Did Putin play Xi Jinping’s game?

Twenty days before Russia swung its troops into Ukraine, Russian President Vladimir Putin and Chinese President Xi Jinping signed a Joint Declaration on “unlimited cooperation” between both sides in Beijing on Feb. 4, ahead of the Olympics.

Jerome Alan Cohen, a retired law professor at New York University, said that Putin played Xi Jinping for a fool. Professor Cohen is also a China expert and a senior fellow for Asia Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations.

Professor Cohen said, “He put Xi in a very awkward position, and many in the Chinese leadership were clearly upset that Xi made China look like it was really supporting (Russia’s) invasion of Ukraine, which made China look bad.”

Professor Cohen believes Putin must have warned Xi Jinping while in Beijing.

He said, “I think Putin must have given Xi the impression that this was his final choice, his highest priority. Xi Jinping was of course warned, and sources from other countries, including the United States, that Russian invasion is very likely, but he made a joint statement with Putin anyway. This makes it appear that China is definitely providing silent support, (at least) not opposing it … This is what Xi Jinping has done with Moscow.”

Ming Xia, a professor of political science at the City University of New York, echoed the same sentiment.

He said, “My guess is that Putin definitely did not say to Xi that we would launch a military attack on Ukraine, and we would encircle the whole country to achieve the purpose of demilitarization of Ukraine. Nor would he have said that he was going to end up threatening with nuclear forces. But Putin might have said that we are jointly facing a siege by the West against us, and we have to do something so that the West will not go too far, and will not let them use the economic pressure from color revolutions to subvert us at every turn.”

Professor Ming Xia believes that Putin is consciously divorcing China’s relationship with the West.

He said, “Now the whole West is united. Look at the spokeswoman of the Russian Foreign Ministry. When some journalists say that the whole world does not support you, you are very isolated. She replied, who said that? We have China. China is a big country that is supporting us. So I think (Putin) is selling China badly. So I think Putin is playing China.”

Did Xi Jinping take advantage of Putin?

But Nina Khrushcheva, great-granddaughter of former Soviet supreme leader Nikita Khrushchev and professor of international affairs at The New School in New York, believes Xi has actually taken advantage of Putin.

On Feb. 18, she wrote a piece in the review journal Project Syndicate.

She wrote, “Amid growing antagonism with the West, it is China that wanted to get Russia on its side, not vice versa – and not as an equal partner.”

“Xi did what was needed to lock Russia into a vassal-like dependency on China. And Putin chose to walk straight into his trap, thinking that partnership with Xi would help him in his confrontation with the West.”

Khrushcheva asks in her article, “What could be better for China than a Russian economy completely cut off from the West?

“China will neither risk its own prosperity by openly challenging the U.S. in defense of Russia, nor prop up Russia’s economy by investing on the scale needed to offset the impact of the mighty sanctions the West will impose if Putin launches an invasion of Ukraine. Instead, China will do the bare minimum to enable Russia to sustain its confrontation with the West, and thus divert the West’s attention from the strategic challenge posed by China itself. That bare minimum of Chinese assistance may be just enough to keep Putin in the Kremlin, which is all he cares about. But the Kremlin’s master will be ruling over a Russian economy that is slowly being bled white.”

Khrushcheva said that Putin believes that he has achieved the equivalent of what Nixon did during his historic 1972 visit to China by signing the Joint Declaration with Xi Jinping on Feb. 4, but the end result will be that “just as the Soviet Union was the big loser of the Sino-American rapprochement of 1972, Russia is likely to turn out to be the big loser from the new Putin-Xi agreement.”

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