So the Xi – Putin summit came and went.
Obviously it was bigged-up ahead of time, given the release of the China peace plan for the war in Ukraine on February 24.
Both leaders made reference to the plan, particularly Putin, so lets see what happens over the next few weeks. There has been talk of a Xi – Zelensky call, albeit nothing has been confirmed by either party. As I have argued, there is enough in the peace plan to get both sides interested, albeit the document is pretty vague.
I think a deal could be struck around the idea of Russia accepting Ukrainian sovereignty, which means pulling back to February 23, 2022 settings, Ukraine accepting negotiations over the longer term status of Crimea/LPR/DPR and then no NATO for Ukraine but in exchange for sufficient security guarantees from serious powers/allies, like the US, UK and Poland, that Ukraine feels secure in its defence against future Russian attacks.
If Ukraine gets those, and the right to arm to defend itself from future Russian attack then it actually does not need NATO membership. I have also argued that this war was never about NATO membership, but the fact that Putin just wants Ukraine, full stop. If that is the case then you might argue that Putin would never accept no NATO for security guarantees, as the latter would mean he accepts that he can never take Ukraine, as if he attacks Ukraine again, NATO powers come in in defence of Ukraine.
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But I guess at this stage the question really is how weak Putin is, and how desperate he is to accept a face saving deal. I think pretty weak and desperate as he was grovelling almost in his meetings with Xi, and seemed very eager to talk up the China peace plan. Remember here that without China military support, Russia has no path to victory in Ukraine, it just gets worse, a lot worse, and actually between for the US, ad perhaps even China.
So what are the specific take outs from the Moscow meetings:
First, don’t write off the peace plan just yet. Its still an option, fall back position for both sides. Putin would take any peace deal now, that he could get, as he is losing. Ukraine still has more options and I think will forestall talking peace until the mooted Spring offensive plays out. Ukraine still thinks it can win here, as yet more Western arms reach the front line. I noted over the past 24 hours, trains loaded with Russian T54s heading to the front line, which is remarkable to think that these are WW2 era designs, which are about to come up against Western Leopards and Abrams MBTs, which are dated to the 1990s or later. Russia is throwing obsolete kit now to the front, and the carnage on the Russian side is just going to grow.
Russia wanted Xi to back it militarily, and that did not come from the Moscow meetings. The Chinese were diplomatic in their language.
Russia, and Putin’s weakness and vulnerability, and dependence on China were revealed to all at the Moscow summit. China is the dominant power, and Putin is the Pekingese Poodle. Putin likes dogs.
So I think we will see the Ukrainian spring offensive and, depending on where that ends up, we either have: a) Ukrainian victory, and the collapse and withdrawal of Russian forces in Ukraine, and then Russia taking whatever peace it can get, but we could see major political and social upheaval then in Russia.; b) The Ukrainian spring offensive fails to move the frontline much, and then I think we see both side begin to engage in peace talks around the Chinese plan, perhaps facilitated by China. See above in terms of likely outcomes.
Second, China did agree to deepen economic ties with Russia – providing an economic backstop, but deals were done favourable to China. Xi sees Putin’s weakness and is eager to exploit that.
Much focus on the Power of Siberia gas project which entails building pipelines to divert Russian gas which had been going to market in Europe, to Asia, around 93bcm, that’s two thirds of Russian prior supply to Europe. But no actual agreement was signed. Talks on this have been going on for years and the two sides have not been able to agree pricing and who will pay for the pipeline construction. Now I think the Chinese are nervous about signing the deal which in effect would screw Europe, and I think force Europe more closely into the US camp. China is trying to avoid the creation of a polarised world between the US and China, as it wants a multilateral/globalised world where it continues to benefit economically and win eventual economic hegemony over the US. It has not given up on stopping Europe being walled off into the US camp, and is eager to exploit US – European divisions. But if China signs the Power of Siberia deal it would cut Europe off from Russian gas, and force Europe into greater reliance on US energy. China would force Europe into the US camp. So China is trying to stall Putin, keeping all options open.
Third, pretty clear from the China Ukraine peace plan and everything we have seen in recent weeks that China hates anything which disrupts the global economic status quo. I think thru Xi’s visit he will have set guardrails for Putin about the war, in particular, no escalation which would disrupt global markets thereby hurting China. That means a red line or card to Russia for using WMD, or using commodities as blackmail on global markets. Perhaps the economic deals which were signed between China and Russia were all meant to bribe Putin to play ball in terms of global markets.
So China’s game plan is either get the two sides to agree a peace on the back of their plan, which is very vague, or at least set guardrails for the conflict so that it does not rock China’s boat. That’s a good outcome for global markets, either way. Xi’s Moscow trips reduces the risk of escalation, but it does not really reduce the chances of a Ukrainian eventual victory.
Fourth, and perhaps most intriguingly, Xi met Russian prime minister, Mishushtin. I would say it is unheard of for a Chinese leader to meet an official well below his rank, and especially a political non entity such as Mishushtin. In Chinese political and diplomatic etiquette, its all about peer on peer meetings. Same in business actually. For me this signalled that the Chinese were sending a clear signal that while they back Putin, they want continuity, and if for whatever the reason Putin falls, they want someone in the Putin clan and a safe pair of hands to take over- and the Chinese would like Mishushtin there.
The Chinese certainly do not want regime change with a pro-Western leader or administration emerging. And also this is a big no from China to the likes of Wagner leader, Prigozhin or even worse, Kadyrov.
Perhaps this could also mark Mishushtin as a threat to Putin – he better not stray near open windows. But I also wonder if any member of the Russian elite might try a move against Putin, to try and get Mishushtin in in his place.
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