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Did China influence Putin's change of tack?

Aureliusz M. Pedziwol
September 24, 2022

Former Putin adviser Andrei Illarionov, speaking with DW, said it was likely Chinese President Xi Jinping and not Ukraine's counteroffensive that pushed the Russian president to make his recent announcements.

Russian President Vladimir Putin (left) and Chinese President Xi Jinping (2nd from right) in Samarkand on September 16, 2022
Putin (left) and Xi Jinping (second from right) met at a leaders' summit in Samarkand, Uzbekistan, on September 16Image: Sergei Bobylyov/Sputnik/AFP

DW: What is your impression of the televised speech made by Russian President Vladimir Putin on September 21?

Andrei Illarionov: We need to understand why he made that speech, why he made his decision on mobilization, on [so-called] "referendums" in the four occupied regions of Ukraine, why he once again started to threaten to use nuclear weapons. All these decisions were announced within the space of three days, between September 19 and 21. All these decisions go against the policy Putin has been pursuing thus far, and against his previously known plans.

For example, referendums were expected to be held either at the end of this year or next year. All of a sudden, the Kremlin has given orders that they be held right away, within the space of just a few days: from September 23 to 27. This is a sham even by Kremlin standards. This is a sham even by the standards of the so-called Crimea referendum in 2014. We need to find an explanation for all these decisions.

A Russian soldier salutes as he passes the review stand during the Victory Day military parade in Moscow in May 2022
Putin ordered a partial mobilization of reservists on September 21, just days after the summitImage: Mikhail Metzel/Kremlin Pool/Planet Pix/ ZUMAPRESS.com/picture alliance

Do you think these decisions are a sign of panic in the Kremlin?

I don't see much panic over there. Panic because of what?

Because of the Ukrainian counteroffensive in Kharkiv?

It doesn't look like the Ukrainian counteroffensive in Kharkiv oblast is the cause of any changes in Putin's decisions and way of thinking. I have a different feeling. All those decisions were announced within the space of three days, between September 19 and 21. It means that those decisions were made by the Kremlin at least one or two days before that, meaning on September 17 and 18 . What happened on those dates?

Russian President Vladimir Putin gestures during his televised address to the Russian nation on September 21, 2022
During his televised address on September 21, Putin seemed to make a veiled reference to the use of nuclear weaponsImage: Russian Presidential Press Service/AP Photo/picture alliance

It looks like the most important event was Mr. Putin's return to Moscow from the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) summit in Samarkand. It seems that Putin had some conversations there that forced him to make all those decisions.

The only meaningful person who could have such a conversation with Putin is Chairman Xi. So Xi seems to have told Putin something that forced Putin to reverse his attitudes towards the war, to radically change his previous plans for "referendums," for mobilization and for nuclear blackmail.

Can you guess what Xi said to Putin?

We don't know. But based on some leaks and on their body language, I would not exclude the possibility that Xi suggested to his junior partner to finish his business against Ukraine as soon as possible — for example, before the National Congress of the Chinese Communist Party in October — and not with Putin's defeat. The fact that Russia has been waging war for seven months and has not been victorious is an embarrassment to Xi and makes him look weak before the most important event in his life. But Xi cannot allow himself to look weak.

Economist and former Putin advisor Andrei Illarionov at the Economic Forum in Karpacz, Poland, September 7, 2022
Illarionov describes the so-called 'referendums' in parts of occupied Ukraine as 'a sham even by Kremlin standards'Image: Aureliusz M. Pędziwol

Returning to Putin's speech on Wednesday, what will partial mobilization in Russia mean for the course of the war and for Russia itself? Do you think that it is evidence of the failure of Putin's Russia in this war?

This decision is a clear sign of a radical change in the strategy Putin has been pursuing for several months. Before Samarkand, Putin was ready to continue a long-term war of attrition — for years if necessary. The decisions of the last few days mean that his strategy has been radically changed. These are not signs of his weakness or defeat; these are signs of his dependence on Xi.

How many soldiers will Russia be able to mobilize, arm, supply and put on the front line in Ukraine? Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu is talking about 300,000, but the Russian army can allegedly count on more than 20 million reservists.

Officially, Russia has mobilization reserves of 18 million. Only 10% of this is 1.8 million, so figures like 1 million, which have appeared in some publications, or even the 300,000 announced by Shoigu, seem realistic. Those mobilized people certainly won't be equipped with the most perfect, high-quality, modern weapons, but there are enough outdated weapons for millions of mobilized personnel.

There have been reports of protests in many Russian cities. More than 1,300 people have been detained by the police. Do these protests have any chance of success? Will these new decisions increase resistance to war within the Russian population?

I don't think so.

Police officers detain a woman in Moscow on September 21, 2022, following calls to protest against the partial mobilization announced by President Vladimir Putin
After Putin's announcement of the mobilization of military reservists, protests erupted across Russia, like here in MoscowImage: Alexander Nemenov/AFP

Not at all?

Many people outside Russia keep forgetting that this is a totalitarian regime. No totalitarian regime has been removed, destroyed or even changed by peaceful protests. Not a single one in the history of humanity.

In his address to the United Nations General Assembly this week, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said that Ukraine will soon present a proposal for the creation of a special tribunal to try Russia. Is that a good idea? Or is there a risk that it would make Putin dig in his heels even more?

I think it is a right step. But Putin himself does not care about such statements. He is much more attentive to voices not from New York, but from Beijing.

What is the chance that Putin will be finished in this way?

Sooner or later Putin will be defeated. We just don't know when and what the price will be.

Russian economist Andrei Illarionov (born 1961) was senior policy adviser to Russian President Vladimir Putin from 2000 to 2005. On December 21, 2005, Illarionov declared, "This year, Russia has become a different country. It is no longer a democratic country. It is no longer a free country." Illarionov was one of the first 34 signatories to the online anti-Putin manifesto "Putin must go," which was published on March 10, 2010. Illarionov has been a senior fellow at the Washington-based think tank Center for Security Policy since April 2021.

Edited by: Rüdiger Rossig and Aingeal Flanagan

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