Protests in China and Iran Pose Problems for Russia’s Ukraine Invasion

November 29, 2022Nolan Peterson
Iran's Ali Khamenei receives China's Xi Jinping, China and Iran

Xi Jinping, the Paramount leader of China (CCP General Secretary) and his entourage met with Ali Khamenei, the Supreme Leader of Iran on Jan. 23, 2016. Photo via official website of Ali Khamenei, Supreme leader of Iran.

Regime-challenging protests in China and Iran threaten to become a problem for Moscow’s war against Ukraine. With its invasion on the ropes after Kyiv’s recent counteroffensives, and with two of its patron states now facing unprecedented domestic instability, Moscow’s already limited options for military and economic lifelines may be narrowing even more.

“The ongoing civil unrest in both autocratic Iran and China has to deeply trouble the Kremlin that has few global partners of consequence,” Peter Zwack, a retired US Army brigadier general who served as the US senior defense official and attaché to the Russian Federation, told Coffee or Die Magazine.

China’s harsh COVID-19 restrictions have sparked protests nationwide, creating the most serious challenge to President Xi Jinping’s authority since he took power in 2013. Crowds have gathered across China to challenge China’s “zero-COVID” policy, which many protesters blame for a deadly apartment block fire in the western Xinjiang region on Thursday, Nov. 24. The fire, which killed 10 people in the regional capital of Urumqi, provoked nationwide anger. According to some reports, COVID restrictions trapped some residents in the burning building. The resultant protests have called for Xi’s ouster.

Meanwhile in Iran, a nationwide protest movement that began in mid-September continues to pose the biggest challenge to the regime’s authority since the 1979 revolution. The uprising began after Iran’s morality police beat and arrested 22-year-old Mahsa Amini for breaking the country’s headscarf laws. Amini died in a hospital on Sept. 16. Multiple human rights groups estimate that at least 300 Iranians have died in the ensuing protests.

“Following the death of Mahsa Amini in the custody of Iran’s so-called ‘morality police,’ thousands of brave Iranians have risked their lives and their liberty to protest the regime’s long record of oppression and violence. The regime has responded with a ruthless crackdown on peaceful protestors,” US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said in a Nov. 24 statement.

This year, China became the top exporter to Russia. According to Germany’s Kiel Institute for the World Economy, Russian imports from the European Union decreased by some 43% over a three-month period this summer, underscoring the impact of Western sanctions over Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Overall, Russian imports are down 23%, highlighting the fact that increased economic ties with China aren’t enough to offset the impact of Western sanctions.

Despite China’s overall contraction in net trade this year, both imports from and exports to Russia increased in October, the Kiel Institute reported. Thus, should Beijing face economic backlash for harsh protest crackdowns, trade with Moscow may not necessarily suffer. Even so, some analysts suggest China may soon face an unprecedented COVID-19 surge, which could create an economic crisis. In that case, Beijing may not be the long-term cash cow that Moscow is banking on.

“President Xi's immediate problem, beyond the unrest, is a lack of good options. A big COVID wave is coming. His population isn't properly vaccinated. It seems hard to see how he does anything but try to re-establish political control, and control of the streets,” James Crabtree, executive director of the Asia branch of the International Institute for Strategic Studies, a British think tank, tweeted Sunday.

Putin and Xi, Russia, China and Iran

Russian President Vladimir Putin meets Chinese President Xi Jinping in Buenos Aires on Dec. 1, 2018. Photo via Office of the President of Russia website.

In 2021, the EU imported around 155 billion cubic meters of Russian gas, making up roughly 45% of the bloc’s total natural gas imports. In September, more than six months into the full-scale war, the Russian state gas company, Gazprom, reported that its natural gas deliveries to the EU had dropped by 48%.

With the EU slowly weaning itself off Russian pipeline gas, Russia is turning to China as a replacement client. Russian gas exports to China rose by about 65% in the first half of 2022, compared with the same period in 2021, Bloomberg reported. A new pipeline linking Russia to China called the Power of Siberia is on track to be fully operational by 2025, multiple news outlets reported.

In early February, less than three weeks before Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine, Moscow agreed to a 30-year gas deal with Beijing, Reuters reported. Under a previous deal, Russia planned to supply China with 38 billion cubic meters of gas per year. The February deal added another 10 billion cubic meters of annual gas to that existing agreement.

Despite cutbacks, the EU still imported more than twice the amount of Russian gas as China during the first half of 2022, according to the Center for Research on Energy and Clean Air, a Finnish research group. Even so, market analysts expect China’s demand for natural gas will double by 2035, overtaking the EU market.


The crater left by a Russian missile, which hit a playground in Kyiv's Shevchenko Park on Oct. 10, 2022. Photo by Nolan Peterson/Coffee or Die.

More than nine months into Russia’s full-scale invasion, Ukraine has gained the battlefield momentum and is incrementally retaking its territory. Facing sequential battlefield setbacks, Moscow has turned to long-range attacks against Ukraine’s energy grid as a means to break national morale. Yet, Ukrainian air defenses often shoot down the overwhelming majority of each Russian missile barrage. With its missile arsenal consequently dwindling, Russia has turned to Iran to shore up the sustainability of its long-range strike campaign.

In July, Russian officials reportedly struck a deal with Tehran to purchase hundreds of armed Shahed-136 drones. Known in military parlance as a loitering munition, the expendable, $20,000 Iranian drones allow Moscow to strike targets in Ukraine at a fraction of the cost of cruise missiles. Since August, Russia has used more than 400 of the exploding drones against civilian areas and energy infrastructure sites in Ukraine.

Rather than targeting Ukraine’s military on the battlefield, Russia’s long-range strikes are meant to cause civilian suffering — in terms of constant psychological pressure, as well as reduced access to electricity and heating. For its part, Moscow claims its long-range strikes are precision-targeted to destroy Ukraine’s critical infrastructure. Even so, Russian missiles routinely target exclusively nonmilitary, civilian locations.

In late October, multiple news agencies reported that Iran had agreed to send more armed drones and surface-to-surface missiles to Russia. According to The Washington Post, Moscow has also reached a deal with Tehran to manufacture Iranian-made drones on Russian soil for use against Ukraine.

“It’s another sign of how isolated both Russia and Iran are and they have to rely on each other. They continue to lie to the world but the facts are clear,” National Security Council spokesperson John Kirby told Politico. “The Supreme Leader should answer why he has Iran directly engaged on the ground and through the provision of weapons that enable Russia to kill civilians and damage civilian infrastructure in Ukraine.”

iran sign

A protest sign outside the Iranian embassy in Kyiv, Ukraine, on Oct. 17, 2022. Photo by Nolan Peterson/Coffee or Die Magazine.

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is widely unpopular among Iranians. Thus, despite the easy money promised by Russian arms sales, more Ukrainian casualties at the hands of Iranian weapons will embolden Iran’s protesters. And, according to Zwack, protests in Iran, as well as in China, could ultimately spark domestic problems for the Kremlin.

“Russia remains deeply ensnared by its vicious war of choice against determined and tangibly supported Ukraine, one that further isolates it globally,” said Zwack, who is the senior Russia and Eurasia fellow at the Institute for National Strategic Studies at the National Defense University.

He added: “Events that rock the internal stability of the few major nations that are ‘aligned’ with Moscow, and increasingly support it materially as Iran, and economically as China, can only force the Kremlin to nervously look at its own increasingly restless population that is paying an ever-increasing butcher’s bill in Ukraine, and is not totally blind to these events domestically or internationally.”

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Nolan Peterson
Nolan Peterson
Nolan Peterson is a senior editor for Coffee or Die Magazine and the author of Why Soldiers Miss War. A former US Air Force special operations pilot and a veteran of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, Nolan is now a conflict journalist and author whose adventures have taken him to all seven continents. In addition to his memoirs, Nolan has published two fiction collections. He lives in Kyiv, Ukraine, with his wife, Lilya.
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