The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion The Xi-Putin bromance is surely on the rocks

Chinese President Xi Jinping and Russian President Vladimir Putin in 2018. (Alexander Zemlianichenko/AP)

Xi and Putin’s excellent adventure might prove to be the world’s shortest bromance.

Last month, the bully of Beijing and the megalomaniac of Moscow shared some fun together at the Winter Olympics and announced — not for the first time — that they are tired of Uncle Sam bossing the world around. From now on, they’d be making their own rules.

Then Russian President Vladimir Putin rolled his sphere of influence over a cliff.

Russia’s clumsy, brutal and doomed invasion of its law-abiding neighbor Ukraine is the best advertisement for the Western alliance since, well, Russia’s invasions of Czechoslovakia in 1968 and of Hungary in 1956, not to mention Russia’s blockade of West Berlin in 1948. Nothing makes friends for the U.S.A. like the rumbling of Russian tanks.

But it’s worse than that, from Chinese President Xi Jinping’s perspective. His Russian wingman has reanimated the West while using tanks that immediately lost their rumble. The picture of mile after mile after mile of Russian military hardware bogged down along a single road north of Kyiv suggests that Xi’s Moscow partner is not just reckless but also feckless.

And brainless. It’s increasingly clear that Russian troops crossed the border with no idea where they were going, much less why. Invasion planners — or whatever you’d call them — assumed the Kyiv airport would be easily seized (wrong), the Ukrainian government would quickly collapse (wrong), and the population would be welcoming (wrong). Russia’s nuclear umbrella prevented NATO jets and missiles from wiping out the entire stalled column between one nightfall and the next dawn.

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With this umbrella thus shielding him, Putin will most likely revert to form — the butcher of Chechnya, the mad bomber of Syria — destroying cities and slaughtering civilians in a stalemate that serves only to remind the world what’s wrong with tyrants.

Xi must be feeling lonely now that his buddy has blown it. Chinese authorities are busy scouring their Internet to hide evidence of their leader’s poor taste in friends. But what other thoughts might be going through his head?

He might be rethinking his hurry-up schedule for absorbing Taiwan. The anti-communist island has been beefing up its defenses. If Ukraine can so easily become a graveyard for Russian tanks, what might Taiwan be for amphibious Chinese troops? China has spent a lot of money on its military in recent years, and the country does lots of training exercises. But Chinese generals and their troops aren’t battle-tested, and a contested assault on Taiwan could be a battle such as the world has not seen.

Consider: The English Channel, crossed on D-Day, is 20 miles at its narrowest. The Strait of Taiwan’s narrowest point is 81 miles wide. Consider, too: There were no satellites on D-Day to make targets of every ship.

Xi might be asking himself: What is Taiwan worth if — like Putin in Ukraine — I must destroy it to win it? And if Taiwan’s subjugation requires me to feed Chinese troops into a meat grinder, can I survive the backlash at home?

Meanwhile, as he mulls, Xi must factor in the awakened West.

China has enjoyed a terrific 30 years thanks to a world of wealthy, well-disposed customers. In a matter of days, however, Putin has turned that world into a wall of resolve. Xi might realize this is a bad time for China to go rogue. Chinese economic growth is already braking. Short-term efforts to stimulate growth are at cross-purposes with long-term efforts to mature the Chinese economy. Demographic trends are terrible.

In short, China should be cautious about triggering worldwide economic sanctions. Admittedly, China is an economic powerhouse, while Russia is a relative pipsqueak, but trends matter, and China’s aren’t good. Resolute sanctions on China would greatly accelerate the already approaching date when its economic miracle reaches high water and begins to ebb.

Putin’s debacle ought to cause Xi to review past Chinese policy and see the wisdom in it. His immediate predecessor, Hu Jintao, was a maestro of subtlety and patience on the Taiwan question, building economic and cultural ties while leaving political differences aside and trusting time to draw the island toward the mainland. China likes to celebrate its strategic patience. This is a good test.

Ultimately, Xi must decide whether to end the bromance now or later. He probably has the power to call off Putin’s brutalizing of Ukraine — but only if he intervenes forcefully. It’s a tough call for a man who has blundered into the wrong friendship. Xi thought he and Putin together could disrupt the Western alliance. He didn’t realize his pal was crazy.

Xi’s best move now is to advance China’s position by negotiating a quick end to the crisis in Europe. Or, to put it another way: advance China’s position by pushing Putin under a bus.

War in Ukraine: What you need to know

The latest: Russia fired at least 85 missiles on at least six major cities in Ukraine on November 15, in one of the most widespread attacks of the war so far. The strikes came just hours after Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, speaking by video link, presented a 10-point peace plan to G-20 leaders at a summit in Indonesia. As in previous Russian missile attacks, critical civilian infrastructure appeared to be primary targets. Parts of several cities that were hit were left without electrical power on Tuesday afternoon.

Russia’s Gamble: The Post examined the road to war in Ukraine, and Western efforts to unite to thwart the Kremlin’s plans, through extensive interviews with more than three dozen senior U.S., Ukrainian, European and NATO officials.

Photos: Washington Post photographers have been on the ground from the beginning of the war — here’s some of their most powerful work.

How you can help: Here are ways those in the U.S. can support the Ukrainian people as well as what people around the world have been donating.

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