Samarkand did not go well for Russian President Vladimir Putin. The Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) summit hosted by Uzbekistan in the ancient city gathered many leaders of various Eurasian states, from Belarus to Mongolia. But it was Putin’s meeting with Chinese Chairman (the title Putin addresses him with) Xi Jinping that was of crucial importance for the Russian leader. Just a week prior, Putin attended an economic forum in Vladivostok and was encouraged by the message of Li Zhanshu, chairman of the National People’s Congress (most probably outgoing after the 20th National Congress of Chinese Communist Party next month), who praised the strong dynamics of the Chinese-Russian strategic partnership (Kremlin.ru, September 7). The meeting with Xi, for which Putin had to go to the Chinese delegation’s hotel, was a visibly stern affair (Izvestiya, September 15). The readout of opening statements tells that Xi was concise and noncommittal, while Putin felt obliged to mention Chinese “questions and concerns” regarding the Ukraine crisis (Kremlin.ru, September 15).
The primary difference between these two events was the shocking defeat delivered to the Russian army by the Ukrainian offensive in Kharkiv region. The front lines have stabilized anew, but the political resonance from the rout, which the Russian Defense Ministry tried to explain away as merely a “regrouping,” accounts for the decisive turn in the course of the high-intensity war (Novayagazeta.eu, September 13). The weakness of the motley Russian forces—comprised of depleted regular battalions, gangs of Wagner mercenaries and companies of conscripts from Donetsk and Luhansk regions—has been rudely exposed, so much so that Ukrainian command keeps probing vulnerable points for the next breakthrough (Nezavisimaya gazeta, September 15). Russian “patriotic” bloggers claim that without a mass mobilization, the “special military operation” will be doomed to a humiliating defeat. Nevertheless, the Kremlin has good reasons to assume that public opinion remains indifferently supportive of the war insofar as life in Moscow and St. Petersburg continues “as normal,” minus the subversive rock concerts and theater productions (Meduza, September 13).
At the press conference in Samarkand, Putin made every pretense of controlling the execution of military operations and continuing the offensive push in Donbas, but this denial of the difficult reality on the battleground reassured neither the perturbed Russian elite nor the displeased Chinese leadership (Svoboda, September 16). The self-congratulatory talk about expansion of economic ties does not quite hide the fact that only cooperation in trade has increased, mostly because of price increases on commodities; investments are stagnant, and hopes that China would deliver the Russian economy from a deepening recession have proven groundless (Russiancouncil.ru, September 13). Western sanctions make it profitable for Chinese corporations to buy some additional volumes of Russian oil and liquefied natural gas (LNG), but they are aware of the looming crisis in Russian energy industry, thus even mid-term plans have wide margins of uncertainty (The Insider, September 16). India makes much the same assessments (and cannot expect any new supplies of Russian weapons). As a result, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi found it opportune to inform Putin that “now is not an era of war” (Kommersant, September 16).
Russia’s debilitation in the course of the Ukraine war inevitably weakens its positions in Central Asia, and China is concerned about Moscow’s inability to perform the role of security provider in this conflict-rich region (Rosbalt, September 14). Quite deliberately, Xi Jinping started his first overseas trip since the beginning of the pandemic with a stop in Kazakhstan, where he reassured Kazakhstani President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev of Beijing’s full support for Tokayev’s program of political and economic reforms (Forbes.kz, September 15).
Putin had conversations with each Central Asian leader (presumably more consequential than the SCO formal plenary session), but according to readouts, he never mentioned Ukraine (Kommersant, September 15). He also ignored the violent escalation of border clashes between Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, progressing with the use of heavy weapons as both presidents pretended to share the atmosphere of “good-neighborliness” in Samarkand (RBC, September 17). The new spasm of armed conflict in the South Caucasus is formally outside the SCO area, but Azerbaijani President Ilhan Aliyev found full support for his new offensive from Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, while Putin left the desperate appeal for help from Armenian President Nikol Pashinyan (who found the danger too grave to travel to Uzbekistan) without response (Nezavisimaya gazeta, September 14).
Putin was eager to elaborate on the tensions surrounding Taiwan, and he duly condemned US “provocations” hoping to score a useful point with Xi Jinping (Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, September 15). An escalation of the Chinese-US confrontation is indeed the best chance for Russia to see Western support for Ukraine downsized, and Moscow experts are eager to draw scenarios for naval-air battles in the Taiwan Strait (Ru.valdaiclub.com, August 31). China, however, measures extremely carefully the benefits of a boost of jingoist popular mobilization against the severe economic consequences of initiating a full-scale confrontation with the United States, illuminated sharply by the impact of Western sanctions on the Russian economy (Nv.ua, September 16). Beijing finds it quite agreeable to amplify Putin’s discourse on undercutting US global dominance but knows full well Russia’s diminished value as a military ally (Svoboda, September 12). Recent Russian Vostok-2022 strategic exercises, much diminished in size but still with some joint maneuvers with China, proved that picture-perfect military shows are still what Russian high command desires, rather than real combat training (Voennoe obozrenie, September 10; see EDM, September 14).
Xi Jinping probably regrets his commitment to a “partnership without limits” with Putin, if only because the Chinese president himself has drawn some exceedingly firm limits on granting symbolic rather than material help to Beijing’s “partner in need.” Xi does not want to see Russia’s defeat and Putin’s inglorious exit, but he neither fancies to ally with a loser nor anchor China to a sinking ship.
Back in February 2022, Xi missed the opportunity to dissuade Putin from launching his disastrous re-invasion of Ukraine, being too busy with the Olympic celebrations. Presently, the Chinese leader is again distracted with preparations for the 20th National Congress of his tightly disciplined Communist Party. Yet, he should not miss one critical opportunity. In that political initiative, Xi unexpectedly finds himself on the same page with US President Joe Biden: The two world leaders need to act together for deterring the desperate Russian autocrat from resorting to his means of last resort—the nuclear arsenal. The words “do not” are already spelled out plainly in Washington, DC; hopefully, a stern “do not even think about it” will come from Beijing as well.