“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.