Putin, Xi, and World War III

Vladimir Putin is playing for high stakes against the US and its allies on the global scene. Since Xi Jinping does not play along, Putin has temporarily transformed a bipolar power system into a triangular game, with Xi in the middle. Yet Xi is the one that Biden fears most.

Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping in 2019. Photo: The Russian Presidential Press and Information Office

China does not have and does not want any military alliances. Its close relationship with Russia is therefore a strategic partnership. This partnership has become closer and closer since Xi took the helm as China’s leader in 2012.

It has given China security along the Sino-Russian border, and has prevented rivalry between them in the Central Asian republics. China has become Russia’s main trading partner, buying oil, coal, gas and food, and selling industrial products. By invading Ukraine, Putin has set his strategic partnership with China at risk.

Although Xi shares Putin’s opinion that the US has undermined the security of Eastern Europe by expanding NATO’s membership, Putin’s war of aggression violates one of China’s most cherished principles: non-interference in the internal affairs of other sovereign states. When launching the invasion, Putin also warned those who might be tempted to “stand in our way” that “Russia’s response will be immediate and lead you to consequences you have never encountered in your history.

A few days into the invasion, he declared that his nuclear forces had been put on high alert. These threats challenged another of China’s principles: no first use of nuclear weapons, and created immediate fear of a nuclear World War III.

In the UN, China has neither defended nor condemned Russia’s war of aggression. Together with countries such as India, Iran and Vietnam, China has taken an ambiguous position between Russia and the West. Ukraine has asked China to help mediate a ceasefire. In the present triangular game, Putin plays with the weakest hand. He would not otherwise have needed to display the nuclear card.

To stand up against the US, NATO and their economic sanctions, Putin counts on China’s help. That help is likely to be half-hearted. Xi will maintain his friendship with Putin as long as he stays in power, but now with grinding teeth.

A Close but Precarious Friendship

Putin was born in 1952, Xi in the year after. Putin took power as president in 2000, nine years after having witnessed the dissolution of the Soviet Union, which he had served as a KGB officer. His mission since 2000 has been to restore and secure Russia’s status as a great power.

Xi’s life experience is very different. He started to climb up the Chinese power ladder during Mao’s cultural revolution, a time of internal crisis and bitter animosity between China and the Soviet Union. Xi’s further climb coincided with a rapid growth in China’s economic and international standing, and with improved Sino-Russian ties. When Xi became president in 2012, his first state visit went to Moscow. Since then he and Putin have met almost forty times.

Despite the differences between Putin’s brusque and Xi’s controlled personality, the two of them have become good friends. Their leader roles are strikingly similar. They have both concentrated power in their own hands and made sure they can stay in office for as long as they want. Neither Putin nor Xi has groomed a capable potential successor.

Their friendship relies on their shared political aim to counter Western liberal values and ideas. However, Russia depends on China far more than China depends on Russia.

By provoking Western sanctions, Russia undermines the functioning of global flows of finance and investments, on which China’s further economic growth depends. China has also, by signing border treaties with its neighbours, gained a far more secure place than Russia within the global system of territorial states.

A Well-Integrated China

Neither Putin nor Xi is an emperor. Yet they both head successor states to empires. In the 17th–18th century, the Qing dynasty expanded its empire to include Xinjiang, Tibet, Mongolia and Taiwan, while in the 19th century it lost territory to the rival Tsarist, British, French and Japanese empires.

The Qing succumbed to revolution in 1911–12. Over the following decades, nationalist and communist parties rivalled each other for re-establishing a centralized Middle Country (Zhong guo) with sovereignty over all former Qing territories. The People’s Republic of China took control of the Chinese mainland in 1949–50.

Since the 1960s, it has negotiated land borders with 11 of its 13 neighbouring states on land, recognized Mongolia as an independent state and accepted loss of land in treaties signed by the Qing dynasty and Tsarist Russia.

In so doing, Communist China has established a reasonably well defined geo-body within the global state system. Its only remaining disputes on land are with India and Bhutan. In addition, it has unresolved maritime boundaries in the South and East China Seas.

More importantly, it has not gained control of Taiwan, which, however, does not enjoy international recognition as a separate state. Most countries accept the ‘one China principle,’ meaning that Taiwan and mainland China are one nation with two rival governments.

The Taiwan dispute should not take away our attention from the fact that China is far more securely integrated than Russia in the global state system.

A Poorly-Integrated Russia

The Russian Federation was the dominant part of the Soviet Union, which in a formal sense was a federal successor state to the Tsarist empire.

Russia’s borders have not, like China’s, been fixed through drawn-out negotiations with heavy attention to detail – except the borders to China, North Korea, Finland and Norway, which were all outside the Soviet Union.

Russia’s borders with its fellow Soviet Republics were transformed overnight from internal borders to international borders when the Soviet Union was dissolved. Putin found this situation intolerable once the other former Soviet republics began to act independently and seek other allies than Russia in the global system.

Sadly, this led Putin to look back to the Tsarist and Soviet past in search for a ‘historical Russia’, which, according to his vision, should be reinstated in its full glory, power and extension.

In this endeavour, he may indeed have been inspired by his friend Xi Jinping, who has also engaged in disseminating a historical master narrative, based on the idea of having been humiliated by the West in the 19th and 20th centuries. The task Xi has set for himself is to fulfil the economic and technological rejuvenation begun by his predecessors, and win back lost territories in the southern seas.

Luckily, they are not very big, except for Taiwan. Russia’s imperial restoration would be far more dangerous.


International peace today depends to a great extent on Xi Jinping, not only in East Asia.

While Russia intends to subdue, defeat or break up Ukraine, and the US, EU and Japan will defend Ukraine as much as they can without engaging their own military forces,

China does have a choice. It could stand by Russia and use the occasion of turmoil in Europe to make its own push against Taiwan or in the South China Sea. This would greatly increase the risk of world war.

Alternatively, it could put pressure on Russia by refusing to bail it out of the financial and economic trouble it now encounters, and try to compel it to allow Ukraine to survive as a sovereign nation. This would greatly enhance China’s standing globally, but put its security vis-à-vis Russia at risk.

Putin depends too much on China to accept Chinese mediation and would prefer a less powerful mediator. When pondering his options, Xi is most likely to stay on his middle way and abstain from choosing sides. If Xi stands aside and allows Putin’s war to run its course, then he will prolong the current global crisis.

The greatest non-event in the 20th century was World War III. At present, it is Putin, Xi and Biden who carry the burden of preventing it from happening in our century.

Hopefully, Xi will tell Putin that it is impermissible to threaten nuclear war.

The authors

  • Stein Tønnesson, Research Professor, PRIO
  • Ilaria Carrozza, Senior Researcher, PRIO

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Oliver Richmond

We could do with examining this further- hope is clearly not enough. What strategies for talks- grand conferences, negotiation, peacemaking, peacekeeping, diplomacy, etc -can be applied in order to channel these leaders towards agreed solutions, rather than geopolitical wars? What revisions to the international system are needed in order to strengthen the proscription of violence? Putin and possibly Xi are clearly trying to revise the post-cold war international order, and violence is back in the open. The West and its allies need strategies for both.

Bernard Davis

Well, blow me down with a feather, violence is back in the open. is it? From that closet in which it has been hiding for the past 30 years? Perhaps you could ask the people of the Balkans, or Iraq, or Syria, or Libya, or Afghanistan, or Yemen about this violence modestly hiding itself from view. Take of your made-in-America blinkers, pal.

Nathan Cain

I don’t understand what you meant by this sentence: “The greatest non-event in the 20th century was World War III.”

Agnete Schjønsby

Dear Nathan,

What I meant to say is that the most significant event that did not happen (but could well have happened) in the 20th century was World War III.

Stein (Tønnesson)

Mark Reardon

If Donald Trump had his way, US President would be a dictator like several other leaders. He admires them all and is jealous of the power which is not available to a US President. Putin, Kim Jong Un, Xi Jinping all want complete control as autocrats preferably for life. They look to gain advantage over their own people and others based on disinformation, lies and deceit. Wouldn’t Trump just love to join the club. He is every bit as dangerous as depicted in his niece’s book.

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