Russia’s invasion of Ukraine was meant to inaugurate a new world order – one in which the security architecture that was developed after the Second World War, cemented in international agreements like the Helsinki Accords and events like the collapse of the Soviet Union, was overthrown.
That order was built and powered by the military and economic might of the United States. If Russia could invade and reshape a European state, an American friend, without challenge, the result would effectively be a new and ‘multipolar’ world.
It would be a world where the United States was not the only hegemonic power, a world where the US is either unable to aid its allies from conquest by its enemies. Neighbours of Russia and China would know their hopes for American help were forlorn.
This is a world the leadership of both Russia and China wish to see.
Reportedly, Russian president Vladimir Putin had squared his invasion away with Chinese president Xi Jinping before the conclusion of the Winter Olympics earlier this year. The Chinese state denied these claims, but they are plausible.
Whether cooperation was this close or not, China appeared initially supportive of Russia’s invasion. It not only refused to condemn Putin’s action on official state media, but also used both the media and its capacity for internet censorship to push a message largely in favour of the invasion.
Posts critical of Russian aggression were censored or toned down. Chinese state TV embedded with Russian forces, largely covering their actions favourably – something no western news organisation was able to do. Chinese organisations bought adverts across the world, including on social media, to spread the Russian message and to amplify Russian disinformation.
Chinese media elaborated on Russian claims of the Ukrainian government including Nazis, and gave coverage and credence to the idea, floated exclusively by Russian media, that Ukraine may have biological and chemical weapons laboratories, from which attacks – real or false flag – may come.
‘The Chinese response to the Russian invasion of Ukraine, which Xi Jinping signed off on, has manifested exactly as expected; namely, running diplomatic interference for Russia, scrubbing all pro-Ukrainian commentary from its internet, pushing Kremlin talking points in its official media, and refusing to condemn the invasion or even call it such,’ said Oved Lobel, a policy analyst at the Australia/Israel & Jewish Affairs Council.
‘While China can speak out of two sides of its mouth depending on the audience, the big picture is that the CCP supports the invasion 100% and is very open about it.’
Nonetheless, Russia’s invasion did not go as planned. It met dogged and well-resourced Ukrainian resistance. Rather than sweeping into Kyiv and other cities, Russian forces were pinned down and suffered humiliating losses.
As Russia’s advance ground to a halt and its impetus died down, some detected a change in the Chinese position.
China was lobbied, along with other countries, to abstain in the United Nations general assembly on a vote condemning Russia’s invasion. This was interpreted by many as an indication that Chinese support was not fulsome, and that perhaps it was waning. Chinese messaging, both international and domestically, appeared uncertain and disconnected.
Chinese media has remained predominantly critical of its main strategic rival, the United States, and what it called American imperialism in supporting Ukraine and other eastern European countries. But criticism of Russia – of its imprudence, of its tactical failures and military incompetence – started to creep into Chinese publications.
Many among the world’s democracies saw this as a hopeful sign – that Russia’s failure could repel China’s leadership and lose it international support. Some politicians began to wonder that Russia may have appalled China so much that, China may not step into bust sanctions, to pick up excess supply of Russian goods, to support the falling value of the ruble, and to recapitalise an economy under heavy financial and capital restrictions.
However, as the Russian economy adjusts to its new baseline under sanctions, the temptation for the Chinese state either to buy up depreciating assets or to keep markets functioning for Chinese goods will be strong.
China’s leaders may predict that outrage over Russia’s actions will wane, and that support for sanctions cannot last. They may still believe that Russia can win, either by destroying Ukrainian resistance in a war of attrition or by revising its goals downwards and declaring a victory whatever the result. In each case, the option remains for China to back Putin’s next move.
Any sense that Russia and China are not fundamentally partners seems unwarranted. Although China may deplore Russian ineptitude and failures, and its leadership may worry that its own armed forces may prove the same paper tiger the Russian military has done, the dictators of Russia and China are more alike than they are different.
Both oppose American pre-eminence. Both are revisionist, and wish to change national borders and challenge the international system by conquering or subordinating a neighbour – in Russia’s case, Ukraine; in China’s case, Taiwan.
‘China is in somewhat of a bind when it comes to economic support for Russia…the CCP is economically and imperially overstretched from its so-called ‘Belt and Road Initiative’, which has no relation to economics and has resulted in substantial funds being spent on potential future imperial dividends,’ Lobel said.
‘China has been caught entirely off guard. Like the rest of us, they assumed Russia would conquer Ukraine in 48 hours and present Europe with a fait accompli, fatally weakening the West in one swift stroke and distracting the US. Instead, Russia is bogged down and Europe is angrier and more materially mobilized than anyone could have predicted. China was hoping to maintain what exists of their parasitic economy by maintaining ties with Europe and the US until they’re ready to invade Taiwan. They are now scrambling to figure out how to proceed,’ he added.
Russia’s failures on the battlefield might prompt China’s leadership to worry about the effectiveness of its own military. But to assume this changes the basic picture – of Chinese expansionism, and its closeness to Russia’s own expansionist ambitions – is optimistic.
‘If the CCP were rational, they’d be looking on in horror at the Russian army and thinking what it might suggest about their own military, especially given how much of their equipment is Russian or based on Russian technology. In what may be a boon to the West, however, there is no reason to believe Xi is any different from Putin; that is, completely detached from reality and surrounded by yes-men, his military entirely hollowed out by corruption,’ Lobel said.
‘That said, China is a far wealthier and more competent country than Russia, and there’s no real parallel between their militaries or budgets. What the Russians have demonstrated, however, is that all the numbers and on-paper technological advancements in the world don’t matter if you can’t conduct combined arms operations and fight a modern war, and nobody knows whether China is actually any more capable than Russia.’
The Russian way of war has hardened opposition across the democratic world. Neutral states like Sweden and Finland are in talks to join NATO. Ukraine has begun a campaign to join the European Union.
For the moment at least, spurred by the number of refugees the war has created, and footage of Russia’s destruction of Mariupol and Kharkiv, Eurosceptic politicians who were close to Putin, including Marine Le Pen in France and Matteo Salvini in Italy, have disavowed his support. This temporary unity on the European continent may prove illusory – as may the idea that Russia could alienate China by its conduct in Ukraine.
‘Russia and China can never be separated under any circumstances, and there is nothing Russia could do to alienate China,’ Lobel said. ‘Both are hellbent on overturning US supremacy and returning the world to the imperial era that preceded World War II. Whatever differences may exist between the two, the existence of the West – and their joint desire to destroy it utterly – far outweighs them.’
Essays have been written already on the shape the new world created by Russia’s invasion may take. Whether Russia and China remain partners, or Russia becomes financed by Chinese loans and buoyed up by debt is unclear. But the link between the two – in opposition to the US, in opposition to democracy – is likely to continue to animate and galvanise the leaders of both states.
‘Xi and Putin have an ideological relationship and alliance on top of their shared goal, and nothing that Russia or the West do can disrupt that.’
This piece was originally published at The New Arab.