Putin is the Junior Dictator in Meeting with Xi
(Disclaimer: The photo atop this commentary is not real, but it symbolically illustrates the point. Think of it as an editorial cartoon.)
Yes, all the diplomatic niceties were to be seen. Russian President Putin heaped lavish praise on Chinese President Xi. In return, Chinese President Xi heaped praise on Russian President Putin. To paraphrase the Bard of Avon, it was a lot of sound and ceremony signifying nothing.
They pledged their undying affections, but it all seemed more convenient than love. Xi finds Putin useful as a foil to use against the West in general – and the United States specifically. He is looking to displace America as the king of the international mountain. Putin needs his Big Brother as the most powerful of the small number of international allies Moscow has these days.
Despite their previous pledge to be friends and partners in everything, there seem to be limits on everything – at least on the part of Xi. He has thus far refused to be all-in on the Ukraine invasion. He has given Putin some verbal support, but it is tepid. More importantly, he has not given Putin the thing he wants and needs most – military equipment. Even after two lovefest meetings, the answer on weaponry is still yet.
In the most recent meeting, Xi conceded to none of Putin’s requests. The leaders agreed to have more meetings, produce joint television programming, and work on the nuclear reactor Russia is building for China. In addition to the weapons issue, what Putin wanted and did not get was the go-ahead for the Power of Siberia 2 gas pipeline into China. The big winner was Xi, who increased China’s leverage over Russia in an increasingly unequal partnership.
Xi was not in Moscow to accomplish much. It was more of a public relations event directed at the international community. Xi went there to burnish his image of a peacemaker –in order to broker a peace agreement between Russia and Ukraine. Xi knew the ceasefire plan was a non-starter. It was too unfavorable to Ukraine to be taken seriously — but it still gets him an “E” for effort.
Xi always has the option to reverse course and send lethal weapons – but so far, he has no reason to do so. Xi is attempting to build an influential relationship with most of the world. His country already has all kinds of trade and business deals with scores of nations supporting Ukraine. He does not want to disrupt them by putting China in lockstep behind Putin’s blunder.
Xi has very reason to believe that Russia is going to lose that war eventually. He does not want to be on the losing side. That would make his claim to world leadership highly tenuous.
Xi has three problems with Putin’s dirty little war. The first is that Putin started the war. It went against China’s long-stated policy of respecting borders to maintain international stability – which is important to the free flow of commerce, which is important to China.
The second issue for Xi is how Putin is conducting the war. The brutality of the attacks has brought widespread condemnation of Putin with the United Nations and the greater world community. He has been repeatedly and credibly described as a war criminal – and recently, the International Criminal Court (ICC) has indicted Putin as a war criminal and issued a warrant for his arrest.
Finally, Xi’s concern is that Russia appears to be losing the war. The ineptitude of the Russian military has resulted in the loss of at least half of the original invasion force to field fatalities, injuries, and capture. This is a monumental embarrassment over and above a strategic setback of unimaginable proportions.
Putin has put his friend Xi in a difficult position. He cannot go all in with Putin – and he cannot walk away completely.
Reckless disregard for international norms and stability are not qualities of leadership. If Putin thinks that the meeting in Moscow was between two world leaders, he is deluding himself. Putin was the little guy on the state next to Xi – both in physical stature and political influence.
Xi’s true opinion of Putin is more likely evident in what he did NOT do during their face-to-face meeting.
So, there ‘tis.