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Russian Meteor Sheds Light on Russia-China Tensions

By now, everyone has seen the meteor that spread a shockwave over Russia last week, and watched the footage of bright lights and blown-out windows. But while the physical impact of the blast is well understood, the the light from the meteor explosion over Chelyabinsk also illuminated some realities in international politics.

Apparently at least some Russians’ first reaction to the meteor explosion was that China was attacking. Others thought it was an American weapons test; still others thought it was the end of the world. World News NBC reports:

In the video below, a voice can be heard saying, “What the hell? … Something fell. Do you hear?” as soon as the blast took place, according to Foreign Policy. About a minute later, another speaker says, “It must have been a rocket or something,” followed by another voice that announces: “It must have been the Chinese!” [...]

In the political realm, Russian Liberal Democrat leader Vladimir Zhirinovsky, who is known for his controversial statements, blamed the blast not on a meteor, but on the United States testing a new weapon.

It’s not surprising that people faced with something very sudden and very dramatic came up with a variety of theories in the first few minutes. But it’s still an interesting read on public psychology. US-Russia tensions are much in the news, and given the Cold War history it’s not surprising that many in Russia would think of America when they saw an explosion overhead. But that some instinctively thought of China is a reminder that Russia is deeply disturbed by the seemingly relentless rise of its powerful neighbor to the south and east. Imagine how people in the US would feel if we had China on our southern border instead of Mexico.

While Russia and China can cooperate on many specific issues, and while both share a feeling that the United States needs to come down a peg or two, Russian skittishness about China’s rise and its long-term intentions puts sharp limits on how deep cooperation between the two powers can go. Indeed, Russian fear of China’s rise is one of the key realities shaping world politics today. Russia has no interest in talking about it, and both Russia and China gain leverage over the US and others by holding out the possibility of growing cooperation between them, but there are good reasons why the two powers haven’t forged a coherent alliance.

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