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Addressing Challenges in the Face of the Growing Partnership between Moscow and Beijing

Addressing Challenges in the Face of the Growing Partnership between Moscow and Beijing

President Joe Biden, center, poses with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, right, and Olena Zelenska, left, spouse of President Zelenskyy, at Mariinsky Palace during an unannounced visit in Kyiv, Ukraine, Monday, Feb. 20, 2023. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci, Pool)

The War in Ukraine has taught its observers many lessons- perhaps the most important of these is the value of having a network of partners who can be depended on for both political and material aid during difficult times.

It goes without saying that Ukranians fighting on the front lines deserve praise for their courage, but their (relative) success in resisting Moscow’s attempted land grab is enhanced by the support that they have received from a new cadre of sympathizers and friends. As the conflict drags on, the durability of these partnerships will be tested, and the value of true allies will only be heightened further.

Russia has its own set of partners. Nations including Hungary, Iran, and Belarus have served as launch points for attacks, provided lethal aid, or offered political cover for the invasion. These partnerships -just as they will be for the Ukranians- will be tested as the conflict continues. 

I feel confident in saying that relying on support from the US, UK, and Germany is a better option than relying on that same support from the aforementioned list of Russian partners.

While Russia’s many material advantages serve as an obvious counterbalance to Ukraine’s more reliable network, it does not change the fact that Putin will likely need to court  new partners if he hopes to replenish his diminishing stock of military assets. Meanwhile, the task of finding willing partners will only grow more difficult as the world grows more frustrated with the disturbance that he has caused.

Into this void – hypothetically – enters China, offering a terribly one-sided partnership in which China (covertly, if possible) supplies Putin with the resources he needs to maintain pre-2022 conditions in the disputed regions surrounding Donetsk, Melitopol, Luhansk, and Crimea. In exchange, Putin makes economic and security agreements with Xi that allow China to influence Russian politics for decades to come. 

Beijing benefits by securing even more preferential access to Russian weapon and energy exports, and (if you would like to assume the worst about China’s intentions vis a vis Taiwan) normalizing the idea that nations can use force to occupy disputed territories. Putin benefits in that he maintains his grasp on power and, following an exhaustive conflict, uses the power of Russian state media to portray solidification of the status quo as a major victory that restored Russian territorial integrity while simultaneously “deepening economic ties” with a rising power. 

Under the leadership of newly “re-elected” Xi Jinping, China has revealed an appetite for these types of projects. The gradually maturing Belt and Road initiative has served as a way for China to offer developing nations short-term resources in exchange for long-term indebtedness in a way that harkens back to the sort of imperialism the CCP so rightfully (albeit hypocritically) disavows. If Xi has the opportunity to ensnare Russia in a similar debt trap it would represent his biggest catch to date.

Importantly, as of today, that scenario remains entirely fictional. Even in the face of rumors that China has already provided (non-lethal) military aid and suspiciously timed incidents that inflame the American domestic audience we must remember to keep a level head. More than that, it would show clear bias to ignore the fact that China is publicly working towards a negotiated settlement in Ukraine even as Beijing’s private intentions are questioned. 

Still, there is little room to doubt that the most hawkish elements of the Chinese government can find clear upsides both in a subservient Russia and a depleted “West”. China’s role in securing (or not securing) the peace could be pivotal, as Beijing chooses between covertly prolonging the conflict or nudging Russia towards the negotiating table. The global community can guide Xi towards just choices by working to wind down the conflict before any party becomes too desperate.

Addressing this broad problem means taking on at least three specific challenges. First, Ukraine and its partners need to identify peace terms that are realistically achievable both militarily and diplomatically. While there are a number of key matters that should not be compromised, these terms will need to include something that allows Putin to save face for his domestic audience. Each of us likely feels uncomfortable with the idea of making any compromise with an autocrat, but the importance of avoiding either Russian serfdom or nuclear escalation begs us to put aside our idealized and most preferred outcomes. 

Second, Ukraine and its partners will need to lay the groundwork for achieving those terms, again, both militarily and diplomatically. More than likely this means asking difficult questions about the scope of weapons provided to defend Ukraine. Almost certainly it means reminding India, and other unaligned nations with democratic values, that cheap Russian oil is not as valuable as the soul of their democracy, much less their partnership with the United States. And, as a matter of fact, it means identifying a path where Russia comes to the negotiating table with honest intentions and good faith.

The third, and most difficult challenge is following the path in which the prior two difficulties can be overcome both quickly and without backing Putin into a corner. In addition to the obvious challenges of recapturing territory and successfully bringing Putin to the negotiating table, this will rely on leaders communicating clearly with the public. This likely entails public statements from leaders across Europe, the United States, and Ukraine about what future military goals are- and just as importantly, what they are not. This may also require speaking with empathy about how NATO impacts Russia’s perceptions of its own safety. 

In order to achieve this final challenge, we will need to grapple with the uncomfortable fact that while this war is being fought between Ukraine and Russia, it carries clear consequences for the rest of the world. As the conflict rages on and the search for new partners becomes increasingly desperate, the risk that the fighting boils over only grows. As the consequences of the war grow to impact ever more nations, so too must the interest of those nations be considered when drawing up the peace. Ultimately, that means ensuring that the fighting does not drag on into the long term.

There is reason to believe that the territorial stalemate that has held for the last few months will end with the return to warmer weather. Ukrainian forces have been trained on increasingly advanced weaponry, and muddy conditions may stress the mobility of Russian forces as it did during the spring months last year- in turn there is also the risk of escalation by the Russian side. With these potential changes come an opportunity for escalation, de-escalation, or perhaps even revenge. Only by carefully managing expectations, behaviors, and messaging, will we be able to both wind down the fighting in Ukraine and limit the potential threat posed by other expansion-minded powers in the future.  

Peter Scaturro is the Director of Studies at the Foreign Policy Association