Is Putin desperate enough to let Xi get his way over Ukraine?

China may have concluded that Russia cannot win – and may now fear that a devastating defeat for Putin in Ukraine could threaten regime change in Moscow

Timothy Ash
Tuesday 21 March 2023 05:50 GMT
Xi Jinping arrives in Moscow to meet Putin for state visit

Outwardly the summit in Moscow between Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping is an attempt to send a strong signal to the West that the “partnership without limits” agreement – signed between the two men at the Beijing Winter Olympics on the eve of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February 2022 – is still just that.

However, Putin’s disastrous invasion of Ukraine hangs over the summit, and will likely dominate proceedings.

Russia is losing badly in Ukraine. It has already suffered a colossal loss of manpower, military equipment and prestige for Putin. It has also caused a sizeable economic hit to the Russian economy as sanctions have pushed it into recession, forced a brain drain and capital flight and seen close to $400bn in its assets frozen in the West.

Every day that goes by gets worse for Russia, with little or no route to victory. Putin hoped his autumn mass mobilisation and winter offensive would allow him to seize the initiative again, but these hopes have gotten stuck in the mud of the city of Bakhmut in eastern Ukraine and dogged resistance from Kyiv's forces. An expected Ukrainian counter-offensive planned for the spring could turn the war in favour of Ukraine. Putin desperately wants an off-ramp; an escape route.

It’s unclear whether Putin gave Xi a heads up over his plans for the invasion. But if he did, likely Xi assumed any war would be short and limited, and would inevitably result in Russia’s victory (and would, in the process, provide a swift kick in the face for the US and its Nato allies). As the war dragged on, Xi probably saw some advantage in Russia and Nato sapping each other’s strengths.

Something seems to have changed. China’s foreign minister has unveiled a 12-point peace plan on the one-year anniversary of the invasion on 24 February. Xi’s plans for a trip to Moscow next week were then unveiled, and a call reportedly lined up with President Zelensky of Ukraine after his meeting with Putin. China now seems to want peace, and is willing to try and broker that.

What has changed? Likely Xi has concluded from Putin’s failed offensive in Bakhmut that Russia cannot win – and may now fear that a devastating defeat for Putin in Ukraine could threaten regime change in Moscow. It is extremely unlikely, but would be a nightmare scenario for Beijing as the emergence of a pro-Western administration in Moscow would leave China encircled. As such, Xi would want a peace in Ukraine which can save Putin’s skin.

Russia and China are now aligned, but no deal is possible without the agreement of Ukraine; and Ukraine still feels it can win this war. But China's 12-point peace plan did include some elements that Kyiv appreciated, including talk of "territorial integrity".

A sticking point could well be Ukraine giving up on ambitions for Nato membership, but that might well be assuaged by US-Israel style security guarantees from senior Nato states. The problem here is that Putin invaded Ukraine not because of its Nato aspirations, but simply because he wants Ukraine.

Agreement over Nato member security guarantees for Ukraine would mean, in effect, Russia has lost Ukraine forever. Is Putin so desperate to save his own skin as to accept that? We might soon find out.

Timothy Ash is an associate fellow in the Russia and Eurasia programme at Chatham House

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