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  • Caroline Dustin

The Xi-Putin Partnership: China, Russia, and the War in Ukraine

As the Ukraine war rages on, the strategic partnership between Russian President Vladimir Putin and Chinese President Xi Jinping grows stronger. China and Russia’s partnership is considered “one of the most significant developments in geopolitics after China’s own spectacular rise over the past 40 years.”

The Western response to the Ukraine War has wreaked havoc on Russia’s economy, but Putin has only furthered his advances. His actions have caused Russia to become increasingly isolated from the transatlantic West, and Russia turned to an already booming strategic alliance–China–for a lifeline. However, it looks like Xi may have some reservations over the Ukraine war. China’s support for Russia is not unconditional, and it appears that Xi is treading carefully so as not to become another victim of the West’s incessant backlash.

Russia is Fueling its own Economic Crisis

The Russian invasion of Ukraine on February 24, 2022, provoked an unprecedented wave of punishing sanctions from the United States, the United Kingdom, Australia, Switzerland, Japan, and many other nations. Since the invasion, nearly $1 trillion worth of Russian assets have been frozen by Western sanctions. Despite the pressure on Putin to call a cease fire, he shows no signs of planning to do so.

Western countries have not sent troops to Ukraine. Instead, in an interview with a local news channel, French Finance Minister Bruno Le Maire explicitly stated that so far, the purpose of these sanctions is to “provoke the collapse of the Russian economy.” Russia is effectively cut off from global, US dollar-based financial markets and its economy is spiraling into a deep recession. “Only China can fill” the void that is left.

The Ukraine invasion sparked the “biggest confrontation between Moscow and the West since the Cold War.” The sanctions did not only affect Russia; the global economy is drowning in astronomical food and energy prices.

Xi and Putin at the 2022 SCO Summit

During their last meeting in February of 2020 at the Beijing Winter Olympics, Xi and Putin presented a united front. The two leaders declared that there were “no limits” to their friendship and vowed to “collaborate more against the West.”

Chinese President Xi Jinping, Russian President Vladimir Putin and Mongolian President Ukhnaa Khurelsukh pose for a picture during a meeting in Uzbekistan for the SCO summit in September 2022. Source: Reuters

On September 15 and 16, Presidents Xi and Putin met at the 2022 Shanghai Cooperation Organization summit in Uzbekistan, a security alliance that was created as a counterweight to U.S. influence and includes six other nations. This marked the first time that Xi had left China since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, as well as the first meeting between Xi and Putin since the invasion of Ukraine.

At the summit, Xi addressed Putin addressed each other as friends and insisted on “consolidat[ing] and deepen[ing] bilateral and multilateral communication and collaboration,” while extending “strong mutual support on issues concerning each other’s core interests”, such as trade, agriculture, connectivity and other areas.

The Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the People’s Republic of China remarked that the Russia-China strategic allegiance is “as stable as mountains.” The report states that the two nations continue to maintain “close coordination” and “effective strategic communication” on the global stage.

At the time of the summit in Uzbekistan, large numbers of Russian troops retreated from previously Russian-occupied parts of northeastern Ukraine as Ukrainian forces pushed back. However, Xi did not mention the Ukraine War, and neither does the Ministry’s official account of the summit.

An Imbalance of Power

Russia is forging closer economic ties with China. The Ukraine War has revealed key weaknesses in Russian military leadership, strategy, and supplies. The Russian military is demoralized and disorganized. Russia’s economy is plummeting and its status in the war is deteriorating. China is taking advantage of the war to further its own economic interests. The country is tackling an energy crisis and further fueling the surge in trade with Russia by buying Russian oil and gas at a discounted price.

Many observers share the stance that “Russia needs China more than China needs Russia,” said former Under Secretary of State for Economic Growth, Energy and the Environment in the United States Keith Krach. He believes that Putin is “willing to do a deal with predatory powers as long as it gains access to capital.”

After Russia annexed Ukraine’s Crimea in 2014, trade between Russia and China “expanded by more than 50% and China has become Russia’s biggest export destination.” Since the invasion of Ukraine, Russia and China are engaging in record levels of bilateral trade. The demand for the Chinese yuan in Russia dramatically increased as Russia desperately seeks new markets in China. This is a step towards making the yuan a global currency–one of China’s long-term goals. In May of 2022, Russia became China’s top oil supplier.

Putin stressed that Russia has “abided by the One China principle,” and condemned “provocations staged by the United States and its satellites in the Strait of Taiwan.” Xi continues to insist that Taiwan is a part of China and firmly opposes Taiwanese independence. Xi appreciates Putin’s adherence to the One-China principle.

A Limitless Friendship?

China finds itself in a dilemma amidst the Ukraine War as it tries to uphold its own interests without upsetting its Russian partner or the Western powers. The Russian invasion of Ukraine “complicated China’s balancing act between Russia and the West,” but China is providing a lifeline as Western sanctions have “curtailed Russia’s energy exports and halted its industrial cooperation with developed countries.”

Putin expressed his appreciation for China’s “balanced position” on the Ukraine War, but revealed that China has questions and concerns. Some analysts view this as a sign that Xi’s support for Putin indeed may not be unconditional. Others say that it “sounded like a rebuke to Moscow for creating instability with its invasion.”

Xi stated that he is willing to go to war to claim what he believes is the Chinese Communist Party’s right: Taiwan. Putin remains a strong supporter of Chinese interests in Taiwan, but the more risk-averse Chinese president treads carefully when supporting Russia in the Ukraine War. Putin refuses to call the war an invasion, instead describing it as a “special military operation.” Xi has fallen in line with this rhetoric and hasn’t outwardly condemned the war.

Xi is also careful not to provide direct military aid to Russia, which “could trigger Western sanctions on China’s own economy.” Because of this, Russia is using suppliers in Iran and North Korea. Xi is not willing to sacrifice “China’s economic interests to rescue Putin,” and has not provided the military support that Putin was looking for. Instead of supporting Russia at the tactical level, China is willing to do so at the strategic level, and in order to strike a balance, Xi does not appear to “back Putin or the Russian war in Ukraine wholesale.”

The Future of the Xi-Putin Partnership

The Ukraine War is still unfolding, and Russia’s reputation as a military power suffered a massive blow. On September 21, 2022, Putin announced a partial mobilization of Russian troops and declared that he will (illegally) annex four regions of Ukraine: Luhansk, Donetsk, Zaporizhzhia and Kherson. The US and its allies refuse to recognize this, but Putin threatened the use of tactical nuclear weapons to defend these territories. If Putin deployed these types of weapons, he faces the threat of losing Xi’s support altogether. As of September 30, 2022, Russia controls only parts of the four Ukrainian territories, who are leading a strong counteroffensive and pushing back Russian forces hour-by-hour. Thousands of Russians are fleeing into nearby countries to avoid fighting in the war.

As more NATO Allies pledge to provide assistance to Ukraine, a non-member, the US is providing billions of dollars in security assistance to defend Ukraine’s sovereignty. The US and its allies are on a path to completely cutting off Russian imports.

Xi and Putin share a different vision for world order than that of the US and its allies: one that doesn’t include Western-dominated global affairs. Therefore, China and Russia are united by a common foe. They are determined to push back on US attempts to create a unipolar world and counterbalance the power of the US, transatlantic West, and Japan.

However, despite their strengthening ties, the Ukraine War revealed that China and Russia are on different trajectories. China is a “rising superpower whose economy is forecast to overtake the United States in a decade,” whereas Russia is a “former superpower struggling with a draining war.” Xi expressed his readiness to work with Russia “to set an example of what a responsible global power is and assume leadership in order to bring the rapidly changing world onto a path of sustainable and positive development.”

This year, China is working on a “major gas pipeline project via Mongolia that could offset Russia’s cutoff from the European energy market.” However, the possibility of a railway that would economically link China, Kyrgyzstan, and Uzbekistan has “fueled unease in Russia, which sees the region as its sphere of influence.” China’s Central Asian neighbors are clearly uncomfortable with Russia’s Ukraine War, and over the past two decades, China has invested heavily in this policy that would build strong ties with them. These countries hold “power and agency” that will likely cause China to be sensitive to their regional concerns, and possibly influence China’s support for Russia amidst the war.

If Xi leans too hard into his strategic partnership with Putin, he may drive a wedge between himself and the other neighbors SCO members, “whom Beijing wishes to cultivate, and split the SCO in the process.” China has money and power–Russia doesn’t. China is stronger than Russia, and its “interests are more global—and more multifaceted,” and therefore would do well to be wary of its Central Asian partners’ interests, who are “terrified of Russia” and are not fully on board with the Ukraine War. Xi’s vague rhetoric and echoes of support for Russia are evidence of Xi’s cautionary tendencies so as not to scare away China’s other allies, particularly those in the Global South.

It is likely that Xi will continue to perform a balancing act, where he provides “diplomatic support for Russia and broad commitments to a Beijing-Moscow entente,” while also complying with Western sanctions, relaying vague promises of pursuing stability and “positive development,” preserving China’s access to the global market, and continuing to strengthen partnerships with other countries.

The Ukraine War may not be in China’s interest, but it appears that its partnership with Russia is a defensive one as they both remain wary of the US and its allies. Because of this, China has grown much closer to Moscow strategically, but Xi is cautious and keeps his options open. Echoes of mistrust and tension will likely remain between the two nations. If the partnership follows its current trajectory, Russia may become more dependent on the Chinese market for its exports, as well as Chinese diplomatic and strategic aid.


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