OPINION - Forget the bestie act, Xi Jinping and Vladimir Putin have different aims

 (Evening Standard)
(Evening Standard)

Relations between China and Russia “are at their highest point in history” ,according to the communique from their two presidents in Moscow yesterday. But the rictus smiles of Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping seemed to tell a different story.

Though they strove to appear on the same page, the strategies are moving on very different tracks. To make the point, the briefing at the end of the two-day state visit of China’s president to Moscow stressed the countries ‘are not in a military political alliance.’

There might be joint exercises in the future — but, the statement added cryptically, the two countries ‘do not constitute a bloc.’

Put bluntly, Russia’s immediate need is help to fight the war in Ukraine, now in stalemate. China wants that conflict to stop. It upsets the global economy and jeopardises trade with Beijing’s biggest markets, the US and the EU.

On the other hand, Xi and the Chinese Communist Party do not want Putin to be beaten in Ukraine. A broken Russia, dependent on China, would become a chronic liability. Accordingly, China is prepared to supply machinery for war, drones and guidance systems, but not lethal materiel such as cruise missiles and combat aircraft.

Xi and his commanders have other military priorities right now. New naval exercises with Cambodian forces are under way in the Gulf of Cambodia. Beijing has decreed the closure of parts of the East and South China Seas for naval manoeuvres until the end of April.

China pursues a strategy of aggressive ambiguity. Interference with fishing fleets in the territory continues, as does the buzzing of Taiwan’s air and sea space with fighters, drones and patrol vessels. This year Chinese vessels have been closing on undersea cables off Malaysia, Indonesia and Singapore.

Russia now seems set on a long and deadly game of attrition. The aim is to wear down Ukraine’s forces and civilian community. Putin’s gamble is that he can win by sheer numbers. A sign of this may be the construction of heavy defensive works along the front from Bakhmut to Ardiivka and Vukhledar, and in Crimea. And Putin seems to echo Napoleon’s boast to Metternich, “I have an income of 100,000 men” — only in his boast might be more inflationary, a disposable, and dispensable, annual income of around 250,000 men.

There is a paradox in Putin’s gambit of the long war. The Russian economy is withstanding the sanctions imposed from last February but it is distorted. The IMF has even predicted a modest growth of about 2.1 per cent next year — after a reduction of more than three per cent. But it is a command war economy run by the Russian state, with all the inefficiencies and corruption that implies. Key materials and spares will become scarcer, and the demands of the war machine more arduous.

Putin and his team cannot rely on the indifference of the Russian people, a key feature of the lack of domestic opposition today. According to several strands of sources, bloggers, journalists and social media, about 15 per cent of Russian opinion supports the war. The remaining 70 per cent-plus feign indifference and remains silent, and this includes finance ministries and banks, and the mayoralty of Moscow. This could change rapidly if Putin is seen to be losing decisively.

Most urgent is Ukraine’s survival strategy pursued by President Zelensky and his generals. Better weapons, tanks, missiles and MiG 29 planes from Poland and Slovakia are arriving. But the scope for a major breakout or breakthrough is limited. Russian forces are on the alert for a Ukraine counteroffensive in the next few weeks. But it is unlikely that the Ukrainian forces can take back one- fifth of their land that Putin’s men now occupy.

The alliance of Western nations is ramping up supplies of armaments and ammunition. But there is a risk of strategic drift. Come the autumn election season across EU Europe and North America, enthusiasm for Ukraine will wane.

Coherent strategic planning is needed for the present battle in Ukraine, for the immediate aftermath and the long-term reconstruction. This means examining all the tactical, operational and diplomatic possibilities, contingencies for win, lose or draw, or the war going even wider.

Such deep planning seems to elude current western political culture — witness the confusion and short-termism over climate change. Part of the problem is that so much public information diplomacy is skewed by reliance on the narcissism and echo chamber dynamics of social media — leading to instant policies for instant gratification and need.

Deep strategic planning is not good for the ego or the egotist politician. It has to be selfless and somewhat altruistic, reaching well beyond today and tomorrow. I wonder how much real strategic thinking — truly, madly, deeply — occupies Whitehall and Washington’s corridors of power, and the chancelleries of Europe ?