Chinese President Xi Jinping’s upcoming state visit to Russia provides a significant morale boost for Vladimir Putin, offering an opportunity to showcase the purported new world order that the Russian leader believes he is establishing through his actions in the war on Ukraine.
Putin believes that this approach precludes the United States and NATO from exerting their influence on others.
After recently securing his third term in power, Chinese President Xi Jinping’s visit to Russia unites two leaders who have declared themselves as leaders for life. This meeting sets the stage for worldwide confrontation, with Beijing willing to employ its partnership with Moscow to counter Washington, even if it means silently condoning Putin’s ruthless and destabilizing conflict.
According to Alexander Gabuev, an analyst with the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, the somber reality in China is that we are entering an era of conflict with the U.S., where diplomacy is futile, and Russia is viewed as a valuable asset and ally in this struggle.
It is uncertain whether this confrontation will intensify and drive three nuclear powers to the brink of World War III or if it only marks the initial notes of Cold War 2.0. However, Xi’s visit underscores the formation of alliances, with China, Russia, and Iran aligning themselves against the United States, Britain, and other NATO allies in a contest for global influence and for support from nations such as Saudi Arabia and South Africa, which seem uncertain but available.
In an article published on Sunday in China’s People’s Daily, Putin raved about the brotherly friendship between China and Russia, standing “shoulder to shoulder” against Western domination. Putin wrote, “The ‘Collective West,’ clinging to its outdated dogmas and dwindling dominance, gambles with the fate of entire nations and peoples,” adding that the U.S. policy of deterrence towards Russia and China is increasingly hostile and aggressive. Putin further warned of NATO’s intent to infiltrate the Asia-Pacific region.
Xi’s upcoming visit to Russia is being hailed as the most important diplomatic event of 2023 and comes at an opportune moment for Putin. Stalled military advances, increasing casualties, and an arrest warrant issued for war crimes by the International Criminal Court have stained Putin’s reputation. Thus, Putin desperately needs a distraction to prop himself up, and Xi’s visit could provide that.
For Russian citizens, hosting the Chinese leader will reinforce Putin’s image as a modern-day czar. A state dinner will be held in the Faceted Chamber, the oldest building in Moscow, built by Ivan III, who is known for annexing neighboring territories, much like Putin aspires to do.
Given rampant second-guessing of Putin’s military strategy, the display of China and Russia as allies against the United States will also lend credibility to Putin’s assertions that the Ukraine war is the crucible by which Russia is creating the new post-American order.
With the arrival of the Chinese president in Russia, and Putin’s fervent anti-Western stance, the world is facing a perilous juncture. Putin has suspended the New START agreement, which is the only remaining arms control pact with Washington, and has placed his country’s future on a protracted and uncertain war, despite the enormous economic toll and concerns from his own inner circle. Conversely, the West is providing Ukraine with additional potent weaponry, such as fighter jets and tanks.
The alliance of authoritarian leaders could result in a world split into opposing factions for years to come, hindering cooperation on climate change, human rights violations, and leading to increased tensions in disputed regions while paralyzing international organizations.
While Putin seeks allies who can offer military aid, improve trade, or at least back him in global forums, Xi’s visit appears to be more about positioning China on the world stage than about Russia or Ukraine, according to Aleksei Chigadayev, a China analyst at Leipzig University and former lecturer at Moscow’s Higher School of Economics, who left Russia due to the invasion.
Chigadayev suggested that Xi’s visit demonstrates to the world that China can mediate in international conflicts and is a dependable partner, as well as a warning to the United States to engage in negotiations with Beijing and to Europe regarding China’s role as a significant global power. The visit also sends a message to Central Asia, Africa, and the Middle East that China is a more viable source of support than the United States.
Xi may also be intent on demonstrating to Putin that if there is a new world order, then China will lead it.
China recently displayed rising global influence by mediating a diplomatic rapprochement between Iran and Saudi Arabia, amid Washington’s annoyance with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman over his support for Putin’s efforts to keep oil prices high so that he can bankroll the war.
Although China portrays itself as a neutral party when it comes to Putin’s war in Ukraine, the Kremlin sees Xi as its strongest tacit supporter.
Despite calls from the international community to condemn Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, China has remained silent and instead placed blame on the United States for the conflict. Additionally, China has criticized the Western sanctions imposed on Russia, which aim to cut off funding to Putin’s military operations.
In 2022, China increased trade with Russia, including a significant rise in the export of electronic chips needed for weapon production, and an increase in purchases of Russian oil. These actions by China have helped prop up Russia’s economy during a time of intense pressure.
On Friday, Russian presidential aide Yury Ushakov announced that Russia and China are expected to achieve their goal of $200 billion in annual trade turnover by 2024 a year early, in 2023. He also praised the “warm and trusting” relationship between the two leaders.
Amid the escalating global confrontation, a key question is whether Beijing will provide weapons to Putin, potentially through an underground channel such as North Korea. The United States has warned China against doing so, which has outraged senior Chinese officials who accused Washington of hypocrisy, pointing to the large flow of U.S. weapons to Kyiv.
China has called for a cease-fire between Ukraine and Russia and the opening of peace talks as part of a 12-point proposal, and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky has expressed willingness to speak to Xi. But the plan seems to have no chance at success, largely because it does not address Russia’s occupation of Ukrainian territory.
According to the Kremlin, the proposal is receiving “great attention,” but they maintain that there can be no peace until Ukraine accepts the “new realities” – an apparent reference to Russia’s annexation of Ukrainian territory. Meanwhile, Zelensky has vowed to recapture all occupied lands, including Crimea.
“All of Moscow’s demands are well known. The de facto situation and new realities are also well known,” said Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov on Tuesday.
Regardless of the thinness of the proposal, Xi can use it to posture globally and highlight that China is the only member of the U.N. Security Council with a peace plan. Xi can also echo Putin’s assertion that NATO’s supply of weapons to Ukraine will only increase tensions.
Xi’s arrival in Moscow coincides with the growing alliance between Russia and Iran, where Moscow has turned to Tehran for self-destructive drones to attack Ukrainian cities. Moreover, there is little hope for the revival of the Iran nuclear deal, also known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, raising concerns of Iran obtaining nuclear weapons and destabilizing global security. Putin and Xi share a common agenda: their skewed versions of democracy and market economics, a disregard for human rights, a fear of civic engagement, and, above all, a desire to end US global dominance and reshape international norms to serve their interests.
The dinner in the Faceted Chamber highlights how, three decades after the end of the Cold War, we seem to be at the brink of another ominous era. In 1988, Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev exchanged toasts in the same room, where Reagan declared the Cold War over and denounced his 1983 statement referring to the Soviet Union as the “evil empire.”
Unlike the last Cold War, where there was a Sino-Soviet split over ideological differences, China appears to confront the US and Europe with Russia by its side. China’s pessimism towards relations with the US is growing, and with increasing leverage over a declining Russia, China has decided to cement the relationship.
While Beijing complied with Washington’s red lines on Western sanctions against Russia, it saw the US impose export controls on China’s ability to obtain high-end semiconductors, while also supplying more weapons to Taiwan. With Putin facing an arrest warrant over war crimes in the International Criminal Court, Xi’s visit is a critical symbolic boost, showcasing that Putin still has a powerful ally, even after being isolated by the West.
Officials in Moscow are downplaying Putin’s position of supplication, but Russia’s weakened hand will only continue to deteriorate as its economy stagnates under sanctions and isolation from global technology and supply chains.
While such a decline aligns with Chinese interests, Beijing also wants to prevent a Russian collapse in the war, which could lead to the fall of Putin’s regime and potentially strengthen the United States while creating chaos and uncertainty along the 2,600-mile-long border between Russia and China.
According to Alexey Maslov, director of the Moscow State University Institute of Asian and African Studies, this new confrontational era “will be a long-lasting cold war between different camps,” which will disrupt and hamper not only China, Russia, and Iran but also the United States and Europe. The world will become less comfortable for trade, education, negotiations, and other activities for the next two decades, Maslov said.