On the surface, the relationship between China’s President Xi Jinping and Russian President Vladimir Putin appears rock solid and unwavering. But recent maneuverings by China on the world stage have evidently made Putin a little uneasy, as the surface solidarity between the two men is fraying.
Putin and Xi need each other. They are both outcasts in what is still a unipolar world with the United States dominant. China has made no secret of its desire to replace the U.S. as the chief hegemon on the planet. China has been slowed in its drive to number one first by the pandemic and now the Ukraine war.
If Xi could broker a peace deal and get Putin to agree to end the fighting, it would be a tremendous coup. So he sent a representative off to Saudi Arabia last weekend to attend what was described as a “peace conference” to end the Ukraine war.
Russia wasn’t there, and China’s participation evidently irked Putin. On a Monday, there was a phone call between Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and CCP Director of the Office of the Central Commission for Foreign Affairs Wang Yi. In between the lines of the readout, the tension was palpable.
The ISW [Institute for the Study of War] wrote that the Russian and Chinese foreign ministries “portrayed the conversation between Lavrov and Wang differently,” which could suggest “China is increasingly diverging with Russia on proposed settlements to end the war.”
Meanwhile, the United States—Kyiv’s largest financial and military backer—has publicly urged China to refrain from supporting Russia in its war with Ukraine, and Wang reaffirmed that his nation remains impartial on the war following the Jeddah summit. The ISW indicated that this public stance of neutrality is causing a fissure between Beijing and the Kremlin.
“We have long said that it would be productive for China to play a role in ending the war in Ukraine if it was willing to play a role that respected Ukraine’s territorial integrity and Ukraine’s sovereignty,” State Department spokesman Matthew Miller told reporters.
There’s the rub. As the war progresses, it becomes apparent that Russia will be unable to achieve its aims of overthrowing the Kyiv government and installing a puppet regime to do Moscow’s bidding. But neither will Ukraine be able to achieve its stated aim of recovering every inch of territory conquered by Russia.
Putin now sees that stolen land as Russian. Ukraine says it won’t stop fighting until it gets the land back. At the rate they’re going, The Hundred Years War will seem short by comparison.
The Financial Times reported that Chinese diplomats who were at a summit to discuss a potential resolution to the conflict in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia last weekend were keen to show “China is not Russia.” A European diplomat present at the discussions told the FT that China’s presence showed Russia was “more and more isolated.”
The Insider added that “members of the Chinese elite were growing increasingly frustrated with the Kremlin’s intransigence.” China is also miffed because Russia continues to treat it as some sort of “junior partner” when it’s Russia who is draining its military and financial resources in a fruitless war of conquest.
What most unites Xi and Putin is a hatred of the United States. And that won’t change anytime soon.
Military analysts have told Insider that Xi and Putin shared a deep resentment of US global power and Xi saw the Ukraine war as a way of delivering a blow to the US, Ukraine’s most important international backer.
But core differences remain between the leaders. Xi has not yet provided Russia with the military support it’s requested in Ukraine and has aggravated Moscow by refusing to approve a new gas pipeline from Siberia that’d give the Kremlin’s revenues a crucial boost.
Xi was hoping for a quick Ukrainian collapse that never happened, while Putin was hoping for a new source of arms to quickly replace what he’s losing on the battlefield. Both men have been disappointed in each other.
But realistically, they have nowhere else to turn. The two dictators are tied to one another to the end.