Russia, China: Putin and Xi’s Conditional Bromance


Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping met in Uzbekistan on September 15, the first time the two had met in person since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Remarks from the authoritarians were mutually endorsing where interests aligned; however, the speeches highlighted a contrast in strategies and exposed the limit of Beijing’s support for its neighbor. Putin took the opportunity to blast the West’s military expansionism and attempts to “create a unipolar world,” while Xi emphasized China’s and Russia’s roles in bringing order and positivity to a world in chaos.



Putin and Xi’s rhetorical disparity in Uzbekistan suggests the Sino-Russian relationship is limited by self-interests, incongruent strategies and disparate risk tolerances – all of which will probably continue to weaken the alliance.

The Eastern powers offer mutual moral and political support where objectives overlap, but their strategies are self-reliant, and each has limited influence over the other’s foreign policy. Seven months into Russia’s war in Ukraine, there is little evidence of direct Chinese aid for Russian forces. When the pair last met in February, Xi promised a Russia-China partnership without limits; but Putin’s entanglement in Eastern Europe has apparently exposed the limit of Beijing’s support.

Putin’s and Xi’s independent strategies look to achieve geopolitical and economic dominance by restoring the former glory of their respective empires. However, Xi wishes to climb to the top of the existing order, whereas Putin seeks to play spoiler and upend the international system. Moscow’s ability and inclination to use military force to shape the geopolitical landscape is a competitive advantage that few global powers possess; Putin was quick to deploy forces to Georgia, Syria, and Ukraine and use proxies like Wagner Group for contingency operations in Libya, Mali, and the Central African Republic. However, the Russian strongman’s hubris and bias for military action have revealed the fallibility of his forces and an aptitude for poor strategic judgment.

Xi’s relative pragmatism and lower risk tolerance suggest Beijing has no plans to rush to Moscow’s aid at the expense of its plan to displace American order. China relies heavily on the West to consume its cheap exports and will not risk further crippling its faltering economy to reinforce Russia’s ill-fated military exploits.



Russia’s dependence on China for an economic lifeline has shifted the Sino-Russian power balance in Beijing’s favor; Xi will continue to capitalize on Moscow’s losses and keep a safe distance from Putin’s quagmire in Ukraine. Xi has struck a balance with Putin: too much support for Russia could subject China to sanctions and slow Beijing’s economic and geopolitical momentum. Too little could jeopardize the relationship with Moscow and spoil China’s access to cheap Russian commodities.

Russia has few allies to which to turn to combat mounting sanctions and international isolation, and Putin now relies on Beijing to stave off a looming liquidity crisis. China has capitalized on Moscow’s export woes by capturing a portion of Russia’s lost market share, while China saved more than $3B USD on fuel imports this year thanks to discounted Russian oil. Russia also became China’s top crude oil supplier in May, while Russian liquified natural gas and coal exports to China are near all-time highs.

China’s economic gains, however, are offset by reputational costs. Russia’s floundering military campaign has diluted the Eastern authoritarian brand and its reputation for ruthless efficiency. The same goes for Eastern gamesmanship: instead of dissuading NATO expansion, Putin has driven Northern European neutralists like Finland and Sweden to the alliance and revitalized NATO’s commitment to defense and deterrence. The self-imposed crisis has probably degraded Xi’s confidence in Putin’s judgment and the capability of his military.

The invasion also has weakened China’s position on Taiwan. Despite the uptick in Beijing’s bellicose rhetoric, the global backlash to Russia’s incursion has probably changed China’s calculus and timeline for actions in the Taiwan Strait. Moscow’s test of Western will and the international system has served as a reality check for the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), and the flood of lethal aid to Ukraine signals the US and its allies are prepared to defend its interests and alliances.

Russia’s isolation doesn’t mean China is unwilling to use force to bring Taiwan to heel. But with Xi’s most powerful ally bogged down, on the brink of economic collapse, and its political capital depleted, the CCP will bide its time before embarking on a solo campaign in the East China Sea.