Putin’s nuclear threats have been silent for a few weeks. There are many indications that this has to do with China’s dictator Xi Jinping of all people.
Russia’s threat to win the war against Ukraine with a nuclear strike has not been repeated by Vladimir Putin in recent weeks. In October, the Kremlin ruler had threatened to take such a step. Putin’s bosom friend, China’s dictator Xi Jinping, then said after a meeting with German Chancellor Olaf Scholz that such an escalation should not happen under any circumstances.
A few weeks later, in mid-November, Xi Jinping made a similar statement after a meeting with US President Joe Biden. Although observers stated that this meeting marked a low point in US-Chinese relations, Beijing was still able to bring itself to close ranks with the free world and its leader, the USA.
Since then, Putin’s nuclear threats have fallen silent. But he may have received or received support from China in return. Because weapons that North Korea delivers to Moscow are said to come from the People’s Republic. The regime in Beijing could thus have sided with the Kremlin militarily, contrary to its actual claim to be neutral.
The transfer of weapons from North Korea to Ukraine seems documented. Beijing’s involvement, however, is not. Moscow asked Beijing for military support in the early stages of Russia’s war of aggression against Ukraine. Some observers are concerned about troop movements on the Belarusian-Ukrainian border. Here, Putin, armed with ammunition from his dark friends from Pyongyang, Beijing and Tehran, could open a new war front and try to conquer Ukraine.
In the current situation, actors are needed who still have access to the Russian President and who can convince him that a nuclear strike would have devastating consequences for Russia. It is questionable whether such requests for intervention even end up on Putin’s desk. A representative of the Trump administration stated that he had the impression even during his tenure that Putin was no longer properly informed. The Biden administration also shares this conviction.
However: China’s leader Xi has at least publicly moved away from Putin in the past few months. Beijing was surprised by the invasion of Ukraine at the end of February. When Putin and Xi met at the Olympic Games a few weeks earlier, the Chinese ruler is said to have asked Putin to wait until the end of the competition before starting the war. During the war, the People’s Republic adopted the Kremlin’s rhetoric, speaking of a “military special operation”. However, Beijing did not want to be hit by sanctions and refused direct economic aid or even arms deliveries.
With no success, however, Beijing became restless. Convinced of the promise of a blitzkrieg, the protracted war plunges the world into an unstable situation that Beijing deems unfavorable. Putin then had to answer Xi’s “concerns and questions” when the two met on the sidelines of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization summit in mid-September.
Ruler Xi has fraternized with Putin in a shared belief that the West is too weak to stand up to Russia. The common enemy of the two, the United States of America, could be inflicted with a bitter defeat.
But the opposite happened. And Xi Jinping was once again wrong in his assessment, as in so many other areas of his nationalistically charged politics. At the moment the dictator seems to have been swallowed up by an earthquake. After the loudest pro-democracy protests in the People’s Republic since 1989 and the reversal of its “zero Covid” policy, China has descended into chaos.
Xi’s all-encompassing claim to power is more damaged than ever. Putin’s nuclear threat is likely to have intensified the sales movement in Beijing, because Beijing fears that the use of tactical nuclear weapons, above all in the countries of Central Asia, which were formerly under the influence of the Soviet Union but are now courted by Beijing, would strive for nuclear weapons themselves not to become the next victim of Putin’s aggression. Xi must put a stop to this.
As recently as September, Xi could summon Putin like a schoolboy. But the tide has, if not turned, at least improved for Russia. Xi needs his ally in the Kremlin, because a victory for Putin in Ukraine would benefit Xi domestically.
However, not at any price. Because if the world, weakened by a Russian nuclear strike, plunged into economic chaos, that would mean more pro-democracy demonstrations in China, the end of Xi, and maybe even the dictatorship of the Communist Party. Xi can’t want that, so it makes sense to think that Beijing is trying to help Putin behind the scenes and through North Korea.
At the same time, Xi told Putin confidant Medvedev during his visit to Beijing last week that he wanted talks between Russia and Ukraine. That means in plain language: No nuclear escalation. It was Medvedev who raised the possibility of a nuclear strike against the people of Ukraine in November. Now that Xi is catching him on this issue, there is hope that without the People’s Republic being placed, Russia will not launch a nuclear strike.
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.
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