Sergiy Korsunsky is ambassador of Ukraine to Japan and a visiting professor at Kobe Gakuin University.
Vladimir Putin arrived in Beijing on Feb. 4 for his most important and possibly his last visit abroad.
Invited by Xi Jinping as a special guest at the opening ceremony of the Winter Olympic Games, Putin knew exactly what he was doing — would not leave the seclusion of the Kremlin just to attend a sporting event. No, Putin went to Beijing to set a trap, one carefully designed to ensnare China. The deeper Russia dives into the abyss of its inhuman war against Ukraine, the better our understanding of the initial plot.
Putin’s participation in the opening ceremony was really just a form of misdirection. His real business was to cement President Xi Jinping’s support for all the endless atrocities he was about to unleash against Ukraine. And such support had to be guaranteed.
During the war’s first week, a cache of documents found on a Russian officer who had been arrested by Ukrainian intelligence indicated that the invasion had been approved as early as Jan. 18.
Still, by the end of January, media outlets in the West were flooded with warnings that at the time seemed hard to believe that Russia is preparing for a full-scale invasion on Ukraine. When Putin met Xi on Feb. 4, a full 20 days before the invasion, everyone was listening, but few people actually heard.
Putin had several reasons to do what he did in Beijing. First, he had to secure China’s support to cushion Russia against the impact of a new wave of Western sanctions.
Second, as Russia had by then moved most of its forces in the Far East to the Ukraine border, Putin needed to be sure that China would not undertake any surprise maneuvers of its own. Putin trusts nobody, not even Xi.
Third, Putin wanted to show to Russia’s brainwashed citizenry and the U.S. that Russia acting in concert with China is still a power to be reckoned with that must keep its place at the head table.
In the lead-up to the Winter Olympics, Beijing’s frustration over the U.S.-led diplomatic boycott of The Games made it an easy target for Putin who knew that Xi badly wanted to show off the Russian president as a special guest at the opening ceremony.
With Xi singularly focused for the rest of this year on securing a third term as president, every international event, every agreement signed matters. Even for those events that seem comparatively trivial, China’s well-trained media have been quick to explain their importance.
Putin and Xi signed a lengthy declaration that was clear about the two leaders’ plans for new world order. What was missing from the declaration was balance.
Taiwan was mentioned, while Ukraine was not. So was the issue of how Japan is disposing of contaminated water from the Fukushima nuclear disaster — long a source of irritation for China — as was strong criticism of NATO and the West. The first time China has spoken out against NATO in this way, this part of the declaration was definitely something that Moscow wanted.
Looking at it through the lens of the war against Ukraine, the declaration is mostly meaningless except for one thing: by making a show of signing it, Xi put himself in a position of unwavering support for Russia.
Now, just a month and a half later, Xi needs to explain why China supports a war where crimes against humanity are being committed. Admitting his Feb. 4 mistake may mean a loss of face for Xi, but he will pay a much higher price if he continues to support Russia’s actions in Ukraine.
Economic sanctions imposed on Russia will hurt China too. Major Chinese state-owned banks and companies are already having to reconsider exposure to Russia, and any advantage extracted from the devaluation of the ruble and the plummeting Russian equities could be tainted by any affiliation with Putin.
Russia has helped China draw U.S. attention away from Asia, but starting a war in Europe is surely not helping Beijing. China needs stability in Europe, not people worrying about the start of World War III and the use of weapons of mass destruction. China also needs Asia on its side, yet Japan, South Korea, Taiwan and Singapore have all signaled their strong opposition to Russia’s actions.
Xi must recognize that his partnership with Putin is toxic. He has to decide and quickly on a better course of action if he wants to successfully transition to a third term as president and guarantee long-term peace and prosperity for China. Surely it would be better for Beijing to sever ties with Moscow rather than continue its association with this Russian dictator with blood on his hands, who now leads a pariah state whose only other real friends are Syria, North Korea, Eritrea, Iran and Belarus.
The Ukraine war has already changed global geopolitical considerations, and it must be allowed to drive further change. Allowing Putin the freedom to threaten the use of weapons of mass destruction, to bully other European states, to nationalize the assets of foreign companies operating in Russia cannot continue. Because of Putin’s actions, world energy markets will be severely disrupted and food shortages loom. He is doomed to end his rule in a bunker.
China is on a completely different trajectory. Beijing’s superpower status gives China the power to speak plainly and directly. It should do the right thing before all other choices are exhausted. It is time for China to decide.