Editor’s note: Frida Ghitis, (@fridaghitis) is a former CNN producer and correspondent, world affairs columnist. He is a weekly columnist for CNN, a columnist for The Washington Post, and a columnist for World Politics Review. The opinions expressed in this comment are his own. See more reviews on CNN.
The last time Russian President Vladimir Putin met with his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping, the future was very different. Putin still denied that he planned to invade Ukraine, which he did just days after attending the 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing in February. Xi and Putin were together, autocratic brothers ready to take on the West. They stated that their relationship has “no limits”.
Seven months later, Putin is preparing to reunite with Xi, the world’s most powerful leader still on his side, as the picture has changed dramatically. The two will attend the annual summit of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization in Samarkand, Uzbekistan, this week, where they will see each other for the first time since the start of the war – since the meeting between the two in Beijing, a time when Putin apparently hoped his forces would take over. Kyiv in a few days, dealing a painful blow not only to Ukraine, but also to the United States and its allies.
At the time, this view was shared by many around the world, including in the US. But the reality was very different, and now the Russians are on the run in the parts of Ukraine they controlled for five months, and have lost more territory in a few days than they captured – at a very high cost – in months of fighting.
The stunning setback is a tribute to the determination and courage of the Ukrainian fighters inspirational leadership From President Volodymyr Zelensky, Washington’s skillful, steadfast and generous support and the West’s strong, unexpectedly united response. It’s a formula that has worked far better than anyone expected, and Russia, still entrenched in large parts of Ukraine, must continue as it seeks to reverse the trend.
In Samarkand, Putin will no doubt maintain his triumphant and confident posture, but that will fool no one, certainly not Xi, who must be deeply worried by the stunning collapse of Russian forces in northeastern Ukraine.
How much has everything changed? Not only is Russia humiliated, Ukraine prosperous and the West united, but China, which still expresses support for the Kremlin, is making statements that embarrass Russia.
Consider that last week Russia confirmed that Xi and Putin would meet on the sidelines of the summit for “very important” talks. China has confirmed Xi’s trip, but its foreign minister on Tuesday declined to confirm a meeting with the Russian president. That meeting is sure to happen, but China’s public reluctance was another uncomfortable moment for Putin in a week full of discomfort and humiliation.
The relationship between Xi and Putin has never been the same, but now Putin is meeting Xi in one of the most disastrous moments of the unprovoked invasion of Ukraine. He will probably seek more support from Xi, who has been generous with words but far less so with actions.
In February, China stood by Putin’s claim that NATO expansion in Ukraine was a problem. And Xi has called Putin his “best and dearest friend”. Trade between the two countries has grown since the war began and the West imposed sanctions. But China has been reluctant to break sanctions or give a big boost to Russia’s military supply cuts. Had it been, Putin could have avoided the clumsy spectacle of seeking weapons from Iran and North Korea, if small, aggressive powers.
Putin needs Xi far more than Xi needs Putin, and that imbalance has become much greater since the last meeting.
Like Xi, Putin has established a repressive regime in one man, his head. But the Russian president’s withdrawal of all criticism of the war has taken an expected turn. Those who opposed the “special military operation” have gone to prison, exile or mostly remained silent. But now some of the war’s most prominent supporters are on fire, angry at the military’s poor performance. (They also called “war”. – A word that could not be said before without consequences.)
It’s a dangerous time for everyone. A strong man cannot be weak, and Putin knows it.
So what will Xi do when Putin asks for more help?
For now, there is no chance that Beijing will abandon its unofficial alliance with Moscow, even if Russia is greatly reduced in power. Xi wants to be the leader of a global front against the US-led liberal democratic order. To do this, it must align the support of large and small nations. And Russia remains a major nation with nuclear weapons.
Also crucial to China, Russia has vast natural resources, including oil and gas. Russia is already greatly expanding fuel supplies to China, while Europe is moving to end its dependence on Russia.
Seven months ago, Xi might have relished the idea of Russia quickly cracking down on Western-oriented Ukraine. He might have approved, or at least accepted, a plan that would expose divisions within NATO and thereby weaken the power of the United States.
But that has not happened, and China’s most immediate concern at the moment is the economy. Putin’s war is creating more problems at the worst possible time.
Next month, the Chinese Communist Party will hold its twice-a-decade party congress. Xi, China’s most powerful figure since Mao, is expected to secure an unprecedented third term amid a sharp economic slowdown, worsened by his extreme zero-Covid policy. The possibility of a global recession, exacerbated by Russia’s gas wars against Europe, would hit export-dependent China very hard.
Indeed, Putin’s war has already gone a long way to rethinking the world’s economic dependence on autocracies. That is, to put it mildly, bad news for China.
It is very difficult for Xi to agree to give military support to the Russian invasion. Instead, he will try to find a way to end the war, alleviate economic problems and prevent further unrest. Russia’s occasional nuclear threat raises the specter of even more global turmoil, which would not only cause global catastrophe, but also affect economic growth and Chinese exports, for example.
It adds to a picture of the two leaders, brimming with confidence, that seemed unthinkable when they met in Beijing in February. The way the future looks now, they might want to turn back the clock.