Ties Tested by Russia’s Ukraine Invasion That Binds Putin and Xi

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Ties Tested by Russia’s Ukraine Invasion That Binds Putin and Xi

He visited a hockey rink in Beijing and a panda enclosure at the Moscow Zoo. They shared the layered blini with caviar in Russia and, reciprocally, the popular version in China, the jianbing. They have shared birthday cakes and exchanged toasts with shots of vodka, while saying that neither would dare to go overboard with the stuff.

For more than a decade, China’s Xi Jinping and Russia’s Vladimir V. Putin has forged a respectful, perhaps even warm, relationship, reflecting the deep ties between the two world powers that share a common cause against US military and economic might.

An invasion of Ukraine could end all of that – or in diplomatic isolation, a coalition that reshapes the world order in the 21st century.

Three days into the conflict, it seemed clear on Sunday that Mr. Putin’s hopes of a quick subjugation of Ukraine were setting in. Ukrainian resistance slowed or halted Russia’s military, while Western countries increasingly exerted economic pressure on Russia, which looked almost entirely different.

Mr Putin’s attack on Ukraine has forced Mr Xi to point out that former Australian prime minister Kevin Rudd, once a diplomat in Beijing, has struck a chord with the Russian leader between his personal camaraderie and his ability to shock. Said the “impossible balancing act”. For China, this should be seen as supporting an invasion condemned by much of the world.

On Friday, Mr. Xi spoke on the telephone with the man he called his “best friend” in 2019, but shied away from supporting the attack on Ukraine. He said all countries should “drop the Cold War mentality,” and expressed support when Mr Putin told him he would seek a negotiated solution to the war, according to a summary of the Chinese government’s call.

But there is no indication that Mr. Xi did anything to stop the invasion, if he knew it was coming. His senior advisers turned down US requests to use China’s influence with Mr. Putin to discourage the attack; Instead, China shared American intelligence with the Russians and accused the United States of trying to sow discord, according to US officials.

For China, the cost of Mr. Putin’s misadventure could be high.

“I don’t think it’s good for anyone,” said Wang Huiao, president of the Center for China and Globalization, a research organization in Beijing that advises the government. “Conflict is not the solution, and China doesn’t want to see things get worse.”

China has deep ties with Europe and the United States, which, despite rising tensions in those ties, cannot afford to break. Ukraine’s invasion has rattled Chinese stock markets and threatened to scuttle the global economy during a crucial political year for Beijing that is expected to end with the extension of Mr. Xi’s regime.

The international uproar over Ukraine – and the diplomatic isolation Mr Putin is expected to face – could also serve as a reminder of what Mr Xi can expect if he uses force to subjugate Taiwan. , a self-governing democracy that China claims as its territory.

Mr Putin, for his part, is banking on China’s backing of Ukraine – clear or not – as the United States and others have already begun implementing punitive measures.

China has already lifted some restrictions on Russian wheat imports, but has not yet indicated whether it will comply with US and European sanctions meant to restrict Russia’s access to capital.

“It’s really going to be an acid test,” said John Culver, a retired Central Intelligence Agency official who studied China. “It’s going to demonstrate whether China will actually support Russia and provide economic aid in breach of sanctions, or even face sanctions.”

Only three weeks earlier, on the eve of the Winter Olympics in Beijing, Mr. Putin and Mr. Xi met for the 38th time since Mr. Xi became China’s leader, declaring that the friendship between their countries “knows no bounds”. “

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Outside of his inner circle, it is not known whether Mr. Putin disclosed his plans for Ukraine to Mr. Xi at the time. Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying suggested she did not.

Now, Mr Putin has put China in the awkward position of explaining how the invasion does not violate the principle of respect for national sovereignty, which is officially a pillar of China’s foreign policy.

“They should feel like they have been played,” Mr Culver said of the Chinese leaders.

China’s uncertainty over the issue has become apparent in statements from officials such as Ms Hua, who declined to call the attack an invasion and sought to blame the United States for it. China may regard Taiwan as an invincible province, but it has explicitly recognized Ukraine as a sovereign nation with which it has close economic ties.

Although the war is over, it has already underscored how important and complicated the relationship between Mr. Xi and Mr. Putin has become.

It is shaped by striking biographical similarities, but also by differences that may test their “no boundaries” pledge.

Mr. Putin and Mr. Xi were born within a span of just eight months – 7 October 1952 and 15 June 1953 respectively – and were both children of communist forces that were born out of the destructive impulses of war and revolution. He idolized his father, a veteran of those conflicts, and became involved in the Marxist-Leninist view of world affairs.

Mr. Xi’s father oversaw China’s cadre of Soviet experts and visited the Soviet Union in 1959, bringing back gifts for his son, which were later destroyed during the Cultural Revolution, as an assistant at an American university. According to Professor and author of the forthcoming biographer Joseph Torigian. of Mr. Xi’s father, Xi Zhongxun.

Mr. Xi has recalled in interviews that he grew up reading Russian literature and asked “What is to be done?” Inspired by a small character in The 1863 novel by Nikolai Chernyshevsky, Who Sleeps on a Bed of Nails.

“They have very similar views about the role of history in politics and how attacks on their own history are seen as treacherous and dangerous,” Mr Torigian said of the two leaders.

Both ended up in government service, with Mr. Putin as an intelligence officer in the KGB and Mr. Xi as a regional party functionary after the political rehabilitation of his father, who was accused of spying for the Soviet Union during the Mao era. were imprisoned.

Sergei Alekshenko, who was vice president of the Russian central bank during Mr Putin’s rise in the 1990s, said there was a significant difference between the biographies of the two leaders.

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He said Mr. Putin served in the intelligence service when the Soviet Union was entering its harsh decline in the 1970s and 1980s, while Mr. Xi joined the ranks of the government as China grew from a poor nation to a global economic superpower. Change started.

“For Xi, the history of China, while he is a mature man, is a history of success,” said Mr. Alekshenko. “He wants to move forward with this reconstruction for the future. For Putin, everything was good in the past.”

The experience that binds them most closely is the global political turmoil of 1989, beginning with protests in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square that China crushed, followed by demonstrations that toppled the Soviet Union’s satellite states in Europe Gave.

An official in Fujian province, Mr. Xi, warned in a party newspaper that democracy without restrictions meant “no constraints or a sense of responsibility.”

Mr Putin was by then a lieutenant colonel in the KGB’s Dresden outpost, watching helplessly when protesters ransacked the local headquarters of the Stasi, East Germany’s secret police. He was forced to retreat into the Soviet Union, which collapsed two years later, creating new frontiers that he is now essentially trying to erase.

The two leaders have spoken frequently about the lessons of the period, which they see as the need for a strong state hand to control popular sentiment.

In a speech in 2013, Mr. Xi denounced Mikhail S. Gorbachev, the last Soviet leader to put the Soviet Union under his watch, which Mr. Putin called “the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the 20th century”.

“In the end,” Mr. Xi said, “nobody was a real person.”

Mr. Putin’s pivot to China began under Mr. Xi’s predecessors. He settled a border dispute that had turned into a minor war between the Soviet Union and China in 1969, and he eased visa restrictions that led to a boom in trade along his border.

When Mr. Xi came to power a decade ago, the distance between the countries grew sharply into a deepening relationship that shrugged off decades of division and doubt. Trade has skyrocketed, reaching $146 billion last year. The two armies train together and conduct joint air and naval patrols off the coast of China.

Mr Putin’s foreign policy adviser Yuri V. According to Ushakov, “even though the bilateral relationship is not an alliance, it exceeds the alliance in its closeness and effectiveness,” Mr. Xi told his counterpart during virtual talks in December. ,

It seemed that this relationship had reached a new peak in the Olympics. After their meeting, the leaders issued a lengthy joint statement that caused concern in Washington.

This was the first time that China had explicitly supported Russia’s demand to halt NATO expansion, although it had criticized previous NATO applications by individual countries, including Montenegro and North Macedonia.

The two leaders also vowed to oppose US-led efforts to promote pluralistic democracy, saying they would fight foreign influence under the guise of “color revolutions” following popular uprisings in former Soviet republics such as Ukraine and Georgia.

Still, Mr. Xi now appears uneasy with how Mr. Putin has chosen to bring Ukraine to the fore. “I think the Chinese will have a balance between how much they want to invest in Putin,” said Mr. Culver, the former intelligence official, “and how much it is going to cost them strategically.”

Anton Troyanovsky, Chris Buckley And Claire Fu Contribution reporting or research.

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