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Timothy Ash: What Xi really wants in Moscow

by Timothy Ash March 24, 2023 1:15 AM 4 min read
Chinese President Xi Jinping arrives at the Kremlin for talks with Russian President Vladimir Putin on March 21, 2023, in Moscow, Russia. (Photo by Getty Images)
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Editor’s Note: The following is taken from Timothy Ash's Substack blog, @tashecon blog, and republished with his permission. The opinions expressed in the op-ed section are those of the authors and do not purport to reflect the views of the Kyiv Independent.

First, I think ideally Xi would want to call an end to the war in Ukraine.

It may initially have served a purpose for China, in trying to put Russia and the West/Ukraine at loggerheads, in conflict or proxy conflict, and weakening both, but I think China now sees a real prospect of a catastrophic defeat for Russia, and perhaps regime change there with Putin ousted for something likely less aligned with China. That would be a disaster for China, as it would leave the country further encircled by foes.

So Xi would love to push a peace deal on Putin and Ukraine, but its only real interest here is saving Putin - it’s not really interested in viewing all this through any Ukrainian prism. Indeed, having done little to engage with Ukraine over the period since independence, Chinese officials simply don’t understand Ukraine, or don’t really want to. And that’s a problem when it comes to forcing peace on Ukraine as, if China does not understand the Ukrainian perspective, how can it figure out a solution which is also amenable to Kyiv?

Second, if Xi cannot get a lasting peace effort or ceasefire, he will at least think that it will win plaudits in the Global South, and perhaps even Europe, just for trying. In what it sees as an increasingly polarized world, China hopes to pull off elements of the Global South and even Europe, away from the U.S.-led Western alliance by marketing itself as a global peacemaker and neutral arbiter (even though it clearly is not).

Third, again, if Xi cannot secure a peace agreement, he will at least want to enforce guardrails on Putin to limit risks of escalation in the conflict away from anything which can destabilize the global economy.

Important herein to understand that China’s long-term game plan is still to win global hegemony over the U.S. through economic development, and through globalization. China wins through globalization and hates anything that undermines the global status quo - this war has spiked global commodity prices higher, hurt supply chains, and hit global trade and growth, all of which is bad for the China hegemony bid through economic development.

Timothy Ash: Is China serious about peace?

Fourth, Xi knows Putin is desperate and increasingly dependent on China. If Putin is willing to offer China cut-price long-term commodity deals, all the better. China will take whatever it can from a weakened Putin.

Fifth, in the “partnership without limits” agreement signed at the Winter Olympics in Beijing in February 2022 the two sides had very different interpretations of the weights of the two partners. Putin saw this at the least as a partnership of equals, whereas Xi definitely saw this as China being the big brother or dominant partner. There was irritation from both sides at the time. However, a year on, and Xi will want to rub it in to Putin that he is now the weaker, junior partner and now dependent on Xi. Putin will be kissing Xi’s ring, if not worse and somewhat lower on the anatomy.

Sixth, I think Xi will want to signal to the U.S. that China has leverage over Russia and that, if the U.S. and its allies want peace in Ukraine, it will have to work with China. And that likely means that China will look for compromises from the U.S. elsewhere, perhaps over tariffs and trade, or even Taiwan.

Seventh, and importantly, China will not want to get dragged into the conflict. China knows full well that where powers such as Russia and the U.S. have been dragged into wars, as in Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan, and now Ukraine, they have emerged much weaker.

Dmytro Yefremov: China’s stance on Russia’s war reveals wider strategic aims

So that’s Xi, what about Putin?

Putin has by now realized that Russia cannot win this conflict - it currently has no path to victory. So Putin really has only two options:

First, well, ideally Putin would want full China backing for his conquest of Ukraine. Ideally, that would be Chinese military backing to push the Ukrainians back to deliver full victory in Ukraine. Putin perhaps feels that even the Chinese lining up on his side in Ukraine could be enough to frighten the West into backing off in support for Ukraine, leading then to eventual Ukrainian surrender to Russia.

Second, if Chinese military backing is not forthcoming - it likely is not - Putin wants China to force Ukraine and the West to the negotiating table to bring a peace. Putin would now take a peace in Ukraine where he keeps what he has, even better forcing guarantees also of no future NATO enlargement, and some limits on Ukraine’s rearmament. The latter would be aimed at giving a future option of Russia rearming and then re-invading Ukraine. Obviously, the latter scenario is in no way acceptable to Ukraine.

I still think that Putin is now so weak and vulnerable that he might just be forced to concede to a deal whereby Russian forces withdraw to positions held before Feb. 24, 2022, with longer-term UN negotiations over the future of Crimea and the Donbas, and then some formula around no NATO membership for Ukraine in exchange then for some form of Western security guarantees for Ukraine.

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