TOOMAS ALATALU Key takeaways from the Kremlin's new power distribution and Putin's visit to China

Toomas Alatalu
, political scientist
Toomas Alatalu, political scientist.
Toomas Alatalu, political scientist. Photo: Mihkel Maripuu
  • Xi Jinping is the first to make a statement, mentioning the conflict in Gaza before any other war.
  • Russia declares Taiwan as part of China.
  • China announces support for «Russia’s efforts to ensure its territorial integrity».

Nikolai Patrushev’s reassignment to an advisory role is essentially a demotion, hardly compensated by his son Dmitry's promotion from agriculture minister to deputy prime minister. It is expected that the country’s leadership will increasingly shift to Moscow's IT experts and managers, political scientist Toomas Alatalu says in his analysis.

President Putin's visit to Beijing and the messages delivered are now behind us, and it is time to reflect calmly on it. Since both leaders praised each other for the swift visit, it is worth noting that Xi Jinping was re-elected as general secretary of the Chinese Communist Party on October 23, 2022, the first person in China's history to do so three times. He became head of state on March 10, 2023, and ten days later he was in Moscow. Vladimir Putin took the presidential oath for the fifth time on May 7 and was in Beijing by May 16, making his visit quicker.

In Asia, numbers are highly valued, and almost everyone Putin met in China applauded his election victory, which in numbers—over 77 million votes—is certainly larger than the 2,952 votes cast by the vast Chinese parliament when it unanimously elected Xi Jinping. Numbers make an impression in Asia.

Regarding the new Russian government, it is worth noting that there were six major departures—ministers of energy, agriculture, industry, transport, sports, and defense. Two of these individuals remain in high circles, but let us admit—it is a significant overhaul among all the key ministers. This signals a new direction. Prime Minister Mikhail Mishustin remains in his role, having had the authority to select ministers since January 2020 and also doing so now.

Moreover, the defense minister's position, the appointment of which is within the president’s authority, went to Mishustin's man, Andrey Belousov, whom Putin had previously appointed as acting prime minister when Mishustin contracted COVID-19. Among the new ministers, Minister of Industry and Trade Anton Alikhanov stands out; he was appointed governor of the Kaliningrad region at age 30 in 2016 and has now been brought back to Moscow. This trio and Mishustin's influence on Putin's decisions indicate a strengthening of Moscow's administrative apparatus.

Alikhanov’s roots are from a mixed family in Abkhazia, Mishustin’s father, Vladimir Moiseevich, from Belarus, was a member of the Komsomol Central Committee, and Belousov's father's name, Rem, suggests loyalty to the regime. Notably, on May 15, Putin mentioned in two meetings that Russia's current military spending is 8 percent, whereas in 1985–1986, it was 13 percent.

It is well-known that this overspending is considered the main cause of the Soviet Union's collapse— which is clearly something that is on Putin's mind!

It is worth noting that Shoigu, in addition to being the secretary of the Security Council, is now also the new head of the military-industrial complex committee. When meeting with military district leaders, Putin confirmed that both Belousov and Shoigu worked on drone development in their previous roles. This means they had worked together, and Putin hoped that this collaboration would continue.

As for Putin's longtime associates from his St. Petersburg days, Nikolai Patrushev's advisory role is indeed a demotion, unlikely to be offset by his son Dmitry’s promotion from agriculture minister to deputy prime minister. Nor is it compensated by bringing Putin's former bodyguard, Alexey Dyumin, from his role as governor of Tula region, which is heavily involved in the arms industry, to the Kremlin alongside Patrushev Sr. This suggests that the country's leadership will largely shift to Moscow's IT professionals and managers.

With his team in place, Putin headed to Beijing

At home, he told his generals that the aggression that started in 2014 was over a «border area», where Russians were allegedly mistreated. This was a new term—journalists latched onto it, and in Harbin (May 17), Putin confirmed there were no plans to capture Kharkiv, but the more significant the advancements in the border area, the better the conditions for making peace.

In Beijing, Xi Jinping was the first to make a statement, mentioning the conflict in Gaza before any other war, and underscoring that the solution can only be two states. It is worth noting that just ten days earlier, Hamas and Fatah leaders met in Beijing. Next, while discussing the Ukraine crisis, he stated China's position (documents signed in Beijing are interesting because they contain both Chinese, Russian, and joint positions), which included «appropriate mutual support», «respect for the territorial integrity of all countries», and the need to consider «reasonable concerns for ensuring security».

This differs from the Kremlin's narrative of considering its legitimate interests. Interestingly, when Putin spoke next, he said he would discuss the Ukraine issue in a closed meeting. This indicated a disconnect. In Harbin, he confirmed that such a discussion indeed occurred, but the interim status has to be deciphered from the pre-written joint statement of the two leaders.

Ukraine and nuclear weapons

The first part of the joint statement declares that Taiwan is part of China. China, in turn, expresses support for «Russia's efforts to ensure its territorial integrity?!»

The following text also creates confusion, promising to ensure the immutability and fair treatment of the outcomes of World War II. It implies the need for «correct historical education» and the «truthful interpretation of the history of the world war». The exact meaning of this remains unclear.

The second part of the joint statement expresses opposition to a newly initiated process – the freezing and potential takeover of the aggressor state's assets (without using the word «aggressor»). This is already being proclaimed as a violation of various laws. Essentially, it can be said that even before the gavel fell at Toompea, Putin and Xi Jinping, hiding behind the Great Wall of China, had already rejected Estonia's message.

Ukraine is discussed in the ninth part of the joint statement. Russia positively acknowledges China's objective and unbiased stance. Together, they believe it is necessary to eliminate the root causes of the conflict and uphold the indivisibility of security, considering the legitimate interests and concerns of all countries in the security domain. This almost sounds like a traditional note from Moscow.

In Harbin, Russian journalists attempted to clarify whether China would participate in the peace conference in Switzerland, but to no avail.

Finally, it should be noted that this document, too, reiterated the January 3, 2022, declaration by five nuclear-armed states that they would exclude the use of nuclear weapons. Since that moment, it has been included in all major bilateral and multilateral declarations as a kind of security guarantee for the world's peoples – we may be in conflict, but we promise not to use nuclear weapons.