As a noticeably puffy-faced Vladimir Putin welcomed his ‘dear friend’ Xi Jinping to the Kremlin yesterday, the Russian despot acted as if he was hosting his equal.
After all, he no doubt reasoned, China needs Russian oil and gas for its energy-devouring economy. The Kremlin is also a handy ally for Beijing in opposing what the two dictators see as America’s domination of global affairs. When the two met in China last year, they issued a statement declaring that the ‘friendship’ between their regimes ‘has no limits’.
Xi seemed happy to play along with this fiction yesterday. He knows that the presence of a bona fide world leader travelling to Moscow is of huge domestic propaganda value to Putin, enabling him to show his subjects that his gruesome war has not left him entirely isolated on the international stage.
Paying gushing tribute to Putin’s ‘strong leadership’ and insisting he was ‘convinced’ that the mass murderer enjoyed the Russian people’s support, Xi even said they were ‘partners in comprehensive strategic cooperation’. I have been studying Russian culture and politics for 15 years. Let me tell you: Putin will have lapped all this up with glee.
But if the Russian dictator truly believes that Xi is his equal, he is delusional. For Beijing’s approach to world politics is far cleverer than Moscow’s.
Russian President Vladimir Putin (right) meets with China’s President Xi Jinping (left) at the Kremlin in Moscow
The Chinese President and Russian President walk after their talks at the Kremlin
While Putin lashes out, miscalculates and sees the world in crude terms of status, Xi is infinitely more cunning. And for all he presented himself as a man of peace yesterday, even claiming to have a 12-point ‘peace plan’ to end the war in Ukraine, Xi wants the war to continue.
The Americans have suggested that he plans to supply Putin with weapons. If so, you can be sure that he will let the Russians have just enough arms to extend this terrible conflict for months or years, but not to bring it to an end.
Why? Because, every day that the war drags on, Xi and his henchmen in the Chinese Communist Party gain new and valuable insights into how the West might react if he goes ahead with what really matters to him.
That is his plan to invade and capture Taiwan, the island democracy of 23million people that has been governed independently since 1949 but which China believes belongs in its empire.
Only last month, the CIA revealed that Xi has ordered his vast People’s Liberation Army to be ready to invade Taiwan by 2027. Xi, a dictator-for-life, knows that as long as the war in Ukraine dominates the international agenda, the West’s attention will be distracted.
Meanwhile, he calculates, several long and punishing years of a bloody and expensive proxy war in Ukraine will weaken America’s resolve to fight elsewhere or defend its allies. Nato taxpayers, he presumes, will resent paying for conflicts in far-off lands.
Which brings me to another reason that Xi wants the war to drag on. Accepting Chinese weapons and support means that Russia is drawn ever closer under Beijing’s control. Remember: China’s infamous ‘Belt and Road’ infrastructure project has seen it lend billions to African countries in a decades-long effort to bring the continent under its sway.
Putin can look closer to home to learn the same lesson. Chinese logging companies have taken advantage of Russia’s isolation and its desperation for exports to level swathes of Siberian forests at knock-down prices.
‘Xi will have had no compunction in endorsing a man who has shelled maternity wards and playgrounds in Ukraine, slaughtered tens of thousands of civilians and kidnapped thousands of children’
In 2020, China imported almost 6.5million cubic metres of logs from Russia, leaving behind stretches of scarred earth studded with dying stumps.
Putin can be sure, then, that Xi’s generosity can only come at a heavy cost. Yes, the two men have similar worldviews, hold freedom and democracy in contempt and yearn for a new world order no longer controlled by the West.
Xi will have had no compunction in endorsing a man who has shelled maternity wards and playgrounds in Ukraine, slaughtered tens of thousands of civilians and kidnapped thousands of children. And he will have viewed the arrest warrant recently issued to Putin by the International Criminal Court as little more than a diplomatic trifle.
Nevertheless, Xi will expect repayment for his largesse – with interest.
Last night, the two despots were due to feast on a banquet including quail, venison and wines from some of Russia’s finest vineyards. How long this sordid friendship will last remains to be seen. But, sadly for the world, its continued existence means that, whatever the weasel words of China’s president, peace is set to remain a distant dream.
Dr Jade McGlynn is Research Fellow at Department of War Studies, King’s College London, and author of Russia’s War, published this week