For Ukraine, the war against Russia is existential. Defeat means extinction as a sovereign nation, and the destruction of Ukrainian identity.
Russia’s troubles, however, are self-inflicted. By invading Ukraine, Russian President Vladimir Putin forced the West to impose a series of harsh sanctions aimed at squeezing the Kremlin economically, and ultimately, forcing a withdrawal from Ukraine.
The punishment that the administration of President Joe Biden and NATO allies imposed on Russia’s economy would have achieved the West’s aims, if it weren’t for Putin’s benefactor and bosom buddy, Chinese President Xi Jinping.
Xi’s trip to Moscow this week cemented China’s role as an economic lifeline for Russia. The Kremlin has been able to circumvent the West’s price cap on Russian oil by turning to Beijing’s unquenchable thirst for crude. By becoming China’s biggest source of oil, Russia actually made more money on oil exports last year compared with 2021.
Russia also has offset the loss of natural gas exports to Europe by selling more natural gas to China, though this week Xi was careful to hold off on agreeing to Putin’s plan to complete a new pipeline to deliver natural gas to China by 2030. Computer chips, raw materials and other dual-use products that Russia used to acquire from the West are now supplied by China, along with a few other countries.
The U.S. shouldn’t be surprised by China’s financial buoying of Russia and the unprovoked invasion of Ukraine. The energy China is buying from Russia comes at a discount. And, as was made clear by Xi’s visit to Moscow, the bedrock of China and Russia’s strategic friendship remains their mutual perception of America as a hegemonic enemy bent on global dominance.
That friendship is bound to strengthen, and that’s something the U.S. and its NATO allies must gauge carefully and game-plan for in months and years to come.
In the meantime, the West’s immediate concern centers on the potential for China to replenish Putin’s depleted arsenal of lethal weapons.
That’s a red line for Western allies, and crossing it would likely mean a raft of U.S.-led sanctions imposed on Beijing. China denies it’s even considering that prospect, but it’s already providing Moscow with dual-use technology.
A decision by China to start supplying Russia with lethal weapons would dramatically change the dynamic of the war in Ukraine.
Putin has failed badly as a commander-in-chief, allowing the outmanned and underequipped Ukrainian armed forces to notch a series of pivotal battlefield victories over the course of the war. Early in the war Russian forces were at Kyiv’s doorstep — now they’ve been pushed back into eastern Ukraine, where inch-by-inch warfare is reminiscent of World War I battles.
It has become a war of attrition, but that suits Putin. He has time on his side. As he has already done, he can send thousands more troops into eastern Ukraine as cannon fodder. And if he is resupplied by China’s massive military arsenal, he can extend the conflict to a point in which Ukraine can no longer sustain the fight.
Unlike Putin, China has carefully calibrated what it says and does during the Ukraine conflict. It has parroted the Kremlin’s propaganda that NATO aggression toward Russia over the years set the stage for the war in Ukraine. But Beijing also has been careful to not openly support Putin’s brutal invasion of a sovereign nation. China has consistently tried to portray itself as a neutral bystander in the conflict.
Astonishingly, it has recently claimed the role of peace broker, calling for a cease-fire and the onset of talks to end the war. That can never happen, of course, as long as Russian troops remain on Ukrainian territory.
“A cease-fire now is, again, effectively the ratification of Russian conquest,” John Kirby, spokesperson for the U.S. National Security Council, said last week. “It would, in effect, recognize Russia’s gains and its attempt to conquer its neighbor’s territory by force, allowing Russian troops to continue to occupy sovereign Ukrainian territory.”
But the question remains: Are there circumstances in which Beijing would accede to the Kremlin’s desire for lethal weapons replenishment? Such a decision could become much likelier, if, for example, Russian forces in Ukraine were on the verge of complete defeat.
Still, it would be a massive miscalculation on Xi’s part — China may have a fundamental disdain for the U.S. and what it stands for, but it values deeply its ascent and place within the global economy. That’s not something Xi is likely to risk, even for the fellow autocrat in Moscow whom he likes to call his “dear friend.”
But if Xi decides to cross that red line, the U.S. and its Western allies would be wise to ramp up strong sanctions against Beijing, along with a steady flow of weapons and military equipment that sustains Ukraine’s fight for survival.
Xi’s friendship with Putin may run deep, but the West’s commitment to Ukrainian sovereignty must run deeper.