Roger Garside is a former British diplomat and author of China Coup: The Great Leap to Freedom.
Despite the smiles, the arm-gripping and the warm words, Russian President Vladimir Putin and Chinese President Xi Jinping spent their time together in Moscow mired in the mud of a disastrous war that Mr. Putin started with Mr. Xi’s support.
What were Mr. Putin’s objectives for this encounter? What were Mr. Xi’s? Did either achieve them?
If Mr. Putin hoped to persuade Mr. Xi to provide him with the arms and money that he needs to even stand a chance of avoiding defeat in his war in Ukraine, he failed.
If Mr. Xi hoped to persuade Mr. Putin to join him in a serious attempt to negotiate a peace that would save them both from humiliation, he failed.
As the two men shared their assessments of the war, they stared at the prospect that Ukraine, strengthened by arms and training from NATO, and having survived all that Russia could throw at it through the winter, could launch a counteroffensive in April or May.
When they reviewed Russia’s economic needs, they faced a Russian state budget deficit of US$34-billion in the first two months of this year alone.
In this dialogue, Mr. Xi holds the upper hand. China is the largest importer of Russian fossil fuels, accounting for 38 per cent of Russia’s exports. Its earnings from these have fallen by 50 per cent since the war began, so China’s support is vital. Yet there is no sign from the summit that Mr. Xi used this leverage to force Mr. Putin into serious negotiations for peace.
Why did Mr. Xi hold back? Is he hoping that the Republicans will win the White House in 2024 on an end-the-war ticket? Donald Trump has said “I will get the problem [of the war] solved, it will take me no longer than one day.” Ron DeSantis, Republican Governor of Florida, whose eyes are also on the presidency, has said that defending Ukraine is not a “vital” American interest. Is Mr. Xi really pinning his hopes of Mr. Putin’s survival on the U.S. forcing Ukraine to sue for peace? If so, he is deluding himself. The next U.S. presidential inauguration is 22 months away, and the chances that the hand on the Bible that day will belong to someone committed to allowing Mr. Putin to retain the fruits of war are close to zero.
Did Mr. Xi hold back because he fears the damage that forcing his “dear friend” Mr. Putin to sue for peace would do his personal authority and China’s international standing? Is he buying time, and using that time to present himself and China as the key peacemaker, when the terms to end this war are negotiated? This posturing may be plausible to some in the Global South, but not in the most powerful nations of the world, in East Asia, Europe, or North America. There, China’s claim to impartiality is seen as contradicted by its role in financing Russia’s war (its purchases of Russian fossil fuels provide 40 per cent of Russia’s budget revenues), and its failure to condemn Russia’s war crimes and its violation of the UN Charter by its “use of force against the territorial integrity … of any state.”
When Mr. Xi left Moscow on Wednesday, Mr. Putin may have felt relief that he has not – at least not yet – been pressured into peace negotiations, but he knows he has not gained the quantity of arms and money he needs to survive. Meanwhile, Russia has become an economic colony of China, forced to sell its raw materials at a discount dictated by the U.S. and its allies, and receiving payment in Chinese currency.
While Mr. Putin and Mr. Xi were putting a brave face on their dire predicament in Moscow, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky was receiving the Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida, who will chair this year’s G7 meeting. Mr. Zelensky can also take satisfaction from a recent commitment by a dozen EU member states to send at least one million artillery shells to Ukraine over the coming year, and relish the fact that the International Criminal Court has just issued a warrant for the arrest of Mr. Xi’s Russian host. Ukraine has taken a terrible physical battering but won powerful friends and earned great respect around the world. Its people know what they are fighting for, and why. The contrast with Russia is stark.