The Great Game's Next Move
What where Presidents Xi and Putin gabbing about in Moscow?
Over the weekend Vladimir Putin choppered by night down to Crimea and Mariupol –a once Russian leaning steel city the Russian army had to flatten to take. Putin toured the shattered husk of a place by car discussing infrastructure development and Mariupol’s future potential with Russia with “local officials.” Well, I don’t know about all of that, but he did get to wander around outside his Bond-villianish Moscow compound blowing his nose at an International Criminal Court’s warrant for his arrest. A pretty long way to show the world just exactly how little Vlad really cares.
After his tour, the man choppered back to Moscow to make the pitch of his career: To convince a fairly dubious President Xi of China that if Beijing just tops up Russian artillery the way NATO is doing for Ukraine, then his army can deliver a knock-out blow in a much-hyped spring offensive. The problem is that, Putin’s wartime theater aside, Russia’s offensive is already underway and is being ground down over another flattened and symbolic campaign to take Bakhmut. At the moment, the Russian army really hasn’t got much more to throw at Ukraine. And assuming that President Xi watched something other than Russian state television, he likely knows this. Understand that time, ultimately, is on Russia’s side on the conflict, and Xi knows this as well.
The Chinese leader has a longstanding affection for the Soviet Union stemming back to his teenage years. On first coming to power in 2012, Putin’s Russia was the first state visit Xi made, where he hinted that together, the two powers could contain an overweening United States. Putin is dreaming of a pan-Asian bloc stretching from where ever Ukraine’s eastern border turns out to be, up to the artic, across Iran and down to the Gulf of Oman, and beyond China into the Indo-Pacific. And said bloc will dominate the global south and Africa. Xi has a similar aspiration, but surely realizes that neither Russia not Iran will be reliving their days on varsity any time soon. Still, this week the two pledged greater economic cooperation and are close to finalizing the Power of Siberia 2 pipe line to reroute Russian gas to China – which is not going to pay up for the privilege.
The weapons question nags though, and whatever happens on that front will likely stay behind closed doors. Beijing hasn’t joined the Western sanctions, but hasn’t openly broken them either because a Western sanctions pile-on would foul China’s grand re-opening. Still, the PLA navy wants Russia’s nuclear-powered submarine technology, and will likely provide resort to clandestine arms sales to get it (if some reports are to be believed, they already are on a small scale). If nothing else, using a third party like Iran to facilitate the shipments.
In this version of the great game of global domination, Xi is playing Hitler, to Putin’s Mussolini: A dependent ally who is starting to look like more like an anchor than an asset. The Russian military has turned out to be a train-wreck, but Xi likely feels compelled to help it avoid an entirely humiliating defeat in Europe. The other hitch in Putin’s grand alliance is that China is deeply tied economically to the hated “West” in a way that Russia has never been.
Russian war aims are muddled, and Xi is more interested in flogging his “Global Security Initiative” as an alternative to the US led “rules based international order.” Pushing Europe and the US into each other’s arms is exactly what he does not want. His vision of China requires a relationship with its two largest trading partners and without them the China that Xi wants for the world simply can’t be. Africa and Latin America, or Russia for that matter, simply don’t have the drag to replace the America and Europe as trading partners.
On the other hand, the inscrutable fella sees war with America as almost inevitable, and has really talked himself into a corner on Taiwan.