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Putin drawn closer into China’s orbit, but no military support

Xi Jinping’s state visit to Moscow was a long-awaited event for the Kremlin. Somewhat unusually per diplomatic protocol, the possibility that the Chinese leader “might” make a state visit to Russia was first announced not by the Chinese government but by the Russian ambassador to Beijing, as far back as November last year, days after Russian occupation forces had been banished from the Kherson region territory west of the Dnieper river. Since then and until mid-March 2023, Russian journalists’ questions towards representatives of the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs on whether or not the meeting would take place, when and what would be its duration, were being left without a definite answer.

On the eve of the meeting Putin and Xi published articles, each in his counterpart’s government mouthpiece. Comparing Putin’s text (here in English) published in the Chinese “People’s Daily” with the one published by Xi (here in English) in “Russian Gazette”, it becomes evident how asymmetrical the partnership between the two dictators has become, and how their respective objectives for the visit are diverging.

Putin takes care to underscore his personal friendship and long standing close relations, which he supposedly has with Xi. But Xi’s text, as well as his comportment during the state visit, were much more formal and definitely lacked the personal feel. Putin devotes paragraphs describing Xi as his personal good friend, and takes every opportunity to address him as “dear friend”. Without reciprocating on the display of friendship, Xi talks about the firm partnership between the states of China and Russia. Putin’s recently obtained status of a defendant wanted by the International Criminal Court against charges of war crimes has no doubt played its part in Xi’s cooler attitude towards him.

As a result of Russia’s “flash invasion”-turned-disaster in Ukraine, Putin and Xi are now players in entirely different leagues – the former of regional, the latter of global magnitude.

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.

In moments of ample historical irony, the president of the USSR’s successor state delves into anticolonial rhetoric on the pages of a Chinese newspaper. Putin explicitly marks the US and NATO as the enemies of Russia, China, and the rest of the countries engaged in a righteous struggle for establishing a “multipolar world” in place of the “unipolar world” dominated by the US.

Yet as Putin is protesting against colonialism, his illegal occupation authorities in Ukraine are busy enforcing usage of the Russian ruble and deny pensions and social relief payments to Ukrainians who don’t renounce their Ukrainian citizenship and register for a Russian one – to add to the irony, Russian law allows dual citizenship, however, Ukrainians are explicitly required to drop their current status of Ukrainian citizens before they apply for Russian passports. As this depravity is going on, Putin the anti-colonialist is bringing forth the proposition that trade between “anticolonialist” states should be executed in… Chinese yuan. It turns out colonialism is alive and well, only not where the Russian president is looking for it.

While Putin denounces neo-colonialism, Xi is the one reaching for global leadership. A former semi-colony, turned into the world’s second largest economy by total GDP, China is surrounding itself with a ring of anti-Western dictatorships such as Russia, North Korea, Iran, Saudi Arabia. Yet it is clear to participants and onlookers alike, which is the core, and which is the periphery, of this new anti-Western bloc.

Putin’s insistence on emphasizing his close relations with the Chinese first secretary is understandable. The main goals pursued by the Russian president with this state visit is to demonstrate to the EU and US, that he has “strong friends”, as well as to seek military assistance from Xi in the shape of at least artillery ammunition, which Russia is incapable of producing in the quantities needed by its military, and without which the Russian army loses its ability to advance, as well as, to a large extent, the ability to defend in the occupied Ukrainian territories.

Moreover, it has been Russia’s policy since the beginning of the war to seek a widening of the conflict and provoke the emergence of new flashpoints across the world – in Taiwan, in Syria, on the Balkans – with the intent to distract the attention and resources of Western societies and political leadership from its barbaric assault on Ukraine.

On his part, Xi hardly could have had more different priorities from Putin’s. He is engaged in building an image of a peacemaker for the Western public opinion, in an attempt to fortify the recently shaken trust in China, as the country’s economy suffers from a years-long exodus of foreign investors. Xi’s aims are fundamentally incompatible with providing the kind of support to Russia’s invasion likely required by Putin, as doing so would put China under Western sanctions.

To put it bluntly, Xi did not come to Moscow merely to haggle with Putin over sending artillery shells in a war for two provinces in the Donbass. Moreover, provinces which in any case no one would allow Putin to grab – neither Ukraine, nor its Western partners. China’s reach and ambition under Xi is much broader than that.

On the contrary, it is in China’s interest to maintain Putin’s regime in a barely functional state, and the calculation is that this is more easily achievable with the Ukraine war kept at a slow burn, as opposed to escalating it by providing military supplies, weapons or weapon systems.

Overall, the divergence in agendas brought about the bizarre situation where as Putin was making threats to NATO and the US, Xi was praising Russia’s eagerness to enter into peace negotiations.

Another curious situation transpired when the Chinese leader expressed his confidence in Putin’s reelection as President, unequivocally signaling his satisfaction with such an outcome. This came off as an odd divergence from protocol on the Chinese side for a number of reasons. First, it’s difficult to present yourself as a neutral arbiter between two warring states, while openly expressing how appealing you find the aggressor’s policies. Secondly, a head of state of a leading country openly voicing his preference for another country’s next government is, to understate the obvious, strongly reminiscent of interference in internal politics. Thirdly, Xi’s announcement of confidence in Putin’s reelection was made without Putin himself having officially announced his plans on running in next year’s elections. There is an analogy ripe to be made, with Putin’s meeting with Yanukovitch before the 2004 elections in Ukraine, to designate him as “his candidate” for the presidency.

What agreements had been reached by the time of the two dictators’ parting?

From all that can be observed, it appears that the only agreements signed were those that had been negotiated at the expert level prior to the visit. This means that Putin got none of the hoped for military support. The lack of diplomatic support in its own right is plain to see, as it needs to be expressed publicly by definition, and this did not come to pass either.

The agreements signed, and intentions announced for further economic cooperation, point to the conclusion that Xi will continue to receive everything he asks for from Russia in order to build up China as the new flagship of the unfree world. This includes raw materials for Chinese manufacturing, support in the UN, “technology transfer” massively in China’s favor, Chinese participation in construction projects, the building up and exploitation of trade routes through the Arctic, and last but not least – the opportunity for the Chinese industry to expand into the Russian market, vacated by the EU and US, with products ranging from servers and laptops to cosmetics and motor vehicles.

There are no visible indications that an agreement was reached for China to supply weapons and ammunition for the Russian armed forces. It is hardly relevant whether any secret protocol has been signed to that effect. The volume of the military supply effort needed by the Russian armed forces is such that it would be impossible to carry out at such a scale as to make a difference on the battlefield, without being noticed by the whole world. This in turn would bring about highly undesirable consequences for China. The country would quickly end up under Western sanctions, and in a political sense the leader of the new anti-Western bloc would find himself strapped to the international pariah Putin, recently declared wanted by the International Criminal Court in relation to war crimes investigations.

Xi Jinping’s state visit to Moscow demonstrated the degree of Chinese domination over Russia and the lack of strategic breathing space for the Russian regime, with little alternative but to continue transitioning into an ever more pronounced Chinese satellite. The conclusions from the meeting supply food for thought on the question of the end state of the military campaign, that of the war as a whole, and of the future of Putin’s regime, but they are the object of a separate analysis. We part here with one of the numerous enigmatic utterances that came from First Secretary of the Chinese Communist Party Xi Jinping, directed at Putin but also to all of us: “Right now there are changes – the likes of which we haven’t seen for 100 years – and we are the ones driving these changes together.”

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.