Chinese Plans For Moscow Region Threaten To Spark Protests Near Kremlin – Analysis

Russia’s economic problems and Moscow’s growing need for money and more industrial production to support its war effort in Ukraine are forcing the Kremlin to take a step that it has long avoided. The Kremlin has agreed to allow China to develop mines and processing facilities not in some distant part of the Russian Federation but in Moscow oblast, the region that immediately adjoins the Russian capital (, May 27).

The Chinese have long wanted to carry out such plans, but Moscow officials have resisted due to environmental concerns, the problematic optics of Chinese involvement, and the risk that Chinese exploitation of mines and processing industries will spark environmental protests close to the Kremlin. Such protests could then grow into more dangerous political demonstrations, as has been the case elsewhere in the country (see EDM October 6, 2020, January 23, February 8, 27;, January 18).

Now, because of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s need for Chinese help, the Kremlin is opening the way for Chinese involvement in an environmentally fraught industry in Moscow oblast. This development will likely stoke problems at home and could ultimately threaten both the Kremlin leader and his alliance with China.

Russia has a long history of mining in Moscow oblast. The development of extractive industries there, however, has been relatively slow because of population pressures and because the exploitation of similar mineral deposits elsewhere has been cheaper. In the years after World War II, there was greater interest in developing mines near Moscow due to the disruption of the Soviet transportation network caused by the war. As a result, Moscow gave expanded attention to the mines in Moscow oblast, and, in 1953, signed an agreement with Beijing to have Chinese experts and workers develop them. The agreement, which was supposed to go into force in 1954, was never implemented. Thus, the mines of Moscow oblast never became “the klondike,” as some Russian commentators had hoped (, May 27).

Those favoring such Chinese involvement in Moscow oblast’s mines and chemical industries periodically raised the possibility that Beijing could help. They were effectively blocked, however, until the last decade by those concerned about environmental degradation and the potential for protests (Kommersant, August 28, 2012). Since the beginning of Putin’s expanded war against Ukraine and his “turn to the east,” those officials who opposed such an opening for the Chinese have been elbowed aside (see EDM, January 23).

In early 2023, with the Kremlin’s blessing, Moscow oblast signed agreements with Chinese firms to develop mines and mineral processing facilities in the region (, March 20, 2023;, January 14). In the months since, China has begun reopening mines in the oblast, which Russian officials closed in the early 1990s. By the start of 2024, the new Chinese mines and plants were projected to provide as many as 10,000 new jobs, something the governor of the oblast celebrated during a visit to Beijing in May (Rossiyskaya Gazeta, May 19).

China is now involved in mining a wide variety of minerals throughout the oblast. Oil, coal, phosphorites, and rare earth minerals such as titanium and lithium are among the natural resources that Chinese firms are now involved with or plan to be in the near future (, accessed June 4). These mines are located in places ranging from the edges of the oblast in the south and west to places very near the border of the city of Moscow. As a result, some or all of these look to be the source of environmental degradation. Such a development will likely spark local protests, as similar outcomes have in Shiyes, Siberia, and Bashkortostan, that could quickly spread to other places (, July 4, 2019; Window on Eurasia, July 6, 2019; Novaya Gazeta, October 9, 2019).

In all such cases, environmental “not in my backyard” protests have become political and rapidly turned into attacks, not against local and regional officials as well as Moscow and Putin’s authoritarian system (Window on Eurasia, October 30, 2019;, August 18, 2020). This is particularly the case when the Kremlin has chosen to support the involvement of a foreign country (e.g., China) against the local population (, January 10, 2020).

The problems these protests have posed, however, have been limited by the fact that such demonstrations, as massive as they have been (the protests in Shiyes were the longest-lasting and those in Bashkortostan the largest in recent decades), took place far from the Russian capital. As a result, they received less coverage in the central media and could be countered more easily than any taking place in Moscow or another major Russian city.

Now, the Kremlin itself has opened the door to the possibility of such protests close to its walls by allowing the Chinese to take the lead in developing two of the most ecologically dangerous industries—mining and the processing of minerals and chemicals. This is taking place in a region where many Russians live and work. That makes it almost a certainty that if there are problems, and the Chinese record of economic development is such that there almost certainly will be, and if protests do arise in Moscow oblast, they will become political and likely link up with opponents of the Putin regime in the Russian capital.

The Kremlin is undoubtedly aware of that risk. After all, it avoided taking such drastic measures for half a century. However, like the Bourbons, officials in the Kremlin appear to have “remembered nothing and forgotten nothing.” That means the Kremlin can likely take advantage of Chinese involvement in the Moscow oblast with little risk if it increases repression to prevent any upsurge in popular protest.

Such a strategy may prove counterproductive, not only because it threatens to politicize and nationalize protest. It will also highlight for Russians in the capital and, more generally, that the Kremlin, for all its talk about being a defender of “the Russian world,” has allied itself with China against the Russian people and their well-being. That is a recipe for long-term disaster, regardless of how attractive the immediate results of earnings and products of nearby Chinese mines and processing plants may be to the Kremlin.