Alexander Wooley is a writer, and a director at AidData, an international development research lab at William & Mary’s Global Research Institute.
For years, China’s pitch to the world’s developing countries has been that it is uniquely qualified to lead a world order alternative to that of the West, in large part because China itself was once desperately poor, exploited and subject to colonial depredation.
In a startling development, Russia has decided that this is its story too. It is anti-imperial, anti-colonial, a victim – a line that it is touting currently as it courts a number of countries in sub-Saharan Africa. Previously, at the Sept. 30, 2022 Kremlin ceremony announcing the annexation of four Ukrainian territories, Vladimir Putin, through verbal sleight of hand, spoke of Western colonialism 13 times in his 37-minute speech.
Whether developed independently in Moscow or as a result of consultation with Beijing, it is one indicator of how the war in Ukraine and its ramifications globally have tightened and quickened the embrace of Russia and China. Agreeing that the West is a geopolitical, economic and moral foe, they are tag-teaming within a single talking-point bloc for everyone else in the world.
This anti-colonial stand must come as a shock to nations, races, ethnicities and religions long under the Russian Empire, Soviet Union or Warsaw Pact. But Russia is in fact performing two sets of plagiaristic wordplay, the likes of which would make ChatGPT blush with shame: one of China’s current narrative, the other a refresh of Russia’s own time-honoured imitation and inversion of the language used by the Western-led international order – what scholars Gregorio Bettiza and David Lewis in 2020 called “liberal mimicry.”
Russia has a long history of liberal parody – from last year’s “referenda” in Donetsk and Luhansk, to its “peacekeeping” mission in 2008 against Georgia, which they initially tried to pitch internationally as an effort to prevent “genocide.” After 9/11, the Kremlin switched narratives and declared its brutal, long-running war in Chechnya was now only Russia doing its part in the Global War on Terror – a rhetorical pivot largely accepted by the West. Previously, Russia had engaged in “simulative peacekeeping” in Moldova (in 1992), Tajikistan (in 1993), South Ossetia (in 1992) and Abkhazia (in 1993).
These days Russian diplomats and businesspeople are criss-crossing Africa, hand in hand with a ramped-up media and propaganda effort, and Wagner troops on the ground. China is providing practical help: As several outlets have reported, Chinese media has been helping rebroadcast Russian propaganda content across Africa, while the broadcaster RT (formerly Russia Today) has established its own hub in South Africa. A pro-Russian social-media campaign called Russosphere, organized by a Belgian with connections to the Wagner Group, is attempting to move public opinion in several African countries away from the colonizers from Europe and the U.S. and toward the Kremlin.
Is it working? We’ve seen the photos of young men in Burkina Faso waving the Russian flag, of Foreign Affairs Minister Sergey Lavrov being warmly greeted in South Africa. The Russian, Chinese and South African navies exercised together at sea earlier this year, and, as was recently reported, the South African government is planning to launch a formal inquiry as to whether arms were covertly shipped to Russia several months ago.
China is also doing well: In Sierra Leone, of the two main political parties, one – the APC – is closely linked to China, going so far as to describe its supporters as “Black Chinese.” Beijing has successfully insinuated itself into the political life of the country.
This is not the first time that Russia and China have teamed up. “Our relationship can be described as: nine out of 10 fingers of yours and ours are quite the same with only one finger differing,” Mao Zedong said to Soviet ambassador Pavel Yudin in 1958.
Throughout the 1950s the two countries were united in promoting – cringeworthy and naive as it may seem now – world communism. Then, as now, it was framed as two choices, with Russia and China claiming to offer an alternative to capitalism and exploitation. “Sitting on the fence will not do, nor is there a third road,” Mao said. The partnership was enshrined in the 1950 Sino-Soviet Treaty of Friendship, Alliance and Mutual Assistance across security, aid and economic co-operation. Fast forward 60-plus years, and the new partnership comprises a world view that races toward rather than combats capitalism and luxury goods, though its own billionaires live increasingly in gilded cages, at the pleasure of neo-emperors. Spread the socialist ideology and help the proletariat to revolt? Not so much.
Unlike in the 1950s, Russia and China are no longer offering principled (if faulty) ideological alternatives and a rosy future. They’ve accepted that the Western narrative is dominant, so what’s an unhappy power to do but borrow from the vocabulary to disrupt and invert the system? Gone are the days when Russia and China deployed the dense language of Marx, Engels and Lenin. Now they swipe and distort Raphael Lemkin, Lester Pearson, Edward Said and Kofi Annan.
Russia has been afforded the linguistic freedom to manoeuvre by the West. Sometimes the mimicry is not just of liberalism, but of leftists. The academic movement called “post-colonialism,” the notion that mainly Western Europeans and the U.S., from the 1500s through the wave of countries obtaining their independence in the mid-20th century, were colonial, means that Russia is off the hook, never mind its current genocide and attempts at recolonization of Ukraine. There is also the legacy soft spot that Western academics always had for the Soviet Union’s imperialist project, even during its worst excesses. Poles, for example, rarely are included in academic discussions about those colonized, despite 123 years (1795-1918) under a trio of repressive foreign empires (including Russia). Clearly, there are astute people in the Kremlin who subscribe to the latest Western academic journals. (Poland’s current conservative government also throws around the colonial term, but to refer to the EU and its supposedly interfering role in the country’s affairs.)
But China and Russia have a little something for (and from) the right too. Like populists in the U.S. and Europe, they too want to upend things, reject the liberal international order, invalidate multilateral institutions. At the same time, China and Russia offer nation-states “stability” – and they can cite their own regimes as excellent examples. Or that of the Assad regime in Syria, kept in place in part through Russian support. Class struggle? No thank you. No matter whether Moscow, Beijing or Bangui, efforts are directed at regime maintenance and entrenchment. “Stable democracy” is an oxymoron to Russian and Chinese leaderships. For them, democracies mean chaos. The desire for a contagion of socialist revolutions spreading around the world – once the ardent desire of the USSR and the PRC – seems diametrically antithetical to what each country now stands for, though both countries are not immune from invoking the supposed glory days of Soviet and Maoist times.
Russia and China portray the very public messiness of democracy as a weakness, a sign of decline. By extension, high-stakes and chaotic debates in the West about words and language are seen as opportunities to be capitalized on.
As scholars point out, misusing words is done in part to mock the original meaning of the terms, and the debate itself. Thus “self-determination” might be pitched as a social construct in the finest tradition of postmodern cultural studies – Russia just happens to have a different but valid view of what it means in Donetsk and Luhansk and Crimea. Or, since those on the right in the West view facts as inherently fuzzy, they will surely appreciate that “peacekeeping” is in the eye of the beholder, that there can be multiple realities. As Erna Burai puts it, “the Russian recycling of Western language has thus exposed the Western normative discourse at its most ‘literary’: as one possible, socially constructed and validated reality-making script which can potentially be exposed and delegitimised.”
Take “Responsibility to Protect,” a wonkish term usually shortened to “R2P,” which seeks to prevent future genocide, war crimes and ethnic cleansing. It arose from the anguished international self-examination after the atrocities of Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia during the 1990s, and was adopted by the UN in 2005. R2P as an idealistic principle means the responsibility to protect any population under threat, allowing outside intervention to do so. But the Russian misapplication has been used as a pretext to invade, for example Georgia and Ukraine. R2P becomes a new arrow in the “false flag” quiver. As opposed to a responsibility to protect any group facing extermination, Russia uses R2P to protect only Russians from supposed threats. There’s no reason why Russia couldn’t use the same logic, and cover, to march into a Kazakhstan, one of the Baltics, Moldova, or to save the more than a million ethnic Russians under dire threat of genocide in Germany.
Then as now, most of the world’s developing countries do not want to have to pick a side. And unsurprisingly, the anti-colonial, victim line plays less successfully the closer one reverts, geographically, to Mother Russia or the Chinese mainland.
Russia is a declining power, offering mainly cheap energy, arms and armed men. As its various emissaries travel across Africa, they try to stoke memories of supporting the African National Congress during apartheid, as well as leftist movements and regimes worldwide during the Cold War. These reminiscences are as material or applicable a benefit today as a college student proudly wearing a Che Guevara T-shirt.
China on the other hand, with its immense economic, trade, diplomatic and military power, is potentially playing with fire by wedding itself to the anti-colonial language, its claims to global South-South solidarity. It must thread a needle. Its value proposition to the world’s developing and non-aligned countries is that it is disrupting the liberal international order of the past few centuries, in which it too suffered. But almost from the start of its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) a decade ago, China has furiously batted away charges that it is a version of neo-colonialism. Considering its failure to condemn Russia for its attempt to recolonize Ukraine, its takeover of swaths of land and infrastructure in countries around the world, its search for possible overseas military basing opportunities, Beijing will encounter increasing difficulty in maintaining the narrative.
Russia is obliged to go further afield because of its near-pariah status among most Western countries and, ironically, a self-perception that it is losing influence closer to home – to China. Moscow has watched with alarm as the BRI has successfully courted, for example, the countries of Central Asia, once considered Russia’s backyard. China has provided valuable infrastructure, trade deals and people-to-people exchanges, while Russia has been focused elsewhere. The China-Russia rapprochement may not be long-lived.