Timothy Snyder asserts in the most recent issue of Foreign Affairs that “fascism … helps to explain today’s Russia, which is characterized by a cult of personality, a de facto single party, mass propaganda, the privileging of will over reason, and a politics of us-versus-them.” By that standard, Xi Jinping’s regime also qualifies as fascist. Xi and Vladimir Putin, leaders of the international axis of autocrats, are both participating in the Shanghai Cooperation Organization Summit that has been taking place in Samarkand, Kazakhstan this week, and are meeting on its margins. As a Kremlin official has made clear, Ukraine is very much on their agenda.
No doubt Putin will seek to further strengthen Russia’s strategic partnership with China, which the two leaders underlined when they last met in Beijing during the Winter Olympics just a few weeks before Moscow launched its Feb. 24 invasion of Ukraine. Their joint statement made it clear where China stood regarding any Russian plans to attack Ukraine: “The sides reaffirm their strong mutual support for the protection of their core interests… [and] stand against attempts by external forces to undermine security and stability in their common adjacent regions … oppose color revolutions and will increase cooperation in the aforementioned areas.” Moreover, in a sign of their increasing coordination, Putin reportedly delayed the invasion of Ukraine in response to Xi’s request that he wait until after the Winter Olympics had concluded.
In return, China has been a vocal supporter of the Russian invasion. Beijing, like Moscow, has refrained from depicting the conflict with Ukraine as a “war” — Russia calls it a “special military operation.” The Chinese leadership has called the United States the “main instigator” of the conflict, and it censors social media comments that support Kyiv. China has become the biggest market for Russian oil, and it has provided Russia with both technical and economic assistance since the war began.
Yet China has generally avoided getting caught in the crosshairs of Western sanctions against those providing specific forms of assistance to Moscow. The United States has blacklisted five additional Chinese firms for providing support to the Russian defense industrial base since the war began. While it is doubtful that any of them would do business with the Russian military or industrial base without a nod and wink from Beijing, nevertheless, the Chinese government has refrained from openly providing direct material support to the Russian campaign.
Whether Xi will maintain China’s hands-off policy vis-à-vis the growing needs of the Russian military is an open question, however. Putin can be expected to lobby Xi hard for more Chinese support, including military support, for the flagging invasion of his country’s neighbor. And Xi may be tempted to respond positively. After all, a Russian success against what it argues is not really a state at all would underpin Xi’s own objectives regarding Taiwan.
Moreover, should Ukraine’s current three-pronged offensive continue to roll back Russian advances — due in no small part to the ongoing flow of Western, especially American, arms — Xi may find himself forced to reconsider whatever his current timetable may be for invading what China terms its “breakaway province.” Indeed, buoyed by popular support for Taiwan, an increasingly confident Kyiv is considering improving its relations with Taipei, as Lithuania has done over the past year, despite open Chinese hostility to its doing so. And other states might follow Lithuania’s lead if Ukraine does indeed pivot to Taiwan. Such a development would certainly complicate Xi’s plans to retake the island.
The prospect of a humiliating Russian defeat could as a consequence motivate Xi to ramp up Chinese aid to Moscow, to include some level of military assistance, even if that means suffering additional American sanctions. The Biden administration, therefore, should make it clear to Beijing that the United States will more than match any additional Chinese support to Russia with support to Ukraine. And that American assistance will be geared to a timetable that would greatly facilitate Kyiv’s ability to recover all of its lost territory in a matter of months, rather than years.
Dov S. Zakheim is a senior advisor at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and vice chairman of the board for the Foreign Policy Research Institute. He was under secretary of Defense (comptroller) and chief financial officer for the Department of Defense from 2001 to 2004 and a deputy under secretary of Defense from 1985 to 1987.