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Opinion: The Wall of China stands behind Putin

Goncharenko Roman
Roman Goncharenko
March 22, 2023

With his visit to Moscow, Chinese leader Xi Jinping clearly showed Russian President Vladimir Putin that he can be counted on — including in the war on Ukraine. Not a good signal for diplomacy, says Roman Goncharenko.

Vladimir Putin (right) shakes hands with Xi Jinping. Both are wearing dark suits, white shirts and burgundy ties and are smiling slightly.
Chinese President Xi Jinping meets Russian President Vladimir Putin in MoscowImage: Russian Presidential Press Office/AP/picture alliance

Vladimir Putin has his back to the wall in the war in Ukraine. His army is barely making any headway, the Russian economy is groaning under Western sanctions, and the arrest warrant issued by the International Criminal Court has isolated Russia's president as never before. But as long as the wall Putin has his back to is Chinese, the Kremlin chief can still hope for victory, and a new world order. Xi Jinping's visit to Moscow is likely to have given this hope a fresh boost.

It couldn't have been more symbolic. Xi's visit began almost exactly nine years to the day since Russia's annexation of Crimea. Shortly beforehand, Putin flew for the first time to the occupied and utterly devastated city of Mariupol — where some of the worst war crimes have taken place.

The Chinese head of state came to Russia for a three-day visit as if the brutal war in Ukraine was not taking place. The trip was flanked by newspaper articles in which Xi and Putin invoked their friendship and the close partnership of their countries, which stood "shoulder to shoulder."

China is keeping the Russian economy going

The visible outcome of the meeting is: even more trade. It will bind Russia, weakened by the Ukraine war, even more closely to China, while at the same time enabling Moscow to continue to wage this very war. China is buying more and more Russian raw materials, and selling it more and more goods. Chinese companies now serve the markets that were dominated by Western firms before the war.

Headshot of Roman Goncharenko
DW's Roman GoncharenkoImage: DW

By contrast, results of the talks on China's latest diplomatic initiative for Ukraine are barely visible at all. This gives rise to the suspicion that Beijing's 12-point proposal, which Putin described as the "basis for a peaceful settlement of the conflict," was not entirely serious. Otherwise it would not have come only a year after the invasion, and would not have omitted the central issue — the complete withdrawal of Russian troops. To freeze the war at this point would be a victory for Putin. How serious Xi actually is about his offer to mediate is, therefore, unlikely to become clear until after he has held talks with the Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelenskyy.

This was one of those visits where you only understand in retrospect what else was discussed behind closed and soundproofed doors. It is to be feared that Putin's main concern was in fact to inform Xi about what he may do next in Ukraine — which is presumably what he did before launching the invasion in February 2022. Russia may step up its offensive in the coming weeks, with brutal consequences for the Ukrainian population. If it does, Moscow will clearly want to know that China is on its side, even if this is not outwardly apparent.

China will try to prevent a Russian defeat

With this alliance continuing to strengthen, the West is watching in surprise, unsure what to do. Economic interests and the hope of diplomatic mediation mean it is still refraining from harsh criticism, for now. Perhaps there is also an assumption that China will distance itself from Moscow as soon as a clear defeat for Putin in this war becomes foreseeable. Perhaps then the Wall of China at his back will crumble.

However, another scenario seems to be more likely: China will certainly try to prevent a Russian defeat, whether through diplomacy or by openly supplying it with weapons. The West must prepare itself for this.

Not that long ago, a frequent comment to be heard in Berlin and other Western capitals was: "We shouldn't drive Russia into China's arms." That was naïve: It had already happened. Their embrace is getting tighter and tighter, and the West would not have been able to prevent this  alliance. Xi's visit to Moscow has only made it more visible.

This article has been translated from German.