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Analysis by China Understanders: Dictator Talk: Why Putin wants to talk to Xi before the New Year

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Russia and China want to talk before the new year. The two countries have one thing in common: their future depends on a man caught in madness. What will the talk between Xi and Putin be about?

Why does the Russian ruler Putin want to have a talk with his Chinese counterpart, the dictator Xi Jinping, before the New Year? A Kremlin spokesman left unanswered the question of whether it should be a phone call or even a personal conversation.

However, the same person rejected reports that there should be a phone call between Putin and French President Emmanuel Macron in the next few days. It has already been officially announced that US President Joe Biden will not receive any good wishes on New Year’s Day this year. The message is clear: rejection of the free world, red carpet for the People’s Republic.

In a television interview, Putin said the US and Ukraine were still trying to destroy “historic Russia”. By this, Putin means a “holy Russia” that only exists as a mythological entity in his head. This attitude is similar to that of China’s ruler Xi, who dreams of a large, “reunited” China and therefore wants to annex the neighboring island republic of Taiwan. Beijing also occupies territories in Tibet, Xinjiang and Inner Mongolia. In the mind of the Communist Party, these areas also belong to the Chinese Empire, which the CP sees as a kind of birthright to dominate.

In the days leading up to Christmas, observers in the free world speculated that Russia was planning another attack on Ukraine from Belarus. These fears were further fueled by a December 27 meeting between Putin and Belarusian dictator Alexander Lukashenko in Saint Petersburg. A statement by the two says that they agree “on many points”.

However, Ukraine was not mentioned in the paper. Russia had also attacked Ukraine from Belarus in February, but this advance was successfully repelled by the Ukrainian army. Lukashenko is considered a dictator by Putin’s grace. There is no question that he will do what the Kremlin leaders ask of him.

A conversation with China’s rulers before the New Year may serve to avoid renewed tension between the two bosom friends Xi and Putin. It is said that Beijing was surprised by the war of aggression against Ukraine at the end of February, even though Xi and Putin had met at the opening of the Olympic Games a few weeks earlier.

Despite this, Xi has bravely stood by his warmongering friend over the past decade, even as the Chinese leader is visibly disappointed with the war’s course. In September, he summoned Putin to a conversation in which he, as it was subsequently said, had to answer and clear up “questions and concerns” from the Chinese side.

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So far, Beijing has only been able to bring itself to condemn a potential nuclear escalation in Ukraine. This is mainly because the countries of Central Asia, which were occupied by Moscow during the USSR and are now increasingly becoming China’s zone of influence, are reacting coolly to Putin’s war.

Beijing fears that Putin’s campaign of conquest could tempt Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan, for example, to launch a nuclear program themselves in order to arm themselves against future invasions of Moscow. Moscow and Beijing are geopolitical rivals on a number of issues, contrary to what Xi’s and Putin’s declarations of friendship might suggest. One of these points of contention is who holds the scepter in Central Asia.

Putin’s call could therefore serve to inform Xi in advance about the attack on Ukraine from Belarus and thus not upset the Chinese ruler again. Although Beijing officially takes a neutral position, North Korea and Iran, both partners of China and Russia, supply weapons and drones to the Russian army on the Ukrainian front. North Korea is too poor to manufacture these weapons on its own without the help of its powerful partner China.

The People’s Republic is therefore just as involved in the war in Ukraine, even if it officially presents it differently, as are the partners in the free and democratic world, who stand by the attacked Ukraine. This showdown can at any time lead to a war between the United States and the People’s Republic, probably over the island democracy of Taiwan, to a world war.

The balance of power between Xi and Putin has recently changed. China’s dictator has been weakened by a series of failings, both within the party, in the ad hoc rollback of his beloved zero-Covid policy, and among the people of China, as the pro-democracy demonstrations in November exposed, shouts of “Down with Xi!” and “Down with the KP!” As early as October, a courageous demonstrator in Beijing unveiled a banner calling for Xi’s removal. The poster was honked by motorists and applauded online before the censors stepped in.

The fate of both countries, Russia and China, lies in the hands of a single man. Both do not get the full view of things from their subordinates because they fear punishment and retribution. Both Xi and Putin have isolated themselves in the pandemic and become radicalized in the process.

Her dreams of “holy Russia” and “reunited China” are part of the madness that seems to have come over her in this isolation. What the new year may bring to the world, given the power that both men currently have, is open. Either way, they both need each other, which is forging them even closer together at the moment.

Alexander Görlach is Honorary Professor of Ethics at Leuphana University in Lüneburg and Senior Fellow at the Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs in New York. After stints in Taiwan and Hong Kong, he has focused on the rise of China and what it means for East Asian democracies in particular. From 2009 to 2015, Alexander Görlach was also the publisher and editor-in-chief of the debate magazine The European, which he founded. Today he is a columnist and author for various media. He lives in New York and Berlin.