• Associated Press

Analysis: China’s Sway over Russia Grows amid Ukraine Fight

Pavel Byrkin, Sputnik, Kremlin Pool Photo via AP
Chinese President Xi Jinping, left, shakes hands with Russian President Vladimir Putin as he leaves after their dinner at The Palace of the Facets in the Moscow Kremlin, Russia, March 21, 2023.

MOSCOW (AP) — It was a revealing moment during Chinese leader Xi Jinping’s tightly scripted visit to Moscow: Standing in the doorway of the Grand Kremlin Palace, he told Russian President Vladimir Putin that the two of them were “witnessing the changes that haven’t been seen in more than a century, and we are pushing them together.”

I agree, Putin responded.

The remarks — caught on a Kremlin camera over a bodyguard’s shoulder — offered a rare glimpse into Xi’s ambitions and his relationship with Russia after more than a year of fighting in Ukraine.

While Moscow increasingly looks like a junior partner to Beijing, Xi is likely to offer a strong lifeline to Putin, his key partner in efforts to reshape the world to try to limit U.S. domination.

Xi’s unusually blunt statement capped more than 10 hours of Kremlin talks, which ended with long declarations filled with florid rhetoric about expanding the “comprehensive partnership and strategic cooperation” between Russia and China, pledges to champion a multilateral approach to global affairs and criticism of Washington.

In his concluding statement, Putin hailed the Chinese proposal for a settlement in Ukraine, which the West had all but rejected as a non-starter. The Russian leader also rolled out a slew of initiatives that cemented his country’s role as a key source of energy and other raw materials for China’s giant economy. He proposed building new energy pipelines, invited the Chinese to fill the niche left after the exodus of Western businesses, and vowed to boost the export of agricultural products to China.

Xi remained tight-lipped, avoiding any firm commitments regarding specific projects and mostly sticking to general and vague rhetoric about expanding ties.

A lot of things that Vladimir Putin would have liked to happen did not, in fact, happen, Rana Mitter, professor of Chinese history and politics at Oxford University, told The Associated Press. “There was no point at which Xi explicitly said that he accepted Russia’s position on the Ukraine war over the position of Ukraine.”

In fact, there was “a sense that China was reserving for itself the right to step away from a complete endorsement” of the Russian position, Mitter added.

Moscow and Beijing said they would increase contacts between their militaries and stage more joint sea and air patrols and drills, but there wasn’t even the slightest hint from China about helping Russia with weapons, as the U.S. and other Western allies feared.

Speaking Wednesday before a Senate committee, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said China so far has heeded strong U.S. warnings against providing lethal material support for Russia in Ukraine. “We have not seen them cross that — cross that line,” he said.

A top analyst at the U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency said Beijing wants to be seen as a peacemaker and diplomatic heavyweight.

So I think China would be very reluctant to be seen openly supporting Russia with lethal aid, said Doug Wade, head of the DIA’s China mission group. “It would undermine their whole narrative about their role in the world that they’re trying so hard to sell.”

U.S. National Security Council spokesperson John Kirby described the Putin-Xi relationship as “a marriage of convenience,” in which they pool efforts to challenge U.S. leadership, and the Russians “certainly are the junior partner.” He added at a briefing earlier this week that Putin sees Xi as “a lifeline of sorts” amid the fighting in Ukraine.

Many commentators argued that the summit marked Putin’s failure to win any specific aid from Beijing and cemented Russia’s increasingly subordinate role in the alliance with China.

China’s domination of Russia is complete, tweeted Sam Greene, professor in Russian politics at King’s College London. “While there were undoubtedly agreements we are not meant to know about, there is no indication here of a significant increase in military support for Russia — nor even of a willingness on Xi’s part to ramp up diplomatic support. A swing and a miss for Putin.”

After more than a year of fighting in Ukraine and bruising Western sanctions, Russia’s dependence on China has increased significantly. Facing Western restrictions on its oil, gas and other exports, Russia has shifted its energy flows to China and sharply expanded other exports, resulting in a 30% hike in bilateral trade.

Western price caps on Russia’s oil forced Moscow to offer it to China and other customers at a sharp discount, but despite those lower prices, the vast Chinese market ensured a stable flow of oil revenue to the Kremlin’s coffers.

As long as Russia can trade with China and other Asian states, it will face “no danger of running out of money or being forced to concede on the battlefield, said Chris Weafer, CEO of the consulting firm Macro-Advisory.

While profiting handsomely from Moscow’s desperate situation, Beijing would be certain to ramp up its support if it sees Russia dangerously weakened.

The nightmare scenario for China is that collapse of Russia militarily leads to collapse of the regime and installment of some pro-Western government, said Alexander Gabuev, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment.

Gabuev argued that Beijing would be unlikely to provide any direct military assistance to Moscow anytime soon simply because it doesn’t feel the pressing need to do so. “Russia is not doing great on the battlefield, but it’s obviously not losing it, so the need to support the Russian military efforts so far is questionable from both sides,” he said.

More than ammunition, tanks and rockets, Russia badly needs China’s help in skirting Western sanctions to maintain the flow of high-tech components for its weapons industries and other economic sectors. Sergei Markov, a pro-Kremlin political analyst, predicted that China could be expected to act more resolutely to help Russia get them.

Russia doesn’t need weapons from China, Markov wrote on his messaging app channel. “It needs microchips and components, and they will come.”

Some observers say that while Beijing has been coy about supporting Moscow, it has vital interest in shoring up its ally to avoid being left alone in any potential confrontation with the United States.

Mikhail Korostikov, an expert on Russia-China ties, said in a commentary for the Carnegie Endowment that China has been closely watching Russia’s experience in facing massive Western sanctions. “For Beijing, a close study and partial use of instruments and decisions used by Russia is a reasonable course in a situation when China’s confrontation with the West looks inevitable,” he said.

Korostikov noted that while Moscow’s dependence on Beijing is growing, China’s room for maneuvering is also shrinking.

There is no alternative to Russia as a partner providing resources that China will critically need in case of an escalation in its confrontation with the West, he said. “It helps balance the situation and allows Moscow to hope that Beijing will not overuse its newly-acquired economic levers.”