Is China preparing for a post-Putin Russia?

One of the greatest mysteries of the Russo-Ukrainian War is China’s actual policy. While China moves cautiously, it appears to be gradually distancing itself from Vladimir Putin. A little-noticed fact is that Chinese President Xi Jinping is cultivating Russian Prime Minister Mikhail Mishustin in quite a blatant fashion.

Just two weeks before Putin launched the full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, he extracted a commitment from Xi Jinping of “friendship without limits” at their meeting during the Beijing Olympics. However, some significant limits have since became evident. China has apparently refused to deliver arms and sanctioned technology to Russia. China has also abstained on half a dozen United Nations General Assembly resolutions condemning Russia’s war of aggression against Ukraine.

In February 2023, China presented its own twelve-point peace plan to end the war in Ukraine. Supporters of Ukraine have complained that this plan does not condemn Russia or call for a Russian withdrawal from Ukraine, but in fact the first point of China’s plan reads: “Respecting the sovereignty of all countries. Universally recognized international law, including the purposes and principles of the United Nations Charter, must be strictly observed. The sovereignty, independence, and territorial integrity of all countries must be effectively upheld.” Implicitly, China suggests that Russia has to withdraw its troops from Ukraine.

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Both Xi and Putin have limited public appearances and abstained from traveling because of their fears of Covid-19, and Putin has become ever more isolated because of his war of aggression against Ukraine. Therefore, it was perceived as a great event when Xi Jinping went on an official three-day visit to Russia in March 2023. It was Xi’s first international meeting since his re-election as president during the 2023 National People’s Congress, and it offered Putin a rare break in his international isolation.

While we don’t know what the two leaders said in their long private meetings, nothing seems to have gone right for Putin. His big official project was a large second “Power of Siberia” gas pipeline from western Siberia to China, but Xi clearly said no, limiting Russia’s possibilities to export gas to China for the foreseeable future. Nor does Xi appear to have approved of arms or sensitive technology sales to Russia. Curiously, Xi had a separate meeting with Russian Prime Minister Mikhail Mishustin, contrary to strict Chinese protocol.

As a follow up, Chinese Prime Minister Li Qiang invited Mishustin, his Russian counterpart, to Beijing for an official visit in late May. Mishustin is the highest-ranking Russian official to visit China since the start of the Ukraine invasion in February 2022. On the second day of his visit, Xi Jinping received Mishustin at the Great Hall of the People, once again completely beyond the ordinary bounds of Chinese and Russian protocol.

If there is a greater stickler of protocol than the Chinese leaders, it is probably Putin. In spite of all the greetings to and from Putin that Xi and Mishustin exchanged, the obvious question arises: Why was Mishustin invited and not Putin? This cannot have gone down well with the Russian leader.

Putin appears to have given his response. Mishustin is one of thirteen permanent members of the Security Council, Russia’s highest policy-making body which meets about every tenth day, always chaired by Putin. Usually all but one or two of the permanent members are present. Mishustin attended on May 15, the last meeting before his trip to China, but he was missing both on May 26 and June 2 after his return from his triumphant visit. Reasons for absence from a Security Council meeting are never officially given.

This old-style Kremlinology is perhaps the best evidence we have that China may be looking beyond Putin and seeking to cultivate alternative relationships in Russia. Such objective observations are better than dubious rumors and can potentially tell us a lot. First of all, it seems clear that China’s “friendship without limits” with Russia actually has many limits, as indicated above. China is presumably more afraid of US and EU secondary sanctions than interested in supporting Russia in its war against Ukraine.

Second, China does claim that universally recognized international law, including the purposes and principles of the United Nations Charter, must be strictly observed, which means that it opposes Russia’s invasion in principle. Third, the Chinese have indicated distrust in Putin and they may be looking to Mishustin as a credible alternative. Whether this is realistic is not all that relevant.

Fourth, by apparently excluding Mishustin from his two most recent Security Council meetings, Putin has indicated that he has paid attention and dislikes these recent developments. The standard procedure would have seen Putin calling Mishustin to the Security Council to report what he had learned in China.

Mishustin has carefully avoided saying anything in public about the war in Ukraine or his visit to China. His father is considered to have served in the KGB, and he has been both the head of the Russian tax service and a wealthy investment banker. Mishustin is often overlooked in analysis of power dynamics in today’s Russia, but his relationships with both Putin and China should be watched carefully.

Anders Åslund and Andrius Kubilius have just published the book “Reconstruction, Reform, and EU Accession for Ukraine.”

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The views expressed in UkraineAlert are solely those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Atlantic Council, its staff, or its supporters.

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Image: Russian Prime Minister Mikhail Mishustin and Chinese President Xi Jinping shake hands during a meeting at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, China May 24, 2023. (Sputnik/Alexander Astafyev/Pool via REUTERS)