Xi Jinping’s Visit to Moscow, 2023
Xi: Changes are coming, which haven’t happened in a hundred years – and we are driving them together.”
Putin: I agree.
Xi: Take care, dear friend.
Those parting words exchanged as President Xi Jinping left the Kremlin at the end of his visit sum up the substance of what the two leaders discussed during the visit in the third week of March.
The full import of these words will only be clear over time, but one conclusion does suggest itself right away: the People’s Republic is now a party to the Russia-West confrontation, and will not want to see Russia lose – defeat would be defined as any retreat from territory gained by Russia since 2014. Confirmation of this Chinese stand may be seen in the follow-up visit of Defence Minister Li Shangfu.
There is logic to the emerging alignment of forces. The Chinese surely realize that an outright Western victory, especially as the vaunted Ukrainian spring offensive is being publicly promoted, will leave itself exposed to an America that is once more dominant, as it was after the collapse of the Soviet Union in the early 1990’s. At that time, the US was supportive of China, but today, things are different, and a dominant US will be bad news for the People’s Republic, although the American approach to the People’s Republic is more nuanced than outright hostility, especially among the Democrats and major parts of US business.
The Chinese used to accuse the Soviet Union during the Cold War of promoting confrontation between the People’s Republic and the US – the so-called strategy of the monkey on the hill, while the tigers fight below. Today, they are in the position they used to ascribe to the Soviets. Any weakening of the US – primarily militarily, but economically as well – would suit China very well. There are reports of shortages of military production both in the West and in Russia, and this situation is something China would be glad to see prolonged.
It is also worthwhile paying some attention to the timelines of the evolving situation. The Russian Presidential election is due early next year, when President Putin’s current six-year term ends; they are held usually some time in March, with the swearing-in taking place in May. If the West could inflict a defeat in the course of this year, that would further weaken Putin, who is already under some pressure over the way the war is going. For the same reason, the Russians would want to wrap up the serious fighting by autumn, declare victory, and then move to the diplomatic aspects – assuming that the military campaign delivers the results Putin desired.
As far as China is concerned, its main focus for 2024 is going to be the US Presidential election, due in November. They do not want a return of Donald Trump, and ideally, they would want Biden to continue. Failing that, another Democrat, as woke as the Biden regime, would be a good outcome from their point of view. Could the PRC leaders see it in their interest to prolong the war into the US election season, to be able to charge the likes of Trump as being Russian assets for wanting to dilute military support for Ukraine?
And now to explore a little more, the remark about changes not seen for a hundred years and the two “dear friends” driving those changes: since the Ukraine war started, some Russian newspapers have been openly questioning Ukrainian statehood, a position Putin also supports. Some, like Pravda [not the old organ of the ruling Party of the USSR, but still an important sounding board], have taken this logic further to indicate that a division of Ukraine between Russia, Poland, and Hungary was inevitable.
There is a certain rationale to this. After Viktor Orban won his fourth consecutive elections in 2022, he declared to an approving crowd that he won against Brussels, Soros, the international media and the left, and against Zelensky. Similarly, Poland has been marking Genocide Day since 2016, commemorating the massacre by Ukrainian forces of Poles in western Ukraine [Volhynia] as German troops withdrew in the face of the advancing Soviet troops during the Second World War. The Ukrainian nationalists who committed the massacres are the very same people whose memories are sacred in today’s Ukraine – the likes of Melnyk and Bandera; the Ukrainian emblem is almost identical to that of the Organisation of Ukrainian Nationalists during the War. The Russian charge that Ukraine is today led by fascists is not far off the mark.
The Polish leaders, unlike the Hungarian, however, are staunch supporters of Ukraine in the current fighting, and argue that the truth about the massacres is essential for relations to have a solid foundation; they argue that they have suspended import of Ukrainian grain, because its low price is hurting native farmers. Nonetheless, even the Polish leaders continue to demand an honest reckoning of the killings in order to cure what they call the festering sore.
So far, however, it was only a Russian asseveration that Ukrainian statehood – as also that of most other Soviet states created by Lenin and Stalin – was a fiction. A recent development of significance is that the Chinese Ambassador to France has called into question that statehood of the post-Soviet states as well, though without naming Ukraine; for good measure, he has also declared that Crimea belongs to Russia. This marks the first sign that the People’s Republic is willing to go along with the Russian leader – and provides an inkling into the thinking of the two leaders as to the big changes they foresee. The Ambassador’s statement has since been contradicted by their Foreign Ministry spokeswoman, but, as Bismarck observed, nothing is certain until officially denied.
It is not hard to imagine the scale of the upheaval that would follow any such changes, which would undo the territorial arrangements of a hundred years ago – the clear reference is to the outcomes of the First World War. Four mighty empires perished in that War – the Russian, the Ottoman, the Austro-Hungarian, and the young German empire. Its effects were not confined to Europe alone, though that is what Putin has so far referred to, albeit in oblique terms. The parts of western Ukraine that were annexed by the USSR after the Second World War belonged to Poland, Hungary, Romania [and a wobbly Moldova], and Slovakia, which, in turn, were compensated by lands in the west that once belonged to Germany – a welter of claims and counter-claims would ensue from any territorial change in Ukraine’s boundaries.
Even bigger changes, however, took place in the Ottoman Empire, with the emergence of a number of independent Arab states, and Israel. The Chinese leaders have grown active in the Middle East in recent years, and the early fruits are now becoming visible. The changes in the Saudi stance towards the US and towards Syria – her Foreign Minister was in Damascus a few days back – is a clear indication of the combined effort of the Russians and the Chinese. This is also part of what Xi meant when he said that the two of them were driving changes not seen for a hundred years.
Of course, the PRC’s main focus is Taiwan, what it describes as the core of core interests. Not surprisingly, US leaders on the Republican side mainly, have been expressing concern over the slow pace of arms supplies to Taiwan, arguing that the Biden team’s focus on Ukraine is affecting supplies to Taiwan. It is a fact that many of the weapon systems being sent to Ukraine are the same as the ones that Taiwan is seeking. But there are other systems, essentially of amphibious or maritime application, that are also being delayed, for reasons not entirely clear.
The above is a brief look at the pregnant sentences the Russian and Chinese leaders exchanged on parting. There were other noteworthy moments as well, duly reflected in the Joint Statement on deepening their strategic partnership issued by the two leaders [they signed another Joint Statement on deepening economic cooperation]. There was a noticeable change on Ukraine, and this ties in with the discussion above on the changes to a hundred-year status quo. There was no reference to the territorial integrity of Ukraine, although this has been a staple of Chinese statements since the war started. Instead, NATO was advised to remain a regional organisation, and not to expand contacts with the Asia-Pacific countries. This was coupled with sharp criticism of the Indo-Pacific strategy, which is a position that Putin has so far avoided taking, though his Foreign Minister has been outspoken on the subject.
Another noteworthy aspect, while still on Ukraine and the hundred-year changes, is that the Chinese spokespersons have taken to describing their position as being “on the right side of history”. As with some of the other aspects, time will hopefully provide greater clarity on this, but it ties in well with the discussion above.
There were other noteworthy signals as well, as one would expect during such a visit. Probably the most noteworthy was that Putin addressed Xi all through as “Chairman” – using the Russian word “predsedatel”, rather than the word “president”, which is what the Russians use for Putin himself.
A second remarkable feature was the visit by Xi to the offices of Prime Minister Mishustin. Xi receiving a call by the Prime Minister would not be unusual, though it has not been happening during such visits in the past. But for Xi to visit Mishustin in the latter’s office is a step that raises questions. Could it be that Xi was adding a back-up in the event of Putin being removed from office? What adds to the intrigue is that Putin, in his delegation-level talks, had former President Medvedev at his right, while Mishustin was absent from the delegation.
The upshot is a tight relationship between Russia and the PRC; both sides say that this is not an alliance of the Cold War type, but it appears to be a distinction without a difference. And the bitter reality is that this alliance has a “Made in USA” label on it. For no good reason, the same US leadership team that brought about the troubles of 2014, has given us a scorching sequel. To be clear: it’s not about NATO expansion to Russian borders, per se: Latvia and Estonia have common borders, but their joining NATO in 2004, did not provoke a similar Russian response. Similarly, Finland’s entry into NATO has not led to active Russian opposition. Nor yet is it about the flying time of missiles – Latvia, Estonia, Lithuania and Finland are all closer to St Petersburg – Putin’s home town – than Ukraine, and just as close to Moscow.
Ukraine is different because it borders the Black Sea and notionally, Crimea is part of its territory. If Russia were to lose Crimea, it would cease to be a Black Sea power, with the attendant loss of access to the Mediterranean and West Asian regions – in short, it would cease to be a world power. Attention, therefore, going forward, must be on Crimea: it was this that the US-Ukrainian leaderships were focusing on throughout 2021, and threatening to take it back from Russian control, even though the residents of Crimea never accepted Ukrainian sovereignty right from 1992 onwards. And this is the one area that Russia cannot afford to lose. This needs to be emphasized: any attempt to tear Crimea away from Russia would lead to the use of nuclear weapons. For the same reason, Russia also went to war over Georgia in 2008 – and detached some forty percent of its Black Sea coast, namely Abkhazia.
There are obvious implications in all this for India. Russia, in its approach to South Asia, has long wavered between traditional ties with India and the growing influence of the China-Pakistan nexus. It was the latter that pushed Russia to cultivate the Taliban in recent years, even though they had their own reasons to view their policies with concern. It has also led to closer ties with Pakistan, including some embryonic military cooperation. Although the Russian leadership is keen on keeping India neutral, and that suits us too, the fact of growing ties with China will tell on our bilateral relations. This will be reinforced if China continues – intensifies – its anti-India activities. An additional factor is the strain on Russian military resources, imposed by the Ukraine war.
At the same time, the West has stepped up its civilisational war on India, another of the futile approaches much beloved of the Democrats in the US, and their globalist allies in the Anglo-Saxon world. This is happening in particularly aggravated form of late, in the attacks on Hindu institutions abroad, and even on Indian diplomatic missions, though they all claim to swear by international law and norms of diplomatic conduct.
The conclusion this leads to is that this is a time for splendid isolation – as the British did in the late 19th century as new powers rose, and conflicts sharpened. This does not mean shutting out the world: we cannot afford that, because we need both military and economic collaboration, especially for energy and high-technology. Indeed, the period of splendid isolation cannot be a period of stagnation. Quite the contrary, it must be a time of intense work to build up the economy and the military.
But it means that we choose as partners those entities that do not threaten either our state interests, or our civilisational ones. That narrows the choice to a handful – France, Israel, Japan, and Taiwan come readily to mind. Perhaps, Russia will also recover her equipoise in the coming years.
Again, this is not to rule out any cooperation with the rest of the world; West Asia and some ASEAN countries will remain high priorities, and equally, the US must remain a focus of active engagement, even while recognizing that not much of a substantive nature will happen under the Democrats’ regime. For no Indian strategy can succeed over the long term without an understanding with the US; the current fashion to proclaim its decline is based on nothing more than the temporary insanity that that society is suffering from. Hopefully, the 2024 elections will start the trend toward recovery, as happened after the dreadful term in office of President Carter. We can wait out the Democrats, hoping that the current dispensation does not inflict any permanent, irreversible damage.
We must also hope for good sense from the Indian voter in 2024 – or else, nothing really matters.