Russia’s nightmare – loss of Far East

April 24, 2024 22:23

Sipping beer, an official of the city government in Harbin in northeast China was asked if and when his country would reclaim its lost territories in the Russian Far East the Tsar seized 160 years ago.
“No, no, that is all settled now,” he said. “We have signed a border agreement with Russia and resolved this issue.” But an hour and several beers later, he said: “of course the land belongs to us. It has a population of just eight million and 100 million live in our three Northeast provinces. It is we Chinese who drive the economic growth there now.”

Under the Convention of Beijing on November 14 1860, the Qing government ceded to Russia 910,000 square kilometres of its territory – all the land north of the Amur river and east of the Ussuri river. Tsarist Russia obtained all this without firing a single shot.

By contrast, Hong Kong has a land area of 1,100 square km and Macao 33 square km. In terms of “imperialist crimes” against China, that of Russia was greatly more serious than those of Britain and Portugal.

In 1872, the Tsar built the port city of Vladivostok as his main Imperial Russian Navy base. In the 1880s and 1890s, the trans-Siberian railway linked it and the Far East to European Russia. The Tsar and the Communist governments who followed him encouraged Slavs to settle in the region. But cold winters and remoteness deterred most from going.

Since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, the population has been decreasing, with a fall in subsidies from Moscow for state enterprises. In 2023, it reached 7.87 million, down from 8.32 million in 2011. China’s three northeast provinces have a population of 107 million.

Between 2008 and 2014, Russian officers drew up war games for a possible Chinese invasion of its Far East. Russia keeps nuclear weapons in the region.

“Russia is continuing to reinforce and exercise its nuclear-capable missiles in the Far East near its border with China,” said William Alberque, director of strategy, technology and arms control at the International Institute for Strategic Studies. “A lot of these systems only have the range to strike China.”

Such a conflict seems unthinkable at the present, because of the close “without limits” friendship between Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping and joint exercises between the militaries of the two countries.

But the nightmare for the Russian military is a defeat in its invasion of Ukraine or a war that lasts for several years.

According to Ukraine, Russia had lost 442,880 soldiers up to the end of March this year. Western estimates put the figure around 350,000. Russia’s shortage of men is so severe that it has sent more than 100,000 prison convicts to the front. Its prison population fell from 420,000 before the invasion to 266,000 in October, Deputy Justice Minister Vsevolod Vukolov said that month.

Seizing more land, as demanded by Putin, against Ukrainian forces that are well armed in defensive positions and highly motivated will require the loss of tens of thousands more soldiers and of armed vehicles. In February, the International Institute for Strategic Studies put the Russian losses of these vehicles at 8,800 since the start of the war.

The success of the Bolshevik revolution in October 1917 owed much to a similar catastrophic war in the west, against the well-armed German forces. By the third year, Russian soldiers were enraged at what they saw was a pointless war fought for the benefit of one man – Tsar Nicholas II. They mutinied and killed their officers. Residents of major Russian cities protested in the streets against food shortages and rising prices.

After seizing power, Vladimir Lenin in March 1918 signed the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk (now in Belarus) with Germany and its allies. It gave up control of Ukraine, Poland, Belarus, Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia and two provinces in the Caucasus. Lenin was willing to make these enormous sacrifices to end the war and save his armed forces to use against enemies at home.

In Ukraine today we are not there yet. In videos from the front line, Russian soldiers complain about the lack of equipment, arms and support and of commanders who give them absurd orders. Those who try to escape or retreat from the front line are shot dead or arrested and thrown into pits in the grounds for days at a time, like animals.

Severe censorship and the security forces prevent an organised opposition at home. Anecdotal evidence has shown some members of the ruling elite eager to end the war and replace Putin. But it is impossible to know the strength and resources of such an opposition.

For now, then, China has no chance to retake its lost lands. But that day may be coming closer.

A Hong Kong-based writer, teacher and speaker.