Don't Underestimate How Much More Putin Needs Xi Than Xi Needs Putin
Chinese President Xi Jinping's visit to Moscow was a much-needed favor Vladimir Putin. But make no mistake, Beijing is there to serve Beijing — and holds virtually all the cards.
Chinese president Xi Jinping’s much-anticipated visit to Moscow begins with a diplomatic mystery. In the first minutes of formal greetings at the Kremlin, Xi congratulated Russian President Vladimir Putin: “Russia has achieved significant successes under your leadership. Next year you have elections coming up, and I am convinced that the Russian people will give you their support.”
The Russian president’s candidacy in 2024, officially, is one of the biggest mysteries in Russian politics, as Putin has not yet declared his intentions, even though it is extremely unlikely that he would voluntarily move out of the Kremlin, and even less so after amending the constitution in 2020 to allow himself to enjoy two more six-year terms.
Still, the fact that Russians learned that their president will run again from Xi is extraordinary enough that Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters they had "misunderstood."
According to Moscow, the Chinese president said more generally that his Russian “friend” would continue to be supported by Russians next year.
It was hardly a gaffe — not at this level of politics, where every blink is weighed and measured. Maybe it was a translation error, or a courtesy Xi wanted to show Putin, in response to his host's compliments. Putin's welcome speech included the phrase "We envy you a little bit” (for China’s rapid pace of progress), which must have truly pained the Russian leader to say.
The most obvious interpretation, however, is that Xi wanted to show his support, which was exactly what Putin was asking of him when he persuaded him to come to Moscow, which was decorated with posters displaying greetings along his motorcade route.
Moreover, the fact that the Chinese president set foot in the Kremlin just two days after the International Criminal Court issued an arrest warrant for the Russian president is clearly a sign, if not of unqualified approval, at least of the “pro-Russian neutrality” some commentators have described.
It is not an unqualified endorsement, however, and this is something Xi and Putin made clear right away, in the few seconds of welcoming banter before the cameras.
Monday morning, the official Rossiyskaya Gazeta newspaper published an article by Xi on the need to resolve conflicts “reasonably, in a system that takes into account all security needs equally,” while Putin’s editorial in the Chinese official newspaper Renmin Ribao insists mainly on Ukrainian and American culpability for the war, arguing that Russia would like negotiations.
These are not exactly aligned positions, and in fact, the Russian president says he is “aware” of the peace plan formulated by Beijing, and wants to discuss it in the repeated talks he will have with Xi.
In other words, the very vague Chinese proposals were considered too bland, and it is a matter of figuring out what levers Putin can use to push China to side more openly with him.
Xi and Putin pose for photographers Tuesday at the Kremlin.
Russia's survival depends on China
During the 72-hours spent in Russia, Xi was actually in a delicate situation. Judging from the comments of Moscow opinion-makers close to the regime, expectations were enormous.
The survival of the Russian economy depends on Beijing: not only is it now — along with India — the main buyer of Russian oil and gas, but it is also the only possible major supplier of high-tech components and weapons.
The question is how much dependence Putin will be willing to offer in exchange for salvation, and how far Xi is willing to go in confronting the West over Russian imperialism. It is clear that solidarity with Ukraine was offered (especially by Washington) with Taiwan in mind as well — and it is also likely that, in the event of Putin’s victory, Xi would stand more decisively by his side in the demand to partition the world in a sort of new Yalta agreement.
But today, Putin is the loser: he is in trouble, and even his new status as an international criminal is something that Beijing and other “emerging” capitals may choose not to recognize, but also not to ignore.
If Xi decides to take Putin under his wing, he would do so because he is a vassal, not an ally.
Does Xi even need Putin?
As dissident Russian political scientist Maksim Trudolyubov writes, “Putin’s position with respect to Xi is becoming more and more like (Belarusian president Alexander) Lukashenko’s position, with respect to Putin himself."
It remains to be seen how much Putin will want to be Xi’s Lukashenko, and how successful he will be in gaining the autonomy that the Belarusian president has managed to hold onto for years now.
It also remains to be seen how essential Putin is for Beijing, although Xi’s statement about the choice the Russian people should make in 2024 could be interpreted as a guarantee.
The ideological regime that Putin has built is strongly nationalist, and the Chinese leader belongs perhaps to the last generation of Beijing leadership that still remembers the humiliation inflicted by Stalin, who considered Mao a “younger brother,” and the 30-year break with his comrades in Moscow.
A collapse of the Putin regime could, in China’s view, give the West and especially the U.S. an advantage, but it could also present China with opportunities as large as half of the Eurasian continent.
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