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The Ukraine Invasion and the Putin-Xi Partnership

Russia and China are strengthening their opposition to freedom and democracy.
February 24, 2022
The Ukraine Invasion and the Putin-Xi Partnership
(Composite by Hannah Yoest / Photos: GettyImages / Shutterstock)

Russian dictator Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine has not so much kicked off a new geopolitical era as decisively returned us to an old one—an era of empires, wars, and conquests. One element of this new era is a strengthening relationship between Russia and China. Earlier this month, as Russian forces were already building up along the Ukrainian border and the Olympics were getting underway, Putin met in Beijing with the Chinese leader, Xi Jinping. The 5,000-word joint statement that Xi and Putin signed announces their shared aim: a united front against freedom.

Undeterred by international condemnation of Russian aggression and the Uighur genocide in China, the two men expressed support for Russia’s attempt to rewrite the European order and China’s claim over Taiwan. There is nothing new about countries with anti-American leaders allying with one another—for the last few decades, there have been various partnerships among Russia, China, Cuba, Venezuela, Iran, and North Korea—but what is striking about the Xi-Putin statement is its ideological component. The statement begins with the two sides’ support for “democracy,” as long as democracy is not, well, actually democracy. They define it as “citizens’ participation in the government of their country with the view to improving the well-being of population and implementing the principle of popular government,” but add that there “is no one-size-fits-all template to guide countries in establishing democracy. A nation can choose such forms and methods of implementing democracy that would best suit its particular state.” Translation: Democracy is not necessarily when the citizens choose the government, it can be whatever arrangement the government decides to call “democracy.”

While the Xi-Putin statement does not mention Ukraine explicitly, it makes clear that Xi agrees with Putin in “oppos[ing] further enlargement of NATO.” (While a mouthpiece for Xi’s government said this morning that “China did not wish to see what happened in Ukraine today,” China has made a point of emphasizing Russia’s supposed “legitimate security concerns” in recent days.) The statement also includes clauses on cooperation and tit-for-tat deals. Russia commits itself to China’s claim over Taiwan and the Belt and Road Initiative, while China in return offers support for Russia’s rewriting the European order. The two leaders also offer each other diplomatic support on several matters and pledge mutual efforts to push back against U.S. security initiatives aimed at containing both.

Over the last decade, the China-Russia relationship has been strengthening economically, militarily, and diplomatically—and likely in terms of intelligence, too. And they have both been supportive of other anti-American governments. The two countries are assisting Iran amid the nuclear arms control talks in Vienna, helping Iran evade sanctions. All three, together with Cuba, helped keep Nicolas Maduro’s regime intact in Venezuela. Hungary’s Viktor Orbán, the most autocratic European leader west of Belarus, was until this week the only European leader expressing support for Russia over the Ukraine crisis, and he has pursued close ties with China.

What binds Russia and China also divides them. They are neighbors, with a complicated shared history. The two regimes now in power would seem on paper to be ideological opposites: China is a Communist state with a twist of nationalism, while Russia is run by hypernationalists who used to be Communists. They are both former empires nostalgic for the past. Rewriting the current order unites them—but only to an extent. Insofar as they both long for dominance and hegemony in each other’s backyards, and are competing for monopolistic control over the same resources, the order they envision puts them at odds.

So the United States should pursue ways of exacerbating their divisions, in hopes of re-creating the Sino-Soviet split that fundamentally transformed the Cold War. If nothing else, U.S. attempts to exploit areas of Chinese-Russian disagreement could force the regimes to expend domestic political capital at home, lest they risk losing domestic support.

But more urgent than dividing autocracies is uniting the free world. Some commentators have suggested that Ukraine is just a distraction—that we should be focusing on China’s threat to Taiwan instead. But Ukraine is no more a distraction from Taiwan’s security than the security of Europe is a distraction from freedom in Asia. Those making that argument ought to have a word with the Taiwanese, Japanese, and Australians, all of whom are providing support for Ukraine and urging Americans to do more.

The proper objective of the U.S. foreign policy is not the security of Europe or the security of Asia. It is the restoration and sustaining of a world order that respects sovereignty and favors freedom. This is not a moment to pick your favorite democracy against the autocracy you hate most. It is a moment for the democracies of the world to unite against the increasingly united front of autocracies.

Shay Khatiri

Shay Khatiri studied Strategic Studies at the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies. He’s an immigrant from Iran and writes the Substack newsletter The Russia-Iran File.