Why Vladimir Putin needs Xi Jinping now more than ever

In the last minutes of their meeting in Moscow last month, Xi Jinping declared that his Russian counterpart was driving the kind of geopolitical changes not seen in the world in over a hundred years. While Xi extended his right hand for a formal farewell, Vladimir Putin grasped it with both hands and wished him a safe trip, standing there beaming until the Chinese convoy had left the premises.

It was a public display of diplomatic bonhomie between the autocratic allies, signalling two things: Xi’s commitment to what the pair have touted as a “no-limits partnership” and, at the same time, Moscow’s growing dependence on Beijing to avoid being isolated by mounting sanctions amid the Ukraine war.

Putin’s reliance on China has only grown as the conflict in Ukraine has dragged on, experts say, with Russia counting on Beijing for moral, financial and diplomatic support as it faces heavy military losses and the ongoing contraction of the Russian economy.

“With the fairly dire performance of the second-largest army in the world, the increasing crackdowns within Moscow and impending fallout of political instability expected next year and alongside that losing influence in central Asia, what Russia wants is China to remain standing, it wants weapons to fuel the war and short of that, Putin could use imports this year to finance the manufacturing of its own weapons,” says David Dalton, senior analyst specialising in Europe and Eurasia at Dragonfly Intelligence.

Dalton explains that while Xi did not use last month’s visit to promise Russia the heavy artillery and weapons that could have changed the course of the war, he gave Putin something else that was critical.

“One of the things that he wanted was the visit itself, which demonstrated most theatrically that Russia is not isolated and that it still has connections with powerful people around the world. Xi’s visit was the most high-profile visit Putin hosted since the full-scale invasion, and the demonstration of this friendship [to the world] was important for Putin,” Dalton says.

Francis Lee-Saunders, another analyst from Dragonfly specialising in Eurasia, says that as much as the West might want it to appear that Putin is alone without Xi’s support, there’s more to the relationship than meets the eye.

“Often discussions about Russia and China’s relationship sees the notion of West vs Russia or Russia vs the world, or that with no other friends left, Russia is walking into the arms of China. The reality is slightly more complicated. Russia does not quite face the global isolation often spoken of [or] that the Western policymakers would like to see,” Lee-Saunders explains.

Putin is banking on Iran for its supply of Shahed drones that Russia has used to exhaust Ukraine’s air defence since August last year. His alliance with Belarus and North Korea does not appear to be impaired either.

“Trade with other non-European countries does continue, there is growing attention on how Russia has one way or another circumvented sanctions. Armenia and Kazakhstan are particular examples of that,” the analyst tells The Independent.

“Russia does face strained ties but it is by no means completely alone on the world stage.”

A year into the war, a dive into Putin and Xi’s diplomatic friendship showed that while a lot has changed for Russia globally, there has been just as great a shift in the dynamic between Beijing and Moscow.

“The relationship right before the invasion was of ‘backing each other when we can’ while being largely adversarial. This has all changed after the invasion. China kind of became, one day to another, the dominant power in the relationship. It saw a great opportunity in this and most likely came consciously to this no-limits partnership,” says Barbara Keleman, senior Asia associate, speaking at a briefing hosted by Dragonfly on the Russia-China relationship.

While Xi will not compromise China’s economic recovery from the Covid pandemic by offering military aid to Russia and therefore face global sanctions, the analysts said China could be expected to scale up its help for Russia if it senses Putin’s regime is destabilised and on the brink of collapse.

“China remains committed to support Russia strategically even if it is by amplifying Russia’s narrative,” Keleman explains.

For now at least, China has stated that providing military support to Russia is a red line it will not cross. But it has become increasingly clear that for Putin there are no red lines, and that the war in Ukraine is intrinsically tied to his future as Russia’s leader. It means Russia is likely to continue seeking stronger ties to China, whatever the cost.

“Putin has revealed himself as a fairly instrumental politician and the reasons why he started the war, among several other reasons, is Russia’s political culture. It started as that but now it is a war for the survival of Putin’s regime paired with his personal survival,” says Dalton.

“This will drive his friendship with China for the foreseeable future – or for as long as he [Putin] lasts.”

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