Putin meets Xi

Last week, Vladimir Putin visited Samarkand in central Asia to attend a diplomatic summit of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), comprising four countries from central Asia plus China, Russia, Pakistan and India. This was no small thing. It was Putin’s only trip outside Russia since the pandemic took hold — with the exception of a visit to China in February to meet China’s Xi Jinping on the occasion of the Winter Olympics. The Kremlin portrayed the SCO gathering as proof that Western attempts to isolate Russia after its Ukraine invasion had “failed.” Putin would meet with the other heads of state, particularly China’s Xi and India’s Prime Minister Modi, leaders of the two most populous countries in the world. The importance of the event was underlined by the fact that Xi was making his first trip outside China since the beginning of the pandemic.

Russian officials made it clear that Moscow had high expectations for these meetings. Faced with near unanimous Western condemnation, Putin needed a full-throated statement of support from Xi — particularly urgent since Kyiv’s counteroffensive had dramatically rolled back Russia’s earlier military gains in Ukraine. In addition to a stamp of approval, Putin needed pledges from China to increase its oil and gas purchases from Russia. For many years, European energy purchases from Russia financed the Kremlin’s military buildup while providing programs to keep Russia’s populace loyal to the regime. But Europe is committed to rapidly reduce its dependence on Russian fossil fuels to zero.

In addition to the income from energy sales to Europe, Russia has been highly dependent on a wide range of advanced technologies, including semiconductors purchased from Europe and used to enable both military and civilian sectors of the economy to modernize. European and American sanctions in reaction to Ukraine have severed Russian access to those technologies. The loss of that supply chain due to sanctions poses (along with lost energy revenues) a lethal threat to Putin’s vast ambitions to restore Soviet-era power and influence. In Moscow’s view, China is in a position to make up for both lost revenues and technologies. India, with its well-established relationship with Russia and its need for oil, could also help Russia defy Western embargoes. New Delhi has a long history of prickly sensitivity to what it viewed as a domineering attitude on the part of U.S. leaders.

In sum, the Kremlin had high hopes for the Samarkand summit. Against that background, the actual results were bitterly disappointing. Putin’s meetings with Xi and Modi began in public with the world’s media watching. Sitting across from Xi, Putin’s words and demeanor were striking. Instead of the swaggering intimidator, his body language was that of a supplicant. In the words of one veteran observer, “Next to Xi, he looked small.” Putin felt compelled to acknowledge that China “had concerns and questions” over the war. In response, Xi observed that Russia, like China, had the “responsibility of a major country to play a leading role and inject stability into a troubled and interconnected world.” The message was clear. Russia was not behaving like a responsible great power. Instead of fostering stability, it was fomenting instability and conflict. Left unsaid: Russia’s actions were creating real problems for China. China, it must be noted, has never wavered from its public position that the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Ukraine should be respected.

Prime Minister Modi, in his public meeting with Putin, declared, “Today’s era is not an era of war, and I have spoken to you on the phone about this.” The rebuke could hardly have been more direct. Summit gatherings like this are often the occasion to announce major deals or projects. For Russia and China, the obvious candidate would be a long-anticipated gas pipeline connecting Russian production to China. In fact, nothing was announced. Moreover, wary of incurring U.S. and European sanctions themselves, Chinese technology companies have not opened their order books to Russia.

The Kremlin’s concerns regarding China run far deeper than the level of Chinese support regarding Ukraine. Russia has long viewed central Asia as its natural sphere of dominance. All of the states in the region (Uzbekistan, etc.) were part of the Soviet Union prior to its dissolution. But Xi’s signature foreign policy initiative is an ambitious array of infrastructure projects — the “New Silk Road” — intended to connect China to Europe via central Asia. It was not lost on Moscow that Xi visited one of the other central Asian capitals before arriving in Samarkand. China brings something to the region that Russia cannot — money and lots of it. China is currently financing projects throughout the region and all of them elevate China’s influence at the expense of Russia’s. In the background are two stark statistics: China’s economy is over 10 times the size of Russia’s and China’s defense spending dwarfs Russia’s by several multiples. Chinese investments in the development of advanced technologies that underpin modern state power far exceed those in Russia.

As for India, after decades of purchasing Russian weapons (they are relatively inexpensive), New Delhi has watched as that same weaponry has proven far inferior to comparable U.S. systems on the Ukrainian battlefield. You can be certain that the Indian armed forces leadership has taken careful note.

Putin’s decision to invade Ukraine has exposed him as a reckless and ultimately incompetent gambler. The success of Ukraine’s army has revealed that Russia is not nearly as powerful as almost everyone assumed. One of the key questions going forward is this: China has based its ties with Russia on the belief that Russia was powerful. What happens when the Chinese look across their long border with Russia and see weakness?

Marvin Ott is a professor at Johns Hopkins University and senior scholar at the Woodrow Wilson Center of the Smithsonian Institution. He is a summer resident of Cranberry Isles.

Marvin Ott

Marvin Ott

Columnist at The Ellsworth American
Marvin Ott is a professor at Johns Hopkins University and a Public Policy Scholar at the Woodrow Wilson Center of the Smithsonian Institution. He is a summer resident of Cranberry Isles.
Marvin Ott

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