China has Russia’s back in Ukraine standoff

But Beijing could pay a high price for supporting Moscow and face a backlash from the US and the EU

Big brother has your back. 

In the shadows of condemnation at Russia’s military push into the “breakaway regions” of eastern Ukraine lurks China, carefully studying Moscow’s political playbook.

On Monday, Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered troops into the self-proclaimed Donetsk and the Lugansk republics after recognizing their independence.

The move accelerated the crisis in Eastern Europe, fueling fears in the West that Putin could unleash a major war against Ukraine.

Up to 150,000 troops are massed around the Ukrainian border, backed up by artillery, aircraft and tanks. Yet Putin’s secret weapon could be Chinese President Xi Jinping and his ruling Communist Party.

“Perhaps the most powerful drawcard in Putin’s back pocket is China,” Alexey D Muraviev, who specializes in National Security and Strategic Studies at Curtin University in Perth, said.

“While Russia and China have been growing closer in recent years, a summit between Putin and Xi at the start of the [Winter] Olympics sent alarm bells ringing in Western countries,” he wrote in a commentary for The Conversation, an academic website

“Some United States and European officials even said it could ‘amount to a realignment of the world order’,” Muraviev pointed out.

The background

  • Russia has been stoking up discontent in the two breakaway regions for years.
  • Moscow has cultivated close ties with pro-Russian separatists controlling swathes of the Donbass sector.
  • Troop movements there could be a prelude to a broader invasion of Ukraine.
  • The United States and its European Union allies have condemned Putin’s actions.
  • Linda Thomas-Greenfield, the US ambassador to the United Nations, described Russia’s decision to send in “peacekeepers” in eastern Ukraine as “nonsense.”

If Russia invades Ukraine, Beijing could throw Moscow a lifeline.

Jude Blanchette and Bonny Lin at the Center for Strategic and International Studies

Big picture: China might come out with all the right noises at the UN, but Beijing sees Moscow as a trusted “friend” against the West and its allies. The battle lines between autocracy and democracy have been drawn.

Delve deeper: “By agreeing to back Russia against NATO, Beijing gained Moscow’s reaffirmed support on Taiwan, which China claims as its own territory. In fact, China may borrow Russia’s approach towards Ukraine as a model to pressure Taiwan into unifying – or an outright invasion of the island,” Muraviev, of Curtin University, warned.

Geopolitical gamble: Still, Xi’s relationship with Putin is not without risks. Throwing Russia an “economic lifeline” to offset sanctions imposed for invading Ukraine would come at a heavy price.

How this works: “If Russia invades Ukraine, Beijing could throw Moscow a lifeline – economic relief to alleviate the effect of US sanctions,” Jude Blanchette and Bonny Lin at the Center for Strategic and International Studies said.

But wait: “Doing so would damage Chinese relations with Europe, invite severe repercussions from Washington, and drive traditionally nonaligned countries such as India further into the arms of the West,” Blanchette and Lin wrote in an essay for Foreign Affairs.

China’s conundrum: “If Beijing snubs Moscow, by contrast, it may weaken its closest strategic partnership at a time when, given deteriorating security in Asia, it is most in need of outside help,” they pointed out.

China Factor comment: Comrade Xi and the Party’s inner circle will be delighted by this attack of the rule-based global order by its ally Russia. Beijing has made no secret of the fact that it is determined to dominate the economic and geopolitical landscape in the 21st century. It is all part of Xi’s “China Dream.”