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Xi’s Visit and Putin’s Demise

Since the start of the Russian invasion of Ukraine last year, China has been tacitly supporting Russia while trying to remain nominally neutral in the conflict. This has been most plainly evident in the UN, and of course, in China’s not joining the sanctions against Russia. The Chinese information space is dominated by the Russian justification of its military aggression, and Chinese representatives utilize Russia’s talking points and explanations for the igniting of what is the largest military conflict in Europe since the mid-20th century, which has taken the lives of hundreds of thousands, upturned that of millions, and caused material damages in the range of $411 billion.

In the eyes of a large part of the world, China, far from being neutral, is in fact the senior partner in a new geopolitical bloc facing off against the free world in a Second Cold War. The first one had the USSR as the senior partner, and China as the junior. Today the roles are switched. Then, as now, the first hot conflict took place in a country near the junior partner’s borders – Korea. Today the junior partner is Russia, and the first hot conflict is in Ukraine.

From the point of view of the Chinese leadership, the image of neutrality and the appearance of a benign great power are intended for export only. The hypocrisy of official statements is best visible against the background of interior policies. The Chinese Communist Party maintains “for internal consumption” a tone of propaganda openly encouraging Chinese nationalism, chauvinism and xenophobia. Very few of its manifestations ever reach the public opinion in the EU and US.

Just a few weeks ago the CCP was mentioned in world media in the context of its brutal repressions against university students protesting against the one-party dictatorship. Then followed the scandal with the Chinese spy balloon sent in the sky above military installations on US territory, and new threats to Taiwan. That is why when Xi Jinping came forward with a “peace plan” for Ukraine at the end of February, the reactions of experts ranged between skepticism and ridicule.

These articles, analyses, and comments are made possible thanks to your empathy and contributions, which are the only guarantors of independence and objectivity in our work. The Alternatives and Analysis team.

Consequently the Chinese proposal was reduced from “peace plan” to “position for the political settlement” of the “Ukraine crisis” as the China Communist Party prefers to label Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. The position itself is nothing more than a flashy wrapping for Chinese economic and political interests. Going beyond the vague rethorics about peace and abandoning the Cold War mentality, the actual implementation of the twelve points would lead to the freezing of the conflict which coincidentally is Moscow’s strongest desire at present. Thus, yet again, “Chinese neutrality” happens to push Putin’s interests.

Even this initiative seems set for an early passage into obsolescence, after the International Criminal Court in the Hague (ICC) issued international arrest warrants for Putin and a senior Kremlin official on accusations of war crimes. With a single issuance of a document, the International Criminal Court simultaneously upended both Xi’s attempts to save Putin as his close partner, Xi’s agenda for the upcoming state visit to Moscow, and any hopes of the Russian leadership that the cruel and inhumane war of extermination that has lasted for over a year will be allowed to slip like the annexation of the Crimea in 2014 – with a ceasefire and negotiations, which would even leave some Ukrainian land in Russian hands.

From here onwards, negotiations are out of the question.

After the arrest warrant has been issued, Putin is president of Russia in name only, until the moment he formally vacates the position. From being the president of one of the world powers, Putin took one year to shrink to a war criminal wanted for the mass deportation of children, including by abducting them from their living parents. This is a downfall of historic proportions, the likes of which we have seen neither in our lifetimes, nor has precedent in recent centuries. Yet this is merely the beginning of the list of war crimes for which Russian political and military figures will face charges.

At least two leaders of prominent countries – Biden and Scholz – have expressed their approval for the ICC’s decision to issue the arrest warrants. From here onwards everyone and anyone will have to take a stand with regard to this decision, in word as well as in deed. This process has already begun with South Africa, where Putin has a planned visit later this year.

And if this arrest warrant irreversibly turns Putin into a global political pariah, even for his closest partners, it should also serve as a wake up call for inhabitants of the dark and humid corners of European politics such as the Bulgarian president Radev, or the Hungarian and Serbian prime ministers.

Russian cronies and “useful idiots” deployed throughout the EU member states will see themselves further pressed to abandon their direct praise for Putin or the seemingly “humanitarian” pleas for a ceasefire. A pause in military activity would currently only benefit the aggressor. Ukraine’s government has made it clear that negotiations will only be held with a Putin successor, once Ukrainian territory, including the Crimea, Donetsk, and Lugansk, is completely cleared of Russian military presence and control.

The political reactions in Bulgaria to news such as the “Magnitsky list” of sanctioned Bulgarians were remarkable as proof of the dependence of the political echelon residing under the spotlights from the second political echelon, the one behind the curtains. Yet it’s difficult to imagine a leading politician, even in present day Bulgaria, who would go as far as to belittle the significance of an ICC arrest warrant, or would try to exculpate Putin from his responsibility for the way the Russian armed forces are carrying out their illegal invasion of a sovereign state.

As far as Xi Jinping is concerned, the situation is likely even more complex for him than it is for Putin because, unlike Putin, Xi is trying to at least mitigate the reputational damage. His plan of playing the peacemaker was cast down before it ever took flight, because there is no way a leader of Xi’s ranking to approach Zelensky and start convincing him to begin negotiations with a wanted war crimes suspect.

Even if the Putin-Xi meeting comes to pass, the mood is unlikely to be very upbeat. It’s difficult to imagine Xi Jinping, total master of China, in the middle of the Vladimirsky Hall in the Kremlin, cheerfully proclaiming his camaraderie with a man officially accused in the mass abduction of children.

Internet outlets centering on diplomacy have until days ago been pondering the possibility of Xi offering Putin a “Russian gambit”. It’s conditions – China would exchange Ukraine for Taiwan with the US, and the visit to Moscow intends to demonstrate to the US that China is ready to back Putin.

The current state of affairs, however, has preempted such a move. The question for Putin’s remaining tenure in power is itself coming to the fore, because the issued international arrest warrant has the same sticky property to it as the financial sanctions imposed since 2014. The military outcome of the war is irrelevant with regard to the sanctions remaining in force, and with regard to Putin being wanted for war crimes, until he is submitted to the ICC. 

Therefore Xi Jinping’s Russia strategy, as it stands, should have switched to propping up Putin in power, so that China has a client in the Kremlin, while hastily ensuring friendly relations with his soon-to-be successors.

Putin’s demise will inevitably result in further degradation of Russian international power, with the question of Russia’s position in the UN Security council, and even UN membership itself. The current bizarre situation has been ruinous to the image of the UN, making it look like a dead organization in its own right. A state carrying out an illegal military invasion, and a genocidal policy in occupied territories, regularly threatening the world with a nuclear apocalypse, continues to be a member of an international body, which, according to the UN charter should “maintain international peace and security” and as an UNSC permanent member carries “primary responsibility for the maintenance of international peace and security”.

The effect that the issuing of the ICC arrest warrant has created among Russia’s military, intelligence, and political leadership is worth considering. The definitive declaration of Putin as an outlaw is, in a political sense, the most direct call for his immediate deposition from power that could be made by the international community – the ICC is recognized by over 150 nation states. It is becoming increasingly probable that, accounting for the irreversibility of their leader’s fate, there will be those among his runner-ups who will take advantage of the situation and carry out a coup against him. They have already been signaled that the world would only thank them for it.

These articles, analyses, and comments are made possible thanks to your empathy and contributions, which are the only guarantors of independence and objectivity in our work. The Alternatives and Analysis team.

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