Russian President Vladimir Putin quoted Alexander III—tsar of Russia, king of Congress Poland, and grand duke of Finland—when asked in April 2015 what allies he could count on after he had begun his assault on Ukraine.
“Russia has only two allies,” he said, “its army and its navy.”
Now that Putin’s military has failed to achieve its war goals in Ukraine, demonstrating a surprising lack of discipline and capability, a more formidable ally stepped up this week who Putin hopes can help him turn his fortunes around: Chinese leader Xi Jinping.
In exchange, Putin is willing to offer China discounted energy deliveries, unique access to Russian markets abandoned by Western companies, military technologies ranging from ballistic missiles to nuclear submarines, and subjugation to China’s emerging ambitions for global leadership.
History will record Xi’s three days of meetings this past week with Putin in Moscow as the last pretense of neutrality in Putin’s war on Ukraine. It might seem to some that Xi is doubling down on last year’s bad bet of a “no limits” partnership with Putin, but Xi’s generational gamble is based on two fundamental convictions, which have grown as his relations with Washington have worsened.
First, Xi has come to agree with US President Joe Biden that the battle for Ukraine’s future has become a proxy war over what set of forces and principles will shape the global future. Will it be those of the United States and its allies, which have shaped the global order of rules and institutions since 1945, or will it be those of China and its autocratic partners: Russia, Iran, North Korea, Venezuela, and, to a lesser extent, other countries of the Global South that have distanced themselves from the war.
Second, with Putin’s economy reeling and his military flailing, Xi understands that he is Russia’s last best hope to shape the Ukraine war or Ukraine peace in Putin’s favor. Like Putin, Xi is wagering that the West’s staying power will begin to flag as the costs accumulate and the 2024 US elections approach.
In short, the stakes are so historically high for Xi, and his potential to tip the scales is so real, that Xi must have determined that the larger gamble would be in neutrality, knowing that Putin’s defeat would have global implications, including regarding his own ambitions to absorb Taiwan.
Xi’s global ambition
Another illustrative way to look at this past week is that Putin’s desperation met Xi’s opportunism. Putin’s furious search for survival plays into Xi’s long-term play for global influence, while bringing down the United States a few notches at the same time.
Xi this week could not have been more explicit in the global ambitions behind his shameless decision to forge ahead with Putin, coming just a few days after the International Criminal Court issued an arrest warrant for the Russian leader on war crimes charges.
“Now there are changes that haven’t happened in a hundred years,” Xi said. “When we are together, we drive these changes.”
Those who have dismissed Putin’s war in Ukraine war as a “territorial struggle,” as did Florida Governor Ron DeSantis before walking it back, should read the Chinese statement ending the three days of Xi-Putin bromance. The two countries’ leaders, it said, “shared the view that this relationship has gone far beyond the bilateral scope and acquired critical importance for the global landscape and the future of humanity.” Putin’s response on the Kremlin website: “We are working in solidarity on the formation of a more just and democratic multipolar world order, which should be based on the central role of the UN, its Security Council, international law, the purposes and principles of the UN Charter.”
That’s barefaced hypocrisy, as Xi this week abandoned any pretext that he plans to hold Putin to the UN Charter, although that is the first item in his twelve-point peace plan for the Ukraine war, issued at the one-year mark of the full-scale invasion on February 24.
It calls for: “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.”
A shifting world order
This week’s Xi-Putin meetings need to be seen in the context of the world order’s other shifting tectonic plates, most importantly in the Middle East. It’s a story of Washington leaving geopolitical vacuums that China is growing more adept at filling, from the Middle East and Africa to Latin America and South Asia.
Earlier this month, Xi brought Iranian and Saudi representatives to Beijing, where they brokered a normalization agreement. It has the potential, wrote Maria Fantappie and Vali Nasr in Foreign Affairs, “to transform the Middle East by realigning its major powers, replacing the current Arab-Israeli divide with a complex web of relations, and weaving the region into China’s global ambitions.” It was for Beijing, the authors conclude, “a great leap forward in its rivalry with Washington.”
Late this week, the Wall Street Journal reported that Saudi Arabia and Syria are nearing an agreement to restore diplomatic ties after talks mediated by Russia. China was quick to praise the rapprochement and plans to reopen embassies.
These are just pieces in a larger Chinese puzzle.
In past months, Xi has rolled out a Global Development Initiative, a Global Security Initiative, and, most recently, a Global Civilization Initiative. What they all share is a world view that offers to embrace all countries, irrespective of their political systems and ideologies, contrasting China’s approach to what Beijing calls US efforts to divide the world between democracies and autocracies.
It’s easy to point out China’s continued demographic and economic weaknesses—along with the innate fragility the comes with an over-concentration of power. The hypocrisy of its claim that it stands internationally for the protection of national sovereignty and independence crashes on the Ukrainian shoals.
Xi’s visit this week to Moscow, however, should mark an inflection point in US seriousness about the urgency and inescapability of the strategic competition to shape the global future. There are short-term demands in Ukraine, most urgently to more quickly and plentifully send the weapons required to win the war. There’s a long-term need to build more creative coalitions to shape the global future, discarding simplistic divisions between democracies and autocracies that lump together the world’s worst despots like North Korea and Iran with moderate and modernizing nations that share a stake in a functioning global order.
The tsars aligned in Moscow this week to show Washington and its allies that strategic competition isn’t just a theory anymore—it’s an urgent reality.
Frederick Kempe is president and chief executive officer of the Atlantic Council. You can follow him on Twitter @FredKempe.
THE WEEK’S TOP READS
David Ignatius | WASHINGTON POST
In this smart column, David Ignatius warns about the longer-term implications of Putin and Xi’s friendship and the danger it poses to the international order.
“By playing the peacemaker,” Ignatius writes, “Xi can position himself better to take other, harsher rescue measures if Ukraine rejects a cease-fire. He could offer ammunition for Russia, arguing he’s only leveling the playing field. He could try to mobilize nations of the Global South, such as India, South Africa and Brazil, to pressure Ukraine to end the fighting. Xi wants to keep the high ground, invoking the sanctity of the United Nations charter even as he affirms his support for the Russian leader who shattered that charter’s norms. It’s a shameless approach, but smart diplomacy.”
“If you were looking for another reason why it’s important that Ukraine succeeds against Russia,” Ignatius adds, “consider the photos from Moscow. ‘The President of Eurasia’—I fear that’s the invisible caption of the pictures of Xi that we’re seeing amid the Kremlin’s golden doors and red carpets. The idea that a vast swath of the world is dominated by a China that stands so resolutely against freedom and democracy is chilling. If this alliance succeeds, we will live in a darker world.” Read more →
If you want to understand the complexities of the Russia-China relationship, read this Economist analysis.
“Rather than downgrade the relationship,” the Economist writes, “Mr Xi appears to be strengthening it, while exploiting Russia’s miscalculations in Ukraine to tilt the balance of power in his favour. It is easy to see why. Mr Xi has won access to discounted energy supplies. And he has almost certainly extracted an assurance that Mr Putin will back him diplomatically in a war over Taiwan. He has also gained leverage to seek high-end Russian military technology, such as surface-to-air missile systems and nuclear reactors designed to power submarines—and to press Mr Putin to withhold or delay supplies of similar items to other Russian customers that have territorial disputes with China, such as India and Vietnam. Russia could also help upgrade China’s nuclear arsenal, or work on a joint missile-warning system.” Read more →
Maria Fantappie and Vali Nasr | FOREIGN AFFAIRS
David Ignatius offers a characteristically smart analysis of Biden, Putin, and Zelenskyy for the one-year mark of Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine.
“War reveals the essential traits of human character that shape events,” Ignatius writes. “Who could have imagined that a Ukrainian comic actor named Volodymyr [Zelenskyy] would prove to be the first truly heroic leader of the 21st century. Who would have bet that Putin, the canny and cynical ex-KGB officer, would grossly misread both intelligence and history and ransom his country to what amounted to a fairy tale about the ‘oneness’ of Russia and Ukraine.”
“In the end,” Ignatius concludes, “war is a test of wills. Putin was convinced that his cold-eyed, brutal resolve would outlast everyone else’s. But a year on, Putin’s staying power begins to look questionable, while [Zelenskyy] and Biden have never looked stronger.” Read more →
Andrew England and Najmeh Bosorgmehr / FINANCIAL TIMES
Perhaps one of the most dramatic and least documented changes of the past couple of years has been Russia’s deepening relations with Iran—alongside China’s simultaneously deepening ties.
“Russia has become the largest foreign investor in Iran over the past year,” write the Financial Times reporters, “reflecting how two nations subject to heavy sanctions have stepped up cooperation since the invasion of Ukraine.”
This Financial Times piece takes a deep look at Russia’s $2.76 billion in investments in the past year in industrial mining and transport sector projects. Beyond that, it looks at how these two significant countries and economies have found common cause in their work against US sanctions. Read more →
Jonathan Cheng / WALL STREET JOURNAL
The Wall Street Journal’s Jonathan Cheng writes from Beijing that Xi’s willingness to get more involved in Putin’s war and in Saudi-Iran relations are part of a common plot.
“China now sees itself as a global power—and it is starting to act like one,” he writes.
Writes Cheng, “Rather than an authoritarian country, as President Biden would have it, Mr. Xi wants nations, particularly in the Global South, to regard China as a voice of reason, an economic model and a benign power that can stand up to a U.S.-led Western order that it sees as hectoring and bullying.”
On the other hand, as the Wall Street Journal’s Ann M. Simmons and Austin Ramzy report in an important analysis, Xi clearly has some limits on his no-limits friendship with Russia.
For example, they explain, “The Russian and Chinese leaders signed 10 documents on economic cooperation stretching until 2030. Trade between the two countries rose to $189 billion last year. Mr. Putin said before the visit he believes it will exceed $200 billion as early as this year. Russian officials said the two sides were moving forward with plans to build a second pipeline to carry Siberian natural gas to China. Chinese officials didn’t refer to the pipeline on Tuesday. In order to sustain the energy revenues it needs to fund the war effort, Russia needs a second pipeline that would boost sales of gas to China, since its main customers in Europe have stopped buying Russian gas.” Read more →
Atlantic Council top reads
New Atlanticist Mar 22, 2023
Xi and Putin just wrapped up talks in Moscow: What does it mean for the war in Ukraine and China’s global standing?
By Atlantic Council experts
The Chinese leader left Russia on Wednesday after three days of talks with the Russian president. Atlantic Council experts share their insights on the state of the so-called no-limits partnership.
New Atlanticist Mar 23, 2023
Maybe Putin should be worried: Most leaders facing international justice don’t get away free
By Thomas S. Warrick
Nearly all of the heads of state and military leaders wanted by international justice in recent decades have been brought before a court or faced ‘rough justice.’
New Atlanticist Mar 20, 2023
Central bankers must keep financial stability in mind as they fight inflation
By Hung Tran
It is difficult for central banks to balance controlling inflation with preserving financial stability amid a banking crisis, but that is no excuse not to try.