The recent discussions and agreement between Russia and China on Ukraine brought back memories of the infamous Stalin-Hitler pact of 1939, when the Russian leader was duped into supporting Hitler. Yet a year or so later in 1941 the massive Nazi Barbarossa invasion of the Soviet Union was launched. Russia still bears the traumatic scars of that conflict.
The determined efforts by China to suppress any autonomy in Hong Kong, originally a Treaty Port seized by the British in 1860, brought the last remaining such port into focus. Vladivostok, Russia’s only yearlong ice-free port on the Pacific Ocean, also used to be part of China under the Qing Dynasty.
Vladivostok was originally known in Chinese as Haishenwai. In 1860 under the so-called Unequal Treaties, where industrialised countries demanded trading ports from a weakened China, the Russian Empire seized Haishenwai, and then re-named Vladivostok.
Much of Siberia had also been gradually seized by the Russian Empire, previously viewed as Outer Mongolia by the Chinese Empire and regarded as part of its fiefdom.
The twentieth century history of Russia was marked by misjudgements. Extending Russian rule to the Pacific Ocean eventually revealed the innate weakness of its Empire. In 1904-1905, they lost a conflict with Japan that began when the Imperial Japanese Navy launched a surprise attack on the Russian Eastern Fleet in Port Arthur.
Similarly in 1941, Nazi Germany launched a massive surprise invasion on the Soviet Union. The Russian leader, Josef Stalin, initially did not believe it, and was totally unprepared.
In more recent years concerted pressure by China to claim sovereignty over areas that had been historically within the influence of the Chinese Empire, leaves Vladivostok/ Haishenwai as the last remaining outpost.
Vladimir Putin has left Vladivostok, and Eastern Siberia with its rich resources, vulnerable, by stripping the Far Eastern Russia of troops and equipment, in order to threaten Ukraine.
Russia’s limited infrastructure and vast size makes switching military resources back to the Far East very difficult. In 1905 the Russian Tsar sent its Baltic naval fleet 18,000 nautical miles to the Far East only for the force to be largely destroyed in battle.
Russia is the largest and longest country in the world. This gives it rich mineral resources but also means it is uniquely vulnerable. Moving military resources from Europe across to the Far East some 5,600 miles/9000 km – tanks, troop carriers, artillery etc would be very time consuming. The nightmare of military pressure from each end of Russia, with limited infrastructure and extremely lengthy supply lines, makes defence very problematic.
Of course, it is completely in China’s interest to encourage Russia to concentrate its military resources on the borders of the Ukraine…But is it in the best interests of Russia?
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