When Vladimir Putin, his face markedly swollen, welcomed his “dear friend” Xi Jinping to the Kremlin yesterday, the Russian despot acted as if he were welcoming his equal.
After all, he no doubt reasoned, China needs Russian oil and gas for its energy-guzzling economy. The Kremlin is also a useful ally for Beijing in opposing what the two dictators see as US domination of global affairs. When the two met in China last year, they issued a statement declaring that the “friendship” between their regimes “has no limits.”
Xi seemed happy to play along yesterday with this fiction. He knows that the presence of a bona fide world leader traveling to Moscow has enormous domestic propaganda value for Putin, allowing him to show his subjects that his gruesome war has not left him completely isolated on the international stage.
Paying effusive tribute to Putin’s “strong leadership” and insisting that he was “convinced” that the mass murderer enjoyed the support of the Russian people, Xi even said they were “comprehensive strategic cooperation partners.” He has been studying Russian culture and politics for 15 years. Let me tell you: Putin will have enjoyed all this with joy.
But if the Russian dictator really believes that Xi is his equal, he is delusional. Because Beijing’s approach to world politics is much smarter than Moscow’s.
Russian President Vladimir Putin (right) meets Chinese President Xi Jinping (left) at the Moscow Kremlin.
The Chinese president and the Russian president walk after their talks in the Kremlin.
Where Putin lashes out, miscalculates and views the world in crude terms of status, Xi is infinitely more cunning. And despite the fact that he presented himself as a man of peace yesterday, even claiming to have a 12-point ‘peace plan’ to end the war in Ukraine, Xi wants the war to continue.
The Americans have suggested that he plans to supply Putin with weapons. If so, you can be sure that he will let the Russians have enough weapons to prolong this terrible conflict for months or years, but not to end it.
Because? Because every day the war drags on, Xi and her cronies in the Chinese Communist Party gain valuable new insights into how the West might react if it gets on with what really matters to it.
That is his plan to invade and capture Taiwan, the democratic island of 23 million people that has been ruled independently since 1949 but which China believes belongs to its empire.
Last month, the CIA revealed that Xi has ordered his vast People’s Liberation Army to be ready to invade Taiwan by 2027. A dictator for life, Xi knows that as long as the war in Ukraine dominates the international agenda, Western attention will turn. will distract.
In the meantime, he reckons, several long, grueling years of a bloody and costly proxy war in Ukraine will weaken America’s resolve to fight elsewhere or defend its allies. NATO taxpayers, he surmises, will resent paying for conflicts in faraway lands.
Which brings me to another reason why Xi wants the war to drag on. Accepting China’s weapons and support means Russia moves ever closer to Beijing’s control. Remember: China’s infamous ‘Belt and Road’ infrastructure project has seen it lend billions to African countries in a decades-long effort to bring the continent under its rule.
Putin can look closer to home to learn the same lesson. Chinese logging companies have taken advantage of Russia’s isolation and desperation to export to bulldoze swaths of Siberian forest at exorbitant prices.
“Xi will have had no qualms about backing a man who has bombed maternity wards and playgrounds in Ukraine, massacred tens of thousands of civilians and kidnapped thousands of children.”
In 2020, China imported nearly 6.5 million cubic meters of logs from Russia, leaving behind tracts of scarred land dotted with dying stumps.
Putin can be sure, then, that Xi’s generosity can only come at a high cost. Yes, the two men have similar worldviews, despise freedom and democracy and yearn for a new world order that is no longer controlled by the West.
Xi will have had no qualms about backing a man who has bombed maternity wards and playgrounds in Ukraine, massacred tens of thousands of civilians and kidnapped thousands of children. And he will have seen the arrest warrant recently issued for Putin by the International Criminal Court as little more than a diplomatic trifle.
However, Xi will expect payment for his largesse, with interest.
Last night, the two despots were to celebrate a banquet that included quail, venison and wines from some of the best vineyards in Russia. It remains to be seen how long this sordid friendship will last. But sadly for the world, their continued existence means that regardless of the weasel words of China’s president, peace will remain a distant dream.
Dr Jade McGlynn is a Research Fellow in the Department of War Studies at King’s College London and the author of Russia’s War, published this week.