Russian state media reported on Tuesday that leader Vladimir Putin will meet with Chinese dictator Xi Jinping on February 4, the beginning of the Beijing Winter Olympics.
The summit will reportedly include coordination between the authoritarian regimes on Russia’s alleged potential invasion of Ukraine.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told the Russian Tass news service on Tuesday “there has been no coordination” between Moscow and Beijing on Ukraine and NATO “until now.”
“At the same time, Russia and China, as countries maintaining relations of privileged partnership, are in constant exchange of information and views on the most topical matters, including this one. That is why, naturally, President Putin will inform Xi about what is going on in this sphere,” Peskov said.
The Kremlin suggested Putin’s plans to visit Beijing could change, “depending on the sanitary situation amid the coronavirus pandemic.”
Tass noted that Russia held discussions about “security guarantees” – i.e. demands for security concessions that might persuade Moscow not to attack Ukraine – with U.S. and NATO officials over the past week.
Besides commiserating with Putin over an issue that could bring China and Russia ever more closely into alignment against Western powers, China could be watching the Ukraine saga closely for hints of how America and its allies would respond to an invasion of Taiwan.
The most pessimistic analysts worry that China could take advantage of the international chaos caused by a Russia-Ukraine war to make its move on Taiwan. Even if both China and Russia choose not to pull the trigger on military action, there are enough similarities between Taiwan and Ukraine to make the two authoritarian powers support one another’s positions.
China may also be watching the Ukraine situation to measure the decline of Western influence in general, or the Biden administration’s weakness in particular. If Russia backs down after receiving concessions, China will have an idea of how much it can squeeze out of the U.S. and its Pacific allies with intimidating military buildups in the South China Sea.
Xi will also learn a good deal about Putin by watching the Ukraine crisis play out, especially whether Putin’s loud nostalgia for the Soviet Union will be matched with a realistic plan to put the Soviet empire back together again.
Writing at the Wall Street Journal in early January, Hudson Institute senior fellow Seth Cropsey described Ukraine and Taiwan as a “two-headed fight” for Eurasia that could define the 21st Century world order.
Cropsey suggested Putin loathes independent Ukraine as “a living reminder that Slavic peoples need not live under one flag,” just as Taiwan is “proof that Chinese-speaking peoples are fully capable of governing themselves.”
Both Putin and Xi are restrained from removing these challenges to their dreams of hegemonic power by a combination of Western support for Ukraine and Taiwan, and the lingering fear that both of those small nations could prove much tougher to subdue than their vastly larger antagonists would like.
Cropsey pointed out the Ukrainian military has proven surprisingly effective against Russia-backed eastern separatists, and might just have a few more surprises in store for the seemingly overwhelming Russian force massed on Ukraine’s border. Likewise, China loves to boast of how it could squash Taiwan like a bug, but Xi does not appear confident he could handle the political cost of a bloody invasion that could humble the “wolf warriors” of his People’s Liberation Army (PLA) even if they manage to capture the island.
Those apprehensions in Moscow and Beijing might clear up if Putin and Xi work out a deal to coordinate simultaneous action against Ukraine and Taiwan. The two dictatorial leaders spent the past month touting their blossoming friendship and strategic alliance, but they have yet to make unambiguous public declarations of support for each other’s positions on Ukraine and Taiwan. The Olympics could provide an opportunity for them to take their relationship to another level.