Comment: Xi, Putin seeking different goals in Moscow meeting

Putin’s focus is on weapons for his war in Ukraine. Xi is looking for stability and global influence.

By James Stavridis / Bloomberg Opinion

The world will be watching closely as two autocratic leaders who have established a profound personal bond meet face-to-face in the Kremlin.

Each has a detailed agenda with differing tactical and strategic needs. What are the key objectives for Presidents Xi Jinping and Vladimir Putin, whose frothy pledge last year of partnership “without limits” between Russia and China is under significant stress as Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine flounders?

For Putin, it’s tempting to say that he has just three key deliverables: weapons, weapons and weapons. But it’s actually more complex than that. Certainly, equipment and ammunition are at the top of his wish list. Putin has a terrible burn rate on the killing fields of eastern Ukraine. He has lost thousands of tanks and personnel carriers, most of them in the disastrous early days of the conflict when Western-supplied drones and anti-armor missiles devastated his armor forces.

He also looks enviously at the growing arsenal of Western-supplied high-tech weaponry, especially long-range drones (both for observation and attack); HIMARS surface-to-surface long-range missiles; and anti-ship cruise missiles. Putin will ask Xi to have the People’s Liberation Army cooperate with his armed forces to help develop countermeasures. He needs his own improved anti-drone capabilities, as well as defensive systems to negate the very effective HIMARS (with ATACMS surface-to-surface missiles probably not far behind) which are devastating his already poor logistic efforts.

To move out offensively, Putin will want armor (tanks and personnel carriers) and ammunition; especially howitzer rounds. He’s also running short of the most prosaic of equipment, crew-served machine guns and, shockingly, individual firearms and ammo. Russian soldiers are literally being sent toward the front lines without a firing weapon and told to dig trenches before the rest of the infantry follow behind. The term “cannon fodder” doesn’t begin to cover such orders, backed only by the certainty of execution if disobeyed. Many of the Russians are killed by Ukrainian fire and lie where they fall as steppingstones for the next wave of recruits.

Beyond equipment and ammunition, Putin wants Xi to support his narrative justifying Russia’s invasion of its neighbor. In his mind, simply standing on a stage alongside the leader of the autocratic world would provide him some much-needed cover with the Global South. While the United States, European Union, NATO and many Western-oriented Asian nations (including Australia, Japan and South Korea) are in strong alignment against Putin, there is still a big swing vote out there playing the middle. India, Pakistan, South Africa, Brazil, Nigeria and many other nations are ambivalent about the level of criminality in Russia’s behavior. Putin would love the strongest endorsement he can muster from President Xi to influence the undecided column.

Xi will go into the meeting with a very different agenda.

Having completed his trifecta over the past months to solidify his control over the military (he occasionally appears in uniform as the commander in chief of the army); over the party (at the 20th party congress in October); and over the presidency this month, he is now firmly ensconced as the great helmsman of today’s China. In the pantheon of post-World War II Chinese leadership he rivals — and may ultimately surpass — Mao Zedong.

We should remember that Xi is a patient, thoughtful and strategic man. After his family fell out of power during the cultural revolution, he spent years on a collective farm before finally being readmitted to the Chinese Communist Party. He is unlikely to fully “throw down” with the impulsive Putin, who operates more on neuroses than logic. Xi is the opposite, and what he wants from the meeting is to continue to play a thoughtful hand of cards to the advantage of China.

First, he wants to further the increasingly unbalanced power arrangement between China and Russia. Putin has done a great deal to ensure Russia will become a junior partner to China, which covets Moscow’s oil, natural gas, timber and minerals. Putin is, at times, a clever tactician (as befits a former intelligence operative), but he is a lousy strategist. China will take significant discounts on Russian oil and gas, seek a rewiring of the global energy system to make itself the principal customer (at cheap prices), and thus lift the Chinese economy; Xi’s main goal.

President Xi will also seek to restrain any notion that Putin might use a tactical nuclear weapon. He will probably tell Putin privately but very forcibly that such a choice would instantly drive the Global South away from cooperating or even trading with a Russia under Putin. Xi wants a functioning global economy, with all the advantages he can garner for Beijing. Detonating a nuclear device is a huge destabilizing move.

He will also push the Chinese 12-point peace plan for Ukraine as a basis for negotiations and probably provide Putin assurances that he won’t support a return to pre-2014 borders; meaning Russia would continue to control Crimea and a slender land bridge from there to Russia proper. Putin may pay lip service to that idea; at least to create a tactical pause in operations that he could exploit by obtaining more arms and munitions from China, Iran and North Korea.

Ultimately, it will be a meeting between a clever-but-failing tactician with poor strategic judgment and limited opportunity, and a long-range thinker unwilling to join in the tactical fever dreams of an embattled subordinate. Xi may offer token diplomatic support and even some minor military aid, but he’s too smart to be drawn into an obviously failing enterprise. The smart play would be for Xi to call Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy from Moscow or soon thereafter. Western leaders should quietly encourage him to think in those terms. China may be too big to fail, but Putin’s Russia is not; and Beijing must realize that reality.

James Stavridis is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. A retired U.S. Navy admiral, former supreme allied commander of NATO, and dean emeritus of the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University, he is vice chairman of global affairs at the Carlyle Group. He is the author most recently of “To Risk It All: Nine Conflicts and the Crucible of Decision.”

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