In Clash With U.S. Over Ukraine, Putin Has a Lifeline From China
By Steven Lee Myers and Edward Wong
As the United States moves to exert maximal pressure on Russia over fears of a Ukraine invasion, the Russian leader, Vladimir V. Putin, has found relief from his most powerful partner on the global stage, China.
China has expressed support for Mr. Putin’s grievances against the United States and NATO, joined Russia to try to block action on Ukraine at the United Nations Security Council, and brushed aside American warnings that an invasion would create “global security and economic risks” that could consume China, too.
On Friday, Mr. Putin will meet in Beijing with China’s leader, Xi Jinping, ahead of the opening ceremony of the Winter Olympics that President Biden and other leaders have pointedly vowed to boycott.
Although details of any potential agreements between the two countries have not been disclosed, the meeting itself — Mr. Xi’s first in person with a world leader in nearly two years — is expected to be yet another public display of geopolitical amity between the two powers.
A Chinese promise of economic and political support for Mr. Putin could undermine Mr. Biden’s strategy to ostracize the Russian leader for his military buildup on Ukraine’s borders. It could also punctuate a tectonic shift in the rivalry between the United States and China that could reverberate from Europe to the Pacific.
“If there’s a war over Ukraine, and the Chinese and Russians overtly align with one another, suddenly the world we’re in looks like a very, very different one,” said Evan S. Medeiros, a professor at Georgetown University who served on the National Security Council during Russia’s annexation of Crimea from Ukraine in 2014.
“China will be on the eastern front of what looks like a long-term global competition,” he added.
China’s leaders have watched the confrontation between Russia and the United States over Ukraine intently, with reports in Chinese state media highlighting the divisions among the NATO allies and criticizing the United States, gleefully at times.
The leadership has viewed the showdown as a test of American influence and resolve that could distract Mr. Biden from his administration’s focus on China as the pre-eminent strategic rival of the 21st century. That includes growing American support for Taiwan, the island democracy that China claims as part of its territory.
“In practical terms, China benefits on two fronts,” said Alexander Gabuev, an expert on Russia’s relations with China at the Carnegie Moscow Center. “First, a major security crisis in Europe will suck up a lot of oxygen that Team Biden needs to address China. Secondly, Russia will move even closer to China — on Beijing’s terms.”
In Washington, administration officials said they are worried that at the summit meeting in Beijing, Mr. Xi would offer Mr. Putin reassurances of Chinese support if the United States imposes heavy economic penalties on Russia, as the administration has threatened to do.
When the United States imposed similar penalties in 2014 following Russia’s annexation of Crimea, Mr. Putin also turned to China as an alternative source of investment and trade, minimizing the impact, at least somewhat. That year, China went ahead and signed a $400 billion gas deal with Russia, though Chinese officials did negotiate favorable prices for their companies since Mr. Putin was in a bind.
Maria Snegovaya, a visiting scholar at George Washington University who co-wrote an Atlantic Council paper on American sanctions against Russia, said the 2014 events pushed Russia closer to China.
She predicted that China would again help blunt the impact of sanctions, noting that the country is now a big buyer of Russian weapons, fish and timber, and in 2020 it was the largest importer of Russia’s crude oil and natural gas.
“This provides Russia more flexibility in case the West sanctions some of Russia’s exports,” she said.
While China has often driven a hard bargain with Russia in the past, the economic ties between the two countries have soared since Russia’s first invasion of Ukraine.
China announced last month that trade with Russia had reached nearly $147 billion, compared to $68 billion in 2015, the year after it annexed Crimea and supported separatists in eastern Ukraine. Russia’s ambassador to China, Andrei Denisov, said the two countries could soon complete a deal for a second natural gas pipeline like the one called Power of Siberia, which began flowing in 2019.
Beyond any economic benefits, the two countries have found common cause in trying to weaken American power and influence. Officials and state media in both countries have in recent weeks echoed each other’s attacks on the United States, reflecting an increasingly jaded view of American intentions.
China joined Russia in accusing the United States of fomenting public protests that swept Kazakhstan. Sergei Naryshkin, the director of Russia’s foreign intelligence service and a hawkish compatriot of Mr. Putin’s when both served in the Soviet K.G.B., said last month that the United States planned “to aggressively and maliciously interfere” in the Olympics in Beijing.
Global Times, a nationalistic newspaper of the Communist Party, seized on the comments to declare that the plot had been foiled. “Failed attack campaign against Winter Olympics shows incompetence of U.S. government,” a headline declared.
Mr. Xi has met Mr. Putin 37 times as their countries’ leaders, more than any other head of state. In their last meeting, a virtual summit in December, Mr. Xi called him his “old friend,” and the two pledged to build an international political and financial system not dominated by the United States and the dollar.
Chinese officials view Russia’s drive to push back against NATO as a parallel to their own efforts to prevent the United States from building up alliances and partnerships in Asia to counter China.
While there are many differences in the geopolitical situations of Ukraine and Taiwan, Mr. Putin’s use of historical myths and sheer military power to justify seizing Ukraine has resonance among hawks in Beijing. Mr. Xi, too, has intensified his warnings that Taiwan must never seek independence from a united China under Communist Party rule.
“There is a strong link between the two flash points,” said Artyom Lukin, a professor of international studies at the Far Eastern Federal University in Russia.
One notable difference is that while the United States has flatly said it will not send troops to defend Ukraine, it has maintained “strategic ambiguity” on Taiwan for decades and has left unsaid whether it would come to the armed defense of the island. That ambiguity has helped serve as a deterrent against a Chinese invasion.
China’s diplomatic and rhetorical support is not a blank check for Russia’s designs.
If the United States targets Russia with new sanctions, China could take measured steps in aiding its neighbor. As they did in 2014, Chinese banks and companies would need to calculate whether they could end up being penalized if they do business with any targeted Russian entities. Such penalties would jeopardize their commerce in the United States and elsewhere.
China has also never recognized Russia’s annexation of Crimea, and while the two countries conduct joint military operations, it is highly unlikely that China would ever explicitly support a military intervention.
Only weeks ago, China celebrated the 30th anniversary of an independent Ukraine following the collapse of the Soviet Union. The two nations have strong commercial ties, including in the defense industry. Although Chinese officials have made clear that the United States should address Russia’s “reasonable security concerns” in Europe, they have also emphasized the need for a peaceful resolution of the conflict over Ukraine.
“Beijing is in the uncomfortable position of seeing one sovereign country invade another sovereign country,” said Derek Grossman, an analyst on Asian security issues at the RAND Corporation. “That flies in the face of noninterference, which China, on paper at least, has assiduously upheld.”
Memories also linger of the last Olympics in Beijing, the Summer Games in 2008. During the opening ceremony, news spread that Russian troops had moved into Georgia, another former Soviet republic bristling at Russian interference.
“The attitude of the Chinese government is still relatively prudent,” Cheng Xiaohe, a professor of international studies at Renmin University in Beijing, said, “but it mainly shows a cautious attitude on the basis of sympathy and support for Russia.”