The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

For Putin and Xi, Ukraine war creates wrinkle in ‘no limits’ friendship

Russian President Vladimir Putin speaks to Chinese President Xi Jinping during the Shanghai Cooperation Organization in Samarkand, Uzbekistan, on Sept. 16. (Sergei Bobylev, Sputnik, Kremlin Pool/AP)
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Vladimir Putin is waging a reckless war in an uncertain bid to re-create a superpower of the past. Xi Jinping is cautiously, carefully steering China to its certain destiny as a superpower of the future.

As the two presidents met in Uzbekistan on Thursday on the sidelines of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization summit, the subtle undertones of the meeting revealed as much about this, and other key differences between the two strongman leaders and their respective nations, as it did about the commonalities that bind them in their self-declared “no-limits” friendship.

Putin and Xi each harbor resentments over past humiliations by the West. They dream of cutting the United States down to size, then taking what they see as their rightful places among several dominant world leaders. They are dictators, ruling “democracies” that lack any meaningful democratic features. And they both want to reshape global rules to suit themselves.

But Putin’s chaotic, tear-it-all-down approach, kicking down the territorial sovereignty of neighboring Ukraine and perpetrating the biggest land war in Europe since World War II, could not be more different from Xi’s careful, steady moves to bend global institutions to Chinese values.

The war has roiled global supply chains and set off global economic instability, impacting China, along with most of the world. It has irreparably harmed Putin’s reputation, exposed his country’s military weakness and triggered punishing sanctions, without producing a single notable benefit.

“The Chinese leadership believes that Putin’s foreign policy is like a hurricane,” said Alexander Gabuev, an expert on China and Russia at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. “It’s absolutely illogical to them to attack Ukraine because the downsides have far outweighed any bonuses.”

Bobo Lo, former Australian deputy ambassador to Moscow and expert on Russian foreign policy, said that Russia and China had fundamentally different visions of the global order, with China wary of Russia’s destructive approach and its doubtful long-term prospects of success.

“Moscow, from the get-go, has had three aims: One is to destroy any idea of a sovereign independent Ukraine; the other is to rewrite the post-Cold War settlement in Europe, and the third is to basically trash any idea of a U.S.-led global order,” Lo said.

“Moscow is much more of a destroyer and underminer than a creator,” he said. “So it has the capacity to cause havoc, but it doesn’t really have the capacity to put in place any kind of alternative vision of global order. And I’m not even sure that it necessarily wants to.”

Beijing has struck a delicate balance over the war. It bestowed a measure of restrained moral support on its large, energy-rich neighbor, maintaining and expanding economic ties with Moscow, without supporting the war, sending arms, or breaching Western sanctions. All in all, it is far less than Putin would want from its most powerful ally.

Xi and Putin meet and pledge to ‘inject stability’ in the world

At the same time, Putin’s meetings with Xi and other leaders at the Shanghai Cooperation Organization summit in Uzbekistan, sent a useful message to Russians at home about his continued global stature. But while Putin attended a dinner and posed for a photo of leaders on Thursday night, Xi skipped the meal and the picture.

The bilateral meeting between Putin and Xi on Thursday contrasted starkly with their last face-to-face encounter in February, to mark the Beijing Winter Olympics and trumpet their “no limits” friendship.

Putin’s visit then was a favor to the Chinese leader amid a diplomatic boycott of the games. Sports was clearly not at the top of Putin’s mind. He huddled alone in a dark coat at the Opening Ceremonies, eyes drooping shut in an apparent doze, just as Ukraine’s team entered the arena.

But in Samarkand on Thursday, the Russian president looked more of an earnest supplicant, conceding that China had “concern and questions” over the war, and promising to answer them.

Xi, in his public remarks, talked about “the responsibility of a major country to play a leading role and inject stability into a turbulent world,” in comments that seemed implicitly critical.

Putin also spoke about stability, but in the process sneered at the Western-led global order.

“The tandem of Moscow and Beijing plays a key role in ensuring global and regional stability,” Putin said. “We jointly stand for the formation of a just, democratic and multipolar world based on international law and the central role of the U.N., and not on some rules that someone has come up with and is trying to impose on others without explaining what it is.”

This ignored Russia’s flagrant violations of international law in Ukraine since 2014.

China has worked methodically to skew international institutions to its interests, confident of its inevitable rise as a global superpower and the world’s largest economy. Beijing has quietly flexed its economic muscle around the globe, building influence across Asia, Africa and Latin America.

Russia intervened militarily in Syria, has deployed mercenaries in Africa, maintains a 1,500-strong force in Transnistria, Moldova, and has waged war on Georgia and Ukraine, controlling chunks of their territory through proxies. China, meanwhile, has projected its military power regionally by building military bases on artificial islands in the South China Sea, through naval and air patrols, and military spending second only to the United States. Last month it conducted aggressive military exercises near Taiwan, just after U.S. Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi visited the island.

“Russia knows that in any new global order it’s not going to be a significant player,” Lo said. “So its best bet is to be … an anarchist in the international system. In other words, it benefits from chaos and disorder and uncertainty and blurred lines and blank spots.”

Lo said Russia would lose out in any well-balanced global system.

“If you have a clearly defined world order, whether it’s a U.S.-led order, a U.S.-China G2 type of thing or a multilateral rules-based regime or whatever, Russia’s relative influence would decline significantly in any of those orders. So the current global disorder is actually the best case scenario for Moscow.”

Last month, China imported more Russian crude oil than ever before

As a result of the Ukraine war and Western sanctions, China will now be in a position to extract punishingly advantageous energy contracts from Russia, as Moscow loses its biggest energy market in Europe.

Russia, meanwhile, resentful and insecure and increasingly dependent on Chinese for trade, can claim a place as a residual global heavyweight thanks only to its nuclear weapons, a legacy of the Soviet Union, and its permanent seat on the U.N. Security Council.

Xi sent another subtle but unmistakable message to the Kremlin on Wednesday when he visited Kazakhstan before flying to Uzbekistan.

Xi met Kazakh President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev, vowing strong support for the sovereignty and territorial integrity of a nation that like Ukraine, is a neighbor of Russia with a significant Russian-speaking population and has been used regularly by Russian politicians since the 1990s to level oblique threats of action to “protect” them.

Putin, tone deaf and isolated, pursues war ‘goals’ and refuses to lose

Putin’s failure to come away from Thursday’s meeting with Xi with any concrete achievement — such as signing of the Power of Siberia 2 gas pipeline deal, a linchpin of Russia’s energy pivot to China — signaled China’s wary approach to Russia, as the messy, brutal war drags on. Last week, Putin said all the details had been agreed.

Still, the meeting was evidence that Russian and Chinese relations will continue on a pragmatic path, with China pursuing its interests, and Russia losing global clout.

“China is pretty skillfully for now balancing its interests to maintain relationship with Russia,” said Gabuev. “That’s a big neighbor, a P5 country, a like-minded authoritarian state, a common long-term U.S. adversary. And at the same time, it is appreciating how important what’s left over the relationship between China and the West is for now, and how important access to U.S. and European technology markets and investment is.

“China really wants to not cross the U.S. red lines with regard to sanctions,” Gabuev said.

Gabuev said Xi had chosen the occasion for his meeting with Putin carefully, a multilateral setting with plenty of leaders’ meetings on the sidelines. “The optics also matter. He doesn’t travel to Russia, per se, which would be viewed as direct support,” Gabuev said.

Andrei Kortunov, director of the pro-Kremlin Russian Council for International Affairs, said Western analysts portrayed China as the big bad wolf ready to devour silly, naive Russia, while Russian politicians, analysts saw China as a fairy godmother flying to Moscow’s rescue.

In reality, he said China and Russia at times share interests and at times diverge.

“Therefore, it is hardly fair to define Beijing’s approaches to international relations as pro-Russian or anti-Russian,” Kortunov said. “They have always been and will be primarily pro-Chinese.”

Natalia Abbakumova in Riga, Latvia, contributed to this report.