Vladimir Putin has his back against the wall in the Ukraine war. His army is barely making headway, Russia’s economy is groaning under Western sanctions, and the arrest warrant from the International Criminal Court isolating Russia’s president like never before. But as long as the wall behind Putin is a Chinese wall, the Kremlin boss continues to hope for victory and a new world order. The visit of China’s head of state Xi Jinping to Moscow may have given Putin’s hope a new impetus.
More symbolism was not possible. Xi’s visit began almost exactly nine years to the day after Russia annexed Crimea. Putin had previously flown for the first time to the occupied and completely destroyed city of Mariupol – a site of the worst war crimes. And so the Chinese head of state came to Russia for a three-day state visit as if the brutal war in Ukraine had not happened. The whole thing was flanked by newspaper articles in which Xi and Putin vowed their friendship and the close partnership between their countries “shoulder to shoulder”.
China keeps the Russian economy running
The visible result of the meeting: even more trade. It will tie Russia, which has been weakened by the Ukraine war, even more closely to China, but at the same time will enable it to continue this war. China buys more and more Russian raw materials and sells more and more goods to Russia. Chinese firms are now serving markets that were dominated by Western firms before the war.
By contrast, the results of talks on China’s latest diplomatic initiative on Ukraine are barely visible. There is a suspicion that Beijing’s twelve-point initiative, which Putin described as a “basis for a peaceful settlement of the conflict,” was not meant to be taken seriously. Otherwise he would not have come a year after the invasion and would not have left out the central question – the complete withdrawal of the Russian troops. Freezing the war now would be a victory for Putin. How serious Xi really is about his mediation offer will only become clear after his talks with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy.
It was one of those visits where you only understand afterwards what was discussed behind the soundproof doors. It is to be feared that Putin’s main concern was to inform Xi about his possible next steps in Ukraine – similar to what was probably done before the invasion in February 2022. Russia could step up the offensive at the front in the coming weeks, with brutal consequences for the Ukrainian population. If that’s the case, Moscow obviously wants China on its side, albeit invisible to the outside world.
China will prevent Russia’s defeat
The West is watching this ever-strengthening alliance with surprise and lack of ideas. Due to economic interests and the hope of diplomatic mediation, he is still holding back with harsh criticism. Perhaps one also assumes that China will distance itself from Moscow as soon as a clear defeat of Putin in this war becomes foreseeable. Perhaps then the Great Wall of China will crumble behind Putin’s back. However, another scenario seems more likely: China will try to prevent Russia’s defeat in any case, whether with diplomacy or open arms deliveries. The West should prepare for this.
Not long ago, people in Berlin and other Western capitals often said, “We shouldn’t push Russia into China’s arms.” That was naive – it happened long ago. This hug is getting stronger and the West could not have prevented this closing of ranks. Xi’s visit to Moscow has only made him more visible.