Ukraine, Taiwan, Olympics drive Xi and Putin together

The Kremlin said Putin and Chinese President Xi Jinping held warm and substantive talks in Beijing and described the relationship as an advanced partnership with a special character. [Kremlin pool/EPA/EFE]

When Russian President Vladimir Putin meets counterpart Xi Xinping on Friday (4 February) for lunch as arguably China’s most important Winter Olympics guest, the Kremlin says the two will sign at least 15 agreements, including several on natural gas and others on bolstering the two economies to resist financial sanctions.

With China unambiguously backing Russia earlier this week in a United Nations Security Council debate on Ukraine called by the United States, both nations appear to see the Games as an opportunity to signal their increasing cooperation in the face of Western states and other adversaries, many of whose diplomats are boycotting the games.

It is a relationship that has deepened sharply throughout the COVID-19 pandemic as their relationships with the United States and its allies have sharply worsened. This will be the first meeting between the two men in two years, but they have had multiple virtual meetings while their state media organs have increasingly amplified each other’s messages.

That has been accompanied by mounting economic links, with trade between them reaching a record $146 billion in 2021. For Moscow in particular there is a clear desire to augment that further – should war come in Ukraine, Western financial sanctions could be crippling, and a lifeline from Beijing could be essential.

That dependence, however, could also go both ways. With China making its ambition to bring Taiwan back under Beijing’s control during the 2020s increasingly clear and fears of conflict there on the rise, China could also benefit considerably from close cooperation with Russia, making it much harder for it to be starved of energy.

According to a briefing by Kremlin aide Yuri Ushakov on Wednesday, as well as multiple gas supply deals Putin and Xi will discuss a long-mooted plan to build a gas pipeline between the two nations – although this could take years to realise. Ushakov said the head of Russian state energy firm Rosneft would be part of Putin’s delegation to Beijing.

An initial pipeline between the two countries, the Spirit of Siberia, was completed in 2019.

Different from 2008

The optics of this year’s Olympics will be very different to the Summer Games of 2008, where Chinese officials welcomed almost every significant world leaders including US President George W Bush. Most Western countries have this year declared a diplomatic boycott, citing China’s treatment of its Uighur minority, crackdown on human rights in Hong Kong and mounting military threats against Taiwan.

Those games took place against the backdrop of conflict in Eastern Europe, the 10 August 2008 opening ceremony happening on the bloodiest day of Russia’s brief conflict with Georgia.

There has long been speculation Chinese officials would rather avoid such a spectacle this time round, although Beijing has denied pressuring Moscow to hold back any military action on Ukraine until the Games are concluded.

While Moscow clearly hopes to extract fulsome pledges of support from Beijing, it is still far from clear how strongly China will deliver on those hopes. Beijing is the largest foreign investor in Ukraine, but appears to have instead viewed the current face-off between Moscow and Kyiv largely through the prism of its confrontation with the United States.

On those terms, giving Putin what he wants will serve Beijing’s broader agenda of undermining and frustrating Washington, as well as its still growing demand for resources. China is both the largest buyer of gas from Russia and globally, also eagerly buying up Russian timber, fish and raw minerals.

For now, despite tensions over Ukraine, Russia also remains the largest gas provider to Europe, hoping to increase that further once its Nord Stream 2 pipeline opens. Germany has signalled this is unlikely to happen until June, but the United States and Eastern European states want it blocked altogether – something that remains a real possibility if Russia invades.

Personal relationships

If that happens, Chinese purchases would be critical for a Russian economy in freefall. Russian supplies would also be good news for a China that might struggle with the resulting rise in global fuel prices that would follow any war in Eastern Europe, or a blockade of its own supplies that might be imposed by the United States and its allies if Beijing moves against Taiwan.

Including virtual meetings, Putin and Xi have now met 37 times, the most the Chinese president has with any other leader. The two are close in age – 69 and 68 respectively – and have now centralised more power in their own hands than any predecessors in recent memory. As well as being increasingly assertive abroad, the last two years have seen Putin and Xi crack down ruthlessly on dissent at home.

Both have faced headwinds during the pandemic.

Russia has seen several devastating waves of the coronavirus, struggling to persuade a population fed years of paranoid messaging by state media to take even Russia’s own domestic Sputnik vaccine. Xi has tied his government’s reputation to its ability so far to control the outbreak, but is now struggling in the face of the much more contagious Omicron variant and the limited efficacy of China’s own vaccines.

Still, neither now faces any immediate domestic challengers – and in the short term, showcasing unity and standing strong against external foes looks to underline to just how effectively both have secured their own positions. That may become even more necessary as they age – in which case standing together may become more vital. Certainly, the fall of one would prompt immediate questioning of the security of the other.

Little of that, of course, is likely to be publicly discussed when they meet this week, or even privately mentioned – but it will sit there behind the scenes. As the two men discuss independence from the United States, the dollar, resistance to Western sanctions and maybe what wars to fight, they are building not just their own legacy but, they hope, their own long-term survival.

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