China and Putin’s gamble

It is unlikely that China will act as a mediator to end the war in Ukraine. While Beijing does not want to be seen as an accomplice, it also does not want to jeopardize its ties to Moscow.

Putin Xi Jinping
Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping have a close relationship and share a similar worldview. © Getty Images

In a nutshell

  • China was warned of the invasion but did not take it seriously
  • Xi Jinping does not want to risk its economic interests in Russia
  • Beijing appears unwilling to make a diplomatic intervention

Russian President Vladimir Putin’s war against Ukraine has now entered its second phase. The whole world is watching to see whether there are any powers that can stop the invasion in its tracks. Inevitably, some are wondering if China will step in.

Putin’s miscalculation

President Putin invaded Ukraine on February 24, in an operation he has been planning for months. He intended to accomplish the invasion within three to four days by destroying Ukraine’s military facilities, taking Kyiv and establishing a pro-Russian puppet government. Quite obviously, the war is not going as planned. Russia appears taken aback by the strength of Ukrainian resistance, and its ground forces’ performance leaves much to be desired. Thousands of Russian soldiers have died in battle, according to Ukrainian estimates, far more than the 2,500 soldiers who died in the 20 years when the United States fought in Afghanistan. The war is now entering a second phase, one in which there are more unknowns than certainties. 

Mr. Putin knew before he started this war that he was likely to become the loneliest man on the world stage. To avoid this, he went to Beijing shortly before the Winter Olympics to convince Chinese President Xi Jinping to back his actions. And when the war began, he asked the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) member states to join him in his invasion.

Since 2013, Xi Jinping has met with Vladimir Putin on average more than five times a year.

President Putin succeeded in Beijing, where he and President Xi signed several $100 billion deals, declaring that “there is no limit to the friendship between the two countries,” creating an alliance that has never existed to such an extent before. But in Russia’s backyard, only Belarus was willing to let Russian troops “borrow its space” to launch the war. Other states have politely declined for one reason or another. The Russian leader may not have expected the domestic outcry that broke out after the start of the war. Another thing he did not expect was that Western countries would unite to this degree, and that even Germany would break from its earlier path and explicitly support Ukraine.

China’s response

Beijing’s role in President Putin’s decision to wage a war against Ukraine cannot be underestimated. In the final months before the outbreak of war, according to Reuters, the U.S. contacted China six times, and Secretary of State Antony Blinken even informed China of CIA intelligence about Russia’s invasion plan, in the hope that President Xi would convince his Russian counterpart to change course. Beijing not only did not take the U.S. seriously, but actually believed the Americans were trying to drive a wedge between the other two powers. Even worse, it passed on the Americans’ information to Russia. At the same time, Mr. Xi and his subordinates apparently misjudged President Putin’s appetite for adventurism. While China’s government usually values the lives of Chinese nationals abroad, it did not evacuate the 6,000 or so students studying in Ukraine in due time. It was only on March 3 that 3,000 of them were transported outside the country; the other half are still stuck as of the time of this writing. Ukrainian media report that four Chinese students were killed when the Russians shelled a Kharkiv university dormitory.

After the war broke out, Beijing seems to have bought into the analysis of the situation by Russian military intelligence, thinking that President Putin could successfully fight a blitzkrieg and solve its Ukrainian problem in one fell swoop. More ironically, and chillingly, a large number of Chinese internet users joined the official media in a chorus of support for Russia’s aggression. So far, officials have not called Russia’s actions an invasion, but instead, in the spirit of the communique after Messrs. Putin and Xi’s Beijing meeting, have made the West, especially the U.S., the bogeyman of the war. 

Ukraine’s faint hope

The Ukrainian government is still diligently seeking opportunities to end this brutal war. To this end, on March 1, Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba spoke by phone with Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi, asking the Chinese side to use its relationship with Russia to stop the war. Mr. Wang responded diplomatically that “China is ready to make every effort to help end the war through diplomatic means.” While he said he “deplored” the conflict, he avoided calling the war an invasion.

With few countries in the West now having anything to do with President Putin, China is gaining in importance. Will the country really play an active role in this global catastrophe? To answer this question, it is necessary to examine what factors determine China’s attitude toward the war in Ukraine. There are several key themes: the two presidents’ personal relationship; China’s relationships with Russia and Ukraine; sovereignty issues; and relations with the West.

Ukraine (Putin Xi Jinping)
China will likely be involved in the reconstruction efforts in Ukraine, and it will also help Russia get its economy back on track, although to what extent will depend on many factors. © Getty Images

Xi and Putin

Since 2013, Xi Jinping has met with Vladimir Putin 37 times: on average, more than five times a year. That speaks for itself. The two leaders have frequently shown their appreciation and admiration for each other publicly. The values and methods of governance pursued by the two men are even more closely aligned. Both sides want to replace the current world order with their own rules. 

Sergei Karaganov, a political scientist at a Russian government think tank, describes China as Russia’s “strategic buffer,” a reliable source of military, political and economic support. In other words, Russia already sees China as its ally, and to gain support for his war, President Putin has decided to open up his markets to China even wider, increasing dependence on the larger country in hopes of mitigating the consequences of the sanctions.

Russia first

China’s economic links with Russia are stronger than its ties to Ukraine. In finance, for example, President Putin wants to use CIPS, China’s renminbi-based cross-border payment system, to complete international settlements once the country is completely kicked out of the SWIFT system. In fact, both sides seek to build a post-dollar world. China wants to use the current trade and oil politics for its long-term goal of boosting the yuan’s share of the global foreign exchange market. With Russia’s active participation, the global share of the renminbi is expected to rise from 2 percent to 7 percent in the next three to four years.

Of course, this is still insignificant compared to the dollar’s 59 percent share. But it is at least another step toward financial decoupling of the U.S. and China. Still, there are many unknowns about whether Russia will be able to use CIPS effectively, and Beijing knows that if it really wants to help Russia break the SWIFT sanctions, it will also have to pay a high price. In terms of technology, Russia has had to approach China more actively after being sanctioned by the U.S. on technology transfer and the purchase of high-tech products. And this technological dependence will only grow.

As for energy, as of 2020, up to 83 percent of Gazprom’s gas will still be delivered to Europe. But the war will greatly accelerate the pace at which EU countries rid themselves of their dependence on Russian energy. Although Russia and China have signed a 30-year gas agreement, the pipeline will not be completed for at least three years. In other words, Russia must still rely on Europe for some time as it waits for China to become a replacement customer.

China will be involved in both Russia and Ukraine’s economic reconstruction.

Meanwhile, Ukraine is a major arms supplier to China and an important market for Chinese telecommunications companies, including Huawei; China is Ukraine’s top trading partner. However, the failed acquisition of Ukraine’s leading aero-engine maker Motor Sich by Chinese state-owned Beijing Tianjiao Aviation in 2021 drove home to China that Ukraine belongs to the Western camp. Ukraine has since made conciliatory moves, such as inviting China to participate in a large number of investment projects in transportation and urban infrastructure, and pulled its signature off a document from the United Nations Commission on Human Rights in which 40 countries condemned the Communist Party’s human rights abuses in Xinjiang. Even so, China has apparently chosen to prioritize Russia.

Diplomatic rhetoric

Emphasizing the territorial integrity of a sovereign state is a frequent part of Chinese diplomatic rhetoric, given Beijing’s intention to legitimize a future retaking of Taiwan by force. In a video address to the Munich Security Conference in February, Mr. Wang said Ukraine’s sovereignty should be “respected and maintained,” which seemed to cheer the West at the time. But no Chinese official has referred to Ukraine in such terms since Russia launched its war.

The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) openly opposed NATO expansion in its statement at the Xi-Putin summit. This was a favor to Russia, but it also reflects that China is aligned with Russia’s authoritarian ideology. From this perspective, the West is the other camp. And this dichotomy is itself related to Beijing’s hatred of the West. When asked at a press conference about China’s attitude toward Ukraine, government spokeswoman Hua Chunying specifically linked the issue to NATO and referred to the three journalists killed in the 1999 NATO bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade, saying “NATO still owes a blood debt to the Chinese people.” The CCP is of course greatly irked by the current U.S. restrictions on technology in China. That is why China sees no need to serve as a mediator between Russia and Ukraine: Beijing has always believed that NATO and the U.S. are behind the Ukrainian problem. And thus, they should be responsible for the solution. 

Of course, China needs the West more than it needs Russia – not only for its markets, but also for cutting-edge technologies and capital. All this means China has to find a balance, at least in diplomatic settings, between Russia and the West. On the international stage, Beijing does not want to be seen too obviously by the West as complicit in this war. That is why China, while vowing that there are no forbidden areas in the strategic partnership pact, also had to violate the agreement by abstaining from voting in the Security Council to condemn Russia instead of voting against. 

The invasion of Ukraine could have been a good opportunity for China to reshape its image internationally. But Beijing definitely will not seize it. While the CCP will occasionally demonstrate its opportunistic instincts in diplomacy, it has de facto made itself an accomplice of President Putin.



Russian defeat

A complete Russian military failure is relatively unlikely, unless Ukraine regains control of its airspace thanks to the West or any other means. In this case, Russia would be politically weakened, and Beijing would be glad to have the upper hand. China would also actively participate in the reconstruction of Ukraine.

Ukrainian defeat

Kyiv could fall and President Volodymyr Zelensky could step down to halt the fighting. A provisional government would be established and Crimea and Donbas would acquire a special status. China would resume its Belt and Road project in a so-called neutralized Ukraine.

Protracted war

After several weeks of combat, Ukraine could be split in two, like in Germany after World War II. The maintenance of Eastern Ukraine could become a huge burden for Russia. Significant political tension and armed conflicts would remain, at least until the end of President Putin’s tenure. This would negatively affect the Chinese economy.

All three of these scenarios will further deplete Russia’s financial and military power to varying degrees. And China will be involved in both Russia and Ukraine’s economic reconstruction. On the economic level, China at least will not suffer huge losses, and could potentially reap economic gains. Russia’s economy will suffer, and China will help pay the bill; the question is how much of it. That will be determined by President Xi’s balancing act between Russia and the West. On the political level, the main question is whether he will draw lessons from Russia’s adventurism this time, and whether this will influence his ambitions for Taiwan.

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