V.P. Phone Home

“We share the same views on the causes, course and logic of the ongoing transformation of the global geopolitical landscape, in the face of unprecedented pressure and provocations from the West,” Vladimir Putin told Xi Jinping on Friday, during a Zoom call.

It wasn’t really a Zoom call. It was a secure “videoconference,” and although I imagine the two communicated more times this year than the public knows, Friday’s chat represented the first official talks since an in-person meeting in Uzbekistan three months ago.

Holed up in the bowels of the Kremlin, Russia’s little big man leaned in over a round table. Four large flags set up behind Putin’s chair caricatured a 5ft 7in frame from which Father Time is slowly subtracting.

Vladimir Putin speaks to Xi Jinping via video link on December 30, 2022 / Kremlin photo

A shamelessly ingratiating Putin declared ties with China the “best in history.” Xi smiled, composed, and said he was pleased with Putin’s offer of congratulations following October’s sham Party congress, during which Xi purged moderates from the Central Committee and reshuffled his inner-most circle to include only loyalists.

Now, more than ever, Putin is keen to put his relationship with Xi on display. Whether Xi enjoys being a stage prop in Kremlin photoshoots is debatable, but Beijing knows the world is under no illusions about the asymmetric nature of China’s “no limits” partnership with Moscow. Putin’s Russia is a vassal state of Xi’s China, and notwithstanding Putin’s mention of a deepening military alliance between the two nations, Beijing has given no indication that Xi is willing to commit China to direct, overt involvement in Russia’s “military operation” in Ukraine. Maybe, one day, Xi will send weapons. Or maybe not. He won’t be sending any troops.

The Russian military’s trench tribulations are turning into an embarrassment for the Kremlin and Xi isn’t someone who’s excited by the prospect of having China’s name drug through the frozen mud. Xi sees the war as an opportunity to gauge the West’s resolve. Putin’s incursion compelled the US and its allies to show their hand. How bad would the sanctions be, and how much financial and military aid would the West send, if the PLA decided to cross the Strait? Xi has a much better idea now than he did a year ago. For Xi, the Russian military is a guinea pig, and Ukraine is a lab experiment.

Beijing hasn’t joined the rest of the world in publicly chiding the Kremlin for a war of conquest that’s cost a quarter of a million lives. Indeed, the Party has gone out of its way to dispense with the idea that Putin is indulging imperialist fantasies. China’s various ministries have instead cast the war in paradoxical terms — it’s a defensive war of aggression, Beijing would have you believe. Putin had to invade his neighbor in order to protect Russia from NATO, Chinese officials contend. Never mind that NATO is an alliance of mostly prosperous nations, none of whom have anything to gain from starting a nuclear war with Moscow, and never mind that the last person foolish enough to endeavor a land invasion of Russia died 77 years ago by suicide in a bunker under Berlin.

(As a quick, but important, aside, the Chinese know Putin’s rationale is tenuous, but they pretend to believe it, in part because Putin supports China’s claim on Taiwan, but mostly because that claim, like Putin’s claim on Ukraine, hinges on the idea that invasions can be justified by appeals to a shared history, which override any claims to self-determination.)

Although it’s obviously impossible to know what Putin and Xi discussed during any untelevised portions of Friday’s call, it’s no secret that Moscow views any and all conversations between the two leaders as propaganda coups. Any soundbite suggestive of Chinese support for the Russian state is hurriedly amplified by the Kremlin like a cartoon of someone stamping frantically on the pedal of a foot pump to inflate balloon letters.

China did sign off on the G20 communique last month, when the group emphasized that “most members strongly condemned the war in Ukraine.” And earlier this year, a month after the invasion, a Chinese official conceded that Xi would draw a line in the event cooperating with Putin entailed violating “the tenets and principles of the United Nations Charter” or risked accusations that China was engaged in conduct contrary to “the recognized basic norms of international law.” You might fairly scoff. After all, what the world knows of Xi’s internment camps in Xinjiang certainly isn’t consistent with any “recognized basic norms,” but Beijing would doubtlessly insist that’s an internal matter, and that the same goes for Hong Kong.

In any case, Putin on Friday described the China-Russia relationship as “a model of cooperation between major powers in the 21st century.” I’d state the obvious: Russia isn’t a “major power in the 21st century.” The Russian economy is tiny (smaller than Italy’s) and Putin’s international influence is confined to war zones, failed states and Iran’s theocracy. He has nukes and he has gas — not nothin’, so to speak. But in terms of overall economic clout and international prestige, Putin’s Russia has very little. In that respect, Russia in 2022 has more in common with Kim’s North Korea than it does with Xi’s China.

Russian media quoted Xi on Friday describing international relations as “complicated and quite controversial.” A nod to improving “strategic cooperation” with Putin felt earnest, but also perfunctory. Putin, meanwhile, called Xi “dear friend” and invited him to Moscow.


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5 thoughts on “V.P. Phone Home

  1. Thank you, H: “Putin’s Russia is a vassal state of Xi’s China . . .” is a reminder that at best the US should treat the People’s Republic of China the way it treated the old Soviet Union. Boycott, divest, and sanction the PRC.

  2. There are two observations here that I found compelling. First was the idea that China is letting Putin do his adventure in the Ukraine to feed his ego and provide a laboratory to show how the West might react if China pursued a similar action in Taiwan. I hadn’t really thought of that. I had thought of the idea (yesterday, actually) that Russia was starting to resemble North Korea more than it does China. Essentially, all Russia can contribute to the world is its dwindling energy resources, and meager support for other rogue states. Russia has always wanted to be considered a part of Europe but it has just never evolved and is now once again an under-developed nation reduced to selling off its natural resources, to the detriment of its own internal future. It just can’t really do anything for the world at large that benefits the Russian people. Russia has no real lasting source of comparative advantage. It’s an empty suit with no moat.

    1. I love this comment, Mr. L. I think Navalny circa 2020 offered some hope that Russia could join the rest of the civlized world in the 21st century. I still have that hope, but Putin and his henchmen are doing their best, short of executing him, to render him a non-factor.

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