A high-profile summit Thursday between Chinese President Xi Jinping and Russian leader Vladmir Putin was rich in diplomatic flourish but little else at a time Moscow appears desperate for international assistance more than six months after its catastrophic invasion of Ukraine.
In fact the focus of Russia’s ongoing war – ostenibly to cleanse the region of a neo-Nazi regime in Kyiv – appeared almost nowhere in the subsequent documents and readouts each country released, with China even signaling an attempt to distance itself from the Kremlin’s disastrous decisionmaking.
Analysts and officials drew particular attention to a conspicuous moment for Putin when, during on-camera remarks, the autocratic leader confirmed that China has “questions and concerns” about Russia’s campaign marked by battlefield calamity and retreat.
“We highly appreciate the balanced position of our Chinese friends in connection with the Ukrainian crisis. We understand your questions and concerns in this regard,” Putin said in prepared remarks. “During today’s meeting, of course, we will explain in detail our position on this issue, although we have spoken about this before.”
The comment stood in stark and obvious contrast to a statement the two leaders issued weeks before Russia’s Ukraine invasion, on the first day of the Winter Olympics in February, in which they pledged a “no limits” partnership and backed each other in their standoffs with the West – Russia over Ukraine and China over Taiwan. In fact, Xi declined to reference Ukraine specifically at all in his remarks.
Cartoons on Ukraine and Russia
Putin’s top lieutenants had little of substance to offer subsequently. Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov described the encounter as “excellent, as usual” and said the two powers have “complete agreement in our assessments of the international situation,” according to a translation of his remarks.
“This is remarkable,” observed Michael McFaul, a former U.S. ambassador to Russia who has since become one of Putin’s most vociferous public critics.
“Xi is not supporting Putin. No weapons, no ammo, no chips, no real words of solidarity,” he wrote on Twitter, documenting some of the general and specific Russian shortcomings its war in Ukraine has exposed – including spare microchips for military equipment that in some instances troops have stripped from washing machines. McFaul added of one of the few commodities Russia still has to offer to international partners: “Just a willingness to buy Russian energy at very discounted prices.”
Beijing and Moscow announced last week that the summit would take place on the sidelines of a meeting in Uzbekistan of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation economic and security bloc. It follows signals from the Chinese Communist Party that it recognizes the practical need to maintain friendship with Russia for its own ambitions while distancing itself from the international fallout facing Moscow for its latest decisions.
And it comes at an enormously consequential time for the Russian leader following dramatic, surprise twin counteroffensives the Ukrainian military launched last week with devastating effect on the Russian army, which was forced to retreat – or “regroup” by the Kremlin’s telling. Reports emerged almost immediately of Russian troops’ abandoning sophisticated fighting vehicles and even their own rifles as some tried to blend in with the local population.
Even before the latest battlefield developments, Russia’s invasion exposed the rot within its military, the shortcomings of its equipment and an unwillingness among its troops to fight. A widely shared video this week appears to show influential Putin ally and Wagner Group mercenary company leader Yevgeny Prigozhin visiting a penal colony and attempting to recruit new membership to his fighting forces.
Though Putin’s grip on power at home remains all but ensured for the near future at least, dissent is growing within his own government, including from some top members of the legislature and prominent local governments.
Thursday would have proven an ideal time for China to break from its prior unwillingness to strengthen military cooperation with Russia. Or, for it even to announce new forms of weapons shipments akin to what the Kremlin has recently resorted to requesting of lesser powers like Iran and North Korea – a move a Pentagon spokesman recently described wryly as “a signal they’re having some challenges on the sustainment front.”
Instead, Xi and his government stuck to its prior tone, limiting its offerings of friendship to Russia to the agriculture, economic and trade spheres.
An official Chinese readout of the meeting broadly referenced the need to “safeguard the security interests of the region.” But it limited any specific security references only to the issue that China considers most important: “President Xi appreciated Russia’s adherence to the one-China principle, stressing that Taiwan is part of China,” with no reference to Ukraine.
Indeed, China’s English-language Global Times newspaper sought to distance the Ukraine issue from the core of Russia-Chinese relations.
It cited an expert who specified, according to the paper, “The current China-Russian relationship has been formed gradually with the development of history and the consideration of national interests, not in response to the Russia-Ukraine conflict, nor to the containment efforts of the US.”
The expert continued by citing the importance of economic and political cooperation between the two countries – conspicuously omitting the need for new forms of military support.
Though not an official mouthpiece for the party, U.S. officials and analysts consider it aligned with its views and often serves as an outlet for what party officials cannot say on-record.
Other analysts believe China now realizes the power it holds over Russia and is capitalizing on what it can gain from the situation Moscow has created for itself.
“As China comes to understand its enormous leverage over Russia, it will seek to shape Russian foreign policy in ways that serve its own interests,” Dmitri Alperovitch, with the Silverado Policy Accelerator, and Johns Hopkins University’s Sergey Radchenko wrote in Foreign Affairs.
“Over the past two decades, the Chinese have invested heavily in a policy that builds strong ties with Beijing’s Central Asian neighbors,” Evan Feigenbaum with the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace wrote earlier this week. “Those countries, which used to be part of the Soviet Union, are deeply uncomfortable with Russian actions in Ukraine – threatened by them, perpetually under pressure from Moscow, and looking for some breathing space.”