonnes of disinfecting agents for various uses, personal protective equipment for medical staff (gloves, surgical masks, disposable clothing), air decontamination materials. I think this is not the last cargo,” he said.”

21 countries donate medical supplies to China: spokesperson – People’s Daily

“A total of 21 countries and the United Nations Children's Fund have donated epidemic prevention and control supplies to China, a foreign ministry spokesperson said Wednesday. Those countries are the Republic of Korea (ROK), Japan, Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia, Kazakhstan, Pakistan, Germany, Britain, France, Italy, Hungary, Belarus, Turkey, Iran, the United Arab Emirates, Algeria, Egypt, Australia, New Zealand, as well as Trinidad and Tobago, spokesperson Hua Chunying said at an online press briefing.”

Comment: Belarus but not Russia on this list (although Belarussian planes transited Russian airspace and made stops in Siberia). That Belarus, but not Russia, sent aid to China demonstrates how important Beijing is to Minsk as it seeks to maintain autonomy from Moscow.

Cui Qiming, Ambassador to Belarus, publishes a signed article "China will defeat the new crown pneumonia epidemic" in mainstream media in Belarus – PRC Foreign Ministry  [Chinese Language]


“[Chinese Ambassador to Belarus] Cui said that after the epidemic, Belarus extended a helping hand to China to provide material and moral support, and we are grateful. This reflects the high level of comprehensive strategic partnership of mutual trust and win-win cooperation between China and Belarus. China will continue to strengthen communication with the international community, including Belarus, and jointly win the fight against the epidemic.”

Cui Qiming, Ambassador to Belarus, Meets with Lieutenant General Lavkov, New State Secretary of the Security Council – PRC Foreign Ministry [Chinese Language]


“With the common concern and promotion of President Xi Jinping and President Lukashenko, the comprehensive strategic partnership of mutual trust and win-win cooperation between China and Belarus has maintained a high and stable operation and is at the best period in history. China will work with Belarus to implement the important consensus reached by the heads of state of the two countries and promote the continuous development of China-Belarus relations.”

Ambassador Cui Qiming Attends the Ceremony to Celebrate the 28th Anniversary of the Establishment of Diplomatic Relations between China and Belarus – Chinese Embassy in Belarus [Chinese language]


"Ambassador Cui Qiming stated in his speech that China and Belarus are good friends and good partners. In recent years, under the strategic leadership and personal promotion of the heads of state of the two countries, relations between the two countries have always maintained a high and stable operation and are at the best level in history."

Comment: Chinese diplomats also use the “relations are at their best level in history” formulation when discussing Russia.

Belarus, Poland to stage joint air force, air defense exercise on 25 March – Belta [Belarussian state media]

“The exercise will allow Belarusian and Polish army units to practice working together in response to incidents in the airspace. The exercise will make officers of command stations more prepared for working together in response to acts of terrorism in the air. The exercise was planned by Belarus and Poland in November 2019 and added to the international military cooperation plan for 2020.”

Comment: Was a little surprised to see this. I don’t see any press reports by Poland calling off the exercise.

Poland says could supply Belarus with oil if pipeline upgraded – Reuters

7)   China in Europe

Just as it does with ASEAN, the PRC is trying to deal with EU countries on an individual basis. Somewhat surprising since the EU is so integral to the success or failure of the Chinese economy.

China offers global help in combating COVID-19 – People’s Daily

“On behalf of the Chinese government and people, Xi extended sincere sympathies to the British government and people over their fight against the coronavirus disease. Upon request, he introduced China's epidemic prevention and control measures. Xi stressed that China hopes that Britain will enhance coordination with China to minimize the risk of the epidemic's spread while ensuring necessary flow of people and trade.

China stands ready to work with France to push for closer cooperation within multilateral frameworks, joint control of COVID-19 and better global health governance, Chinese President Xi Jinping said Monday night in a phone conversation with his French counterpart, Emmanuel Macron…

The two heads of state also agreed to maintain close communication and promote bilateral exchanges and cooperation in various fields, so as to ensure continuous development of China-France relations at a high level, and maintain the stability of China-France as well as China-Europe industrial chains and supply chains.”

Comment: The words “European Union” don’t appear in this article.

Xi calls for building community of common health for mankind – People’s Daily

“Chinese President Xi Jinping said China stands ready to work with France to boost international cooperation in epidemic prevention and control and build a community of common health for mankind.”

Comment: Expect to see “community of common health for mankind” again. Also note there’s no mention of France-China cooperation under the EU framework in this article.

EU fires warning shot at China in coronavirus battle of the narratives – SCMP

“In an unusual choice of language, the bloc’s foreign policy chief Josep Borrell called on EU countries to stand ready for a “struggle for influence” in a “global battle of narratives”.”

Global Times says coronavirus could come from Italy

European countries keen to embrace Chinese 5G tech – People’s Daily

8)   South Asia

As India-China relations appear headed for much sharper tensions amid the coronavirus, the RIC strategic triangle is adjusting. Expect a cooler India-Russia relationship, at least for as long as Putin is in power.

Growing Russia-India-China tensions: Splits in the RIC strategic triangle? – Rajeswari Pillai Rajagopalan for Observer Research Foundation

“Even though Russia has remained an old friend for India, New Delhi seems to realize that Moscow is increasingly under stress to follow China’s dictates. In January this year, Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov was openly opposing the Indo-Pacific concept, that too at the Raisina Dialogue.

Even on issues such as the Jammu and Kashmir, which China raised at the UN Security Council, Russia preferred taking a middle position, not supporting India’s stand entirely for fear of offending China. It seems that while relations with India are important but for Moscow, its ties with Beijing are far more important and takes precedence over every other relationship.”

Coronavirus is Indeed Wuhan Virus — Don’t Give China a Clean Chit – Seema Sirohi for The Quint

“The whole world – repeat the whole world – is suffering because China caused a global pandemic. It hid the facts in the early stages, destroyed samples, silenced its doctors who sounded the alarm, refused to share information with other countries in time and used its clout in the World Health Organisation to underplay the human-to-human transmission.

The science behind the pandemic points directly to the miserable conditions in the Chinese “wet markets” or live animal markets where traditional livestock – seafood and poultry – are butchered and sold alongside exotic species in unsanitary conditions, creating “zoonotic diseases” when viruses from animals can jump to humans. And jumped they have at least twice in this century.”

Comment: There are hundreds of millions of vegetarians in India. This factor shouldn’t be underestimated in India’s cultural and political response to a virus originating from Wuhan’s wet markets.

A Made-in-China Pandemic – Brahma Chellaney for Project Syndicate

#Covid19: Made in China pandemic – Samir Saran for Observer Research Foundation

“Ever since he assumed the post of General Secretary of the Communist Party of China, Xi Jinping has repeatedly announced the Middle Kingdom’s intention to occupy a position of global influence by the middle of the century. Over the past eight years, China has steadily manouevered itself into leadership positions in international institutions, has deepened its stranglehold over global supply chains and has animated old and new geopolitical conflicts. The outbreak of the novel coronavirus in Wuhan and China’s domestic and international response to this pandemic has forced the world to confront the grim realities of Chinese leadership.

Research indicates that had China taken proactive measures to contain and suppress the pandemic earlier in December 2019, the number of #Covid19 cases could have been mitigated by up to 95 per cent. We now know that the opposite happened: local authorities in China suppressed information about the outbreak, even destroying proof of the virus sometime in December.

Like the proverbial Fifth Horseman who is hard to please, past experience informs us, however, that aid and largesse from China is highly contingent on limiting criticism of China and refraining from trying to hold it accountable, leave alone answerable for its many sins of omission and commission. The Belt and Road formula has gone viral – literally.

To put this in context of the Covid19 outbreak, China’s ambassador to the Philippines threatened to retaliate by cutting imports if Manila did not lift its travel ban in early-February, despite an overwhelming global consensus that restricting travel would contain the spread of the virus. In March, a Xinhua editorial loudly hinted that China may withhold life-saving medical supply chain ingredients from the US amidst the deadly outbreak should political tensions rise.”

Comment: Saran’s article is worth reading in its entirety. The best piece I’ve read in weeks.

Time tested friends: Pakistani president sets new milestone with visit to China during epidemic – Zamir Ahmed Awan for People’s Daily

“The visit by the “Iron brother” president was very important and boosts morale and diplomatic support for China. It will further strengthen the existing bond of friendship and may open new avenues of time-tested friendship. Pakistan was one of the few countries that did not evacuate its nationals from China. It restored flights after 3 days of temporary suspension. Pakistan extended its cooperation and gave medical supplies to assist China.”

1st batch of China-aid locust control goods arrives in Pakistan – People’s Daily

“The first batch of locust control goods provided by China, including 50,000 liters of malathion and 14 air-powered high-efficiency remote sprayers, reached Karachi in southern Pakistan Monday.

Pakistan has imposed a national emergency over the locust attack which local media said is the worst in 27 years in the country. The locust outbreak has damaged cotton, wheat and corn plants, posing severe threats to agriculture and food security of Pakistan.”

Comment: There have been many Pakistan-related articles in the People’s Daily in the past two months

This year was always going to be incredibly uncertain and dangerous. The coronavirus only makes it worse. Stay safe out there.

Apologies for the sparse newsletter updates. Life has been busy. Thanks for reading.

Until next time,

Joe Webster

The China-Russia Report is an independent, nonpartisan weekly newsletter covering political, economic, and security affairs within and between China and Russia. All articles, comments, op-eds, etc represent only the personal opinion of the author(s) and do not necessarily represent the position(s) of The China-Russia Report.