The Russian army’s ongoing struggle to capture Bakhmut might appear to be primarily a tactical episode in the larger geo-strategic picture of Russia’s war against Ukraine.
However, it also affects the key political interactions shaping this picture, including the formally cordial, but in fact rather uneasy, relations between Moscow and Beijing.
“Friendship without limits”
Chinese President Xi Jinping, who these days is basking in the well-prepared triumph of securing a third presidential term, knows well the value of symbolism and comprehends the Kremlin’s frustrations with its inability to score even a minor victory (Nezavisimaya gazeta, March 9).
Xi likely regrets the announcement of a “friendship without limits” with Russian President Vladimir Putin on the eve of the war; yet, that figure of speech grants the Chinese president useful opportunities to play with shifting the limits on supporting Russia in its increasingly desperate efforts to keep control over the course of its ill-conceived war.
This maneuvering has gained expanded space with the Chinese Foreign Ministry’s publication of a “peace plan” for the Russo-Ukrainian war, attributed to Wang Yi, the foreign policy supervisor in the Chinese Communist Party’s Politburo, who elaborated on its broadly formulated 12 points during his tour around Europe and in Moscow (Forbes.ru, February 27).
Putin is certainly in no position to object to any initiative launched by Beijing, but the official promise to give the plan due attention was remarkably curt, and commentaries in the central media were strictly abbreviated (Rossiiskaya gazeta, February 27). Only a few pundits insinuated that China’s profile in the global arena had become so prominent that it felt compelled to formulate a position, which amounted to a list of general and well-known principles (Russiancouncil.ru, March 1).
China in the Middle East
Beijing is indeed treading far more carefully in the Ukrainian war zone than in the Middle East, where it has engaged in pro-active peacemaking.
Starting with Xi’s visit to Saudi Arabia in December 2022 and continuing with Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi’s visit to Beijing in February 2023 (Izvestiya, February 24), Moscow had excelled at exploiting the traditional tensions in the Gulf region. Thus, the Kremlin was surprised to find its space for maneuvering starting to contract due to the announcement on restoring official diplomatic relations between Saudi Arabia and Iran, as facilitated by China (Kommersant, March 10).
Besides stabilizing oil prices, which is set to further curtail Russia’s petro revenues already undercut by Western sanctions, this rapprochement will make Iran a bit more circumspect in supplying those arms to Russia, including ballistic missiles, needed for sustaining the sequence of strikes on Ukrainian energy infrastructure (The Moscow Times, March 6).
The plain fact that China’s diplomatic success in the Middle East signifies a setback for the habitual Russian policy of conflict manipulation shows that the strategic partnership is far less harmonious than the two officialdoms are eager to claim (Rossiiskaya gazeta, March 7).
Peace plan for Ukraine
Some “patriotic” experts in Moscow, taking a second look at the Chinese peace plan for Ukraine, dare to suggest that it goes directly against the Russian strategy for prevailing in the long war of attrition (Nezavisimoe voennoe obozrenie, March 9). More moderate voices argue that Russia can pick those Chinese points that suit its interests while ignoring others and find political advantage in the resolute rejection of Beijing’s initiative by Washington (Russiancouncil.ru, March 6).
The first proposition in the Chinese initiative — the unequivocal respect of territorial integrity — is difficult for Russia to circumvent, but the imperative has strong support in the Global South (Carnegie Politika, February 27). One possible way around this principle is to claim that Russia’s territory now includes four regions that used to belong to Ukraine, as well as Crimea, and that peace talks can proceed if Kyiv acknowledges this “new reality” (Meduza, February 24).
The problem with such self-serving misinterpretation of the offer is not only that Beijing firmly refuses to recognize Russia’s annexations (Novayagazeta.eu, February 28) but also that, by laying claim to the territories that it does not control and clearly cannot conquer, Moscow has severely compromised the foundation of Russia’s own territorial integrity. Furthermore, the retreat from Kherson has aggravated this chasm between the constitutionally legitimized fantasy and the reality of military setbacks, which are set to continue yet further.
Message concerning Taiwan
An implicit but crucial message in the Chinese stance on Ukraine concerns Taiwan, and while any analogies between the two confrontations are resolutely denied in Beijing, warnings on external support for the island’s drift toward independence are being articulated with increasing menace (Izvestiya, March 10).
Every contact between the United States and Taiwan is condemned fiercely, but the key issue is the export of US weapons, with the added disapproval of massive supplies of North Atlantic Treaty Organization offensive weapon systems to Ukraine (Kommersant, March 8). Beijing has issued a number of hints on a possible change in its position regarding the self-imposed ban on the export of lethal arms to Russia, at the same time scorning Western threats of severe consequences from such a blatant violation of the West’s sanctions regime (Novye izvestiya, March 6). The Russian military is keen to use every bit of dual-use exports coming from China, from quadcopters to boots. But what Russian forces need most are artillery shells and big gun barrels, and deliveries of such bulky goods are impossible to hide (Republic.ru, March 3).
The Chinese leadership clearly does not want Putin to lose his war, ill-conceived as it was. But General Li Shangfu, China’s newly appointed defense minister despite being under US sanctions, does not want to rush Xi, who usually prefers to prolong the decision-making process over Ukraine.
The difference in dynamics of Western arms supply to Ukraine, which have massively increased since the start of 2023, and Chinese procrastinations has become seriously detrimental for Russia. The two strategic partners are operating on different timetables, with China’s focus on influencing the elections in Taiwan in early 2024 and Russia bracing for a Ukrainian spring offensive led by trained armored brigades and Western main battle tanks.
Putin may have set his mind on the long war perspective and signaled his resolve to Xi, who finds this option quite agreeable as US attention and resource-allocation would remain centered on the European theater. Therefore, it is up to Ukraine to prove these two mutually mistrustful autocrats wrong again, and unwavering Western support is the key to making China contemplate the consequences of Russia’s defeat.