Vladimir Putin’s ongoing failure in Ukraine has put his strategic alliance with Chinese President Xi Jinping to the test. With Putin growing ever more desperate, Xi must finally realize the scale of the threat that his “friendship without limits” with the Russian president poses to China’s economic health, to global stability, and to his own geopolitical ambitions.
While Putin may or may not have been bluffing when he threatened to use tactical nuclear weapons in Ukraine last month, Xi must assume the worst if he wants to be viewed as a responsible leader. After all, Russia’s military doctrine allows for a nuclear strike to defend Russian territory against an existential threat. Russia’s illegal annexation of the occupied Ukrainian regions of Luhansk, Donetsk, Kherson, and Zaporizhzhia provides the pretext for such an attack.
Xi, who is expected to secure an unprecedented third consecutive term as China’s leader at the 20th National Congress of the Communist Party of China later this month, must now turn his attention to preventing World War III. A Russian nuclear strike in Ukraine – the first use of such weapons since the United States dropped atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945 – would ignite a catastrophic global crisis, spoiling Xi’s coronation.
Russia’s proxy war to divert attention from China’s problems
When Xi and Putin met at the Beijing Winter Olympics in February to sign the Sino-Russian cooperation agreement, the plan to invade Ukraine must have seemed like a safe bet: the Russians would quickly topple Ukraine’s leadership, which would make the US and NATO appear weak. A proxy war would also divert US attention from its rivalry with China – or so Xi thought.
Then Ukraine fought back, exposing Russia’s myriad military weaknesses. Russian forces have now retreated from the Kharkiv region in the northeast, following Ukraine’s impressive counteroffensive, and are suffering heavy losses near Kherson in the south.
Xi almost certainly conveyed his displeasure with Russia’s failures when he met with Putin at the recent Shanghai Cooperation Organization Summit in Samarkand, Uzbekistan. Putin publicly acknowledged China’s “questions and concerns” about the war – a rare admission of tensions between the two countries – while Xi himself did not publicly mention Ukraine at all. Xi’s silence stood in stark contrast to Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who – in a remarkable volte-face – openly rebuked Putin.
Still, it is hard to believe that Xi is not wondering whether he made the right decision when he tied his political fate to so reckless an ally. Putin’s “partial mobilization” of 300,000 Russian men to join the fight in Ukraine has triggered protests across Russia and caused more than 200,000 young men to flee the country. The quality of Putin’s new recruits – who include convicts – is unlikely to help the war effort or assuage Xi’s concerns.
The enemy was strengthened, not weakened
With morale among Russian troops already at rock bottom, an infusion of dispirited and ill-trained draftees may hasten the dissolution of Putin’s military and the fall of his regime, akin to how Czar Nicholas II’s poor leadership during World War I fueled the collapse of the Czar’s armies and the Russian Revolution of 1917. With his direct appeals to Russian soldiers to surrender or die, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky seems to understand the perilous state of the Russian military better than Putin does.
The point of a proxy war is to weaken one’s adversary, but Putin’s incompetence has achieved the exact opposite for Xi. NATO is now stronger than it has been at any point since the Cold War’s end, with previously neutral countries like Sweden and Finland applying to join and Asian countries like Japan, South Korea, and increasingly India voicing support for America’s Ukraine policy.
Instead of helping China to establish itself as a counterweight to US global hegemony, Russia has been exposed as too weak and corrupt to defeat even a middling country. With Putin now issuing direct orders to Russian field commanders, China’s military alliance with Russia must seem almost worthless to Xi.
While the chances of Putin using a nuclear weapon in Ukraine appear slim, they cannot be fully discounted. So, Chinese officials must be trying to assess how the US and NATO would respond if Putin followed through on his threat. Given US President Joe Biden’s tough-minded – if still ambiguous – statements, it is safe to assume that the international economic and military response would be far more severe than the sanctions already imposed on Russia.
Putin undermines One-China Principle
But if Putin does decide to use a tactical nuclear device to “defend” the Ukrainian territory that he has illegally annexed, he may well open a Pandora’s Box of horrors. For example, his war has brought considerable chaos to Ukraine’s nuclear power stations, and, in addition to other concerns about their operation, it can no longer be assumed that their spent nuclear fuel rods have always been safely secured during the battles for control of the sites. This opens the terrifying prospect of some mad partisan creating a “dirty” bomb to use in retaliation.
Putin’s annexations may also undermine the “One China” policy regarding Taiwan, which most of the world accepts. Some Eastern European countries are already voicing doubts about the wisdom of that policy. If Xi, who has steadfastly defended the principle of territorial integrity, silently accepts Putin’s annexations, some countries may decide that Xi’s hypocrisy has nullified the “One China” policy.
Ever since he became president ten years ago, Xi has signaled his fear that China could suffer the type of political and economic disintegration that led to the implosion of the Soviet Union. Putin’s current predicament should serve as another cautionary tale. The prospect of a regime so rotten that it collapses from within must haunt China’s president almost as much as the threat of nuclear war.
Charles Tannock, a former member of the European Parliament Foreign Affairs Committee, is a fellow at GLOBSEC, a think tank based in Bratislava committed to enhancing security, prosperity, and sustainability.
Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2022.