A meeting between Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and US Secretary of State Antony Blinken in Geneva on January 21, 2022, did not lead to any de-escalation. The Russian side said that they would wait for the US and NATO to answer in writing. A week later, in a telephone conversation with French President Emmanuel Macron, Russian leader Vladimir Putin stated that “the US and NATO responses did not address Russia’s fundamental concerns such as stopping NATO expansion, not deploying assault weapons near Russia’s borders, or rolling NATO’s military capacity and infrastructure in Europe back to where they were in 1997 when the NATO-Russia Founding Act was signed.” In sum, the tensions between Russia and the West over Ukraine continued to escalate.
China weighs in
In this standoff, China’s position is important, given its standing as a major power with regional and global influence. In consonance with Russia’s break with the West over Crimea in 2014 (Moscow’s participation in the G8 was suspended), Moscow launched a pivot to the East and sought to strengthen its relations with Beijing, which had not supported the US and EU’s anti-Russian sanctions.
As the Ukraine crisis has mounted, China is in a tricky position. China is not interested in any military action in Ukraine, as this would result in major economic disruption. The two main links along the Silk Road Economic Belt, namely the China-Central Asia-West Asia Economic Corridor (CCAWAEC) and the New Eurasian Land Bridge, which connect Asia and Europe, will be in danger. Russian territory and transport networks such as the Trans-Siberian railway are strategically important for China to reach Russian and European markets and northern seaports.
Within CCAWAEC, Ukraine is a key transportation hub between Asia and Europe. If it would be necessary to avoid Russian territory, it can send and receive goods from China via rail connections passing through the territory of Georgia, Azerbaijan and Central Asian nations. China would like to see this alternative route through Ukraine to Europe operational.
As situation in Ukraine heats up, the US and the West will focus on Russia and its intentions, taking some pressure off China in the Indo-Pacific. This could provide an opportunity for Beijing to apply more pressure on Taiwan. China might, therefore, be interested in seeing a limited escalation in Ukraine but not an all-out war. In this conflict, China is backing its comprehensive strategic partner, Russia, while not fully declaring itself an ally of Moscow. In Beijing, decision makers reckon that if Putin’s Russia is defeated by the West in this instance, the US and its allies might be emboldened in their confrontation with China. Moreover, China needs Russian weapons to modernize its army and oil and gas to fuel its economic growth.
China has signaled its position. On January 27, 2022, the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs of China noted that Foreign Minister Wang Yi, during a phone conversation with Blinken, indicated Beijing’s support for Moscow: “In the 21st Century, all parties should completely abandon the Cold War mentality and form a balanced, effective and sustainable European security mechanism through negotiations. Russia's legitimate security concerns should be taken seriously and addressed.”
On February 4, 2022, on a visit to Beijing to meet counterpart Xi Jinping and attend the opening ceremony of the Winter Olympic Games, Putin described Russia’s ties with China as “unprecedented in the spirit of friendship and strategic partnership.” Putin is the first foreign leader Xi has met in person since 2020.