Did Xi Tell Putin to Hold Off on Ukraine Invasion?

Commentary Imagine this frightening scenario: It is the first day of the Beijing Winter Olympic Games and pro-Russian separatists in Eastern Ukraine have begun firing on Ukrainian government forces. After several days of fighting, Russian troops decide to enter the country in open support of the separatists. Amassed forces in Russia’s west join troops stationed in Belarus to quickly and effectively launch a full-scale assault on the Ukrainian military. Moscow claims that its incursion is necessary to protect the ethnically Russian east from a fascistic Western-backed government. Knowing it is unlikely that U.S.-led NATO will threaten war and massive casualties in order to protect non-member Ukraine, a ceasefire will be reached under the tutelage of Moscow. Both sides will likely have suffered a significant number of casualties. Russia will have come to the negotiating table while still maintaining troops in the Donbass. After securing a largely autonomous governance status for the latter region, the Kremlin will begin withdrawing its troops—most of them, at least. Some will remain under the auspices of securing the stability and protection of the region. In the best-case scenario, the frozen conflict in Ukraine’s east will be perpetuated, and with it Moscow’s direct veto over Ukrainian ascension to NATO. This is assuming that the United States has not militarily engaged Russia with the troops that Washington has stationed in Ukraine, which would threaten large-scale land war between the two nuclear-armed powers. Frightening indeed. But not far-fetched. This closely mirrors the series of events that played out in August 2008 when Russia invaded its southern neighbor—and NATO hopeful—Georgia. Firing between rebel forces in the breakaway region of South Ossetia and the Georgian military began on the day before the opening ceremony of the 2008 Beijing Summer Olympics. Both Russian President Vladimir Putin and Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili had to fly home to deal with the deteriorating crisis. Then, like now, Moscow had previously stationed troops in the areas surrounding the region it intended to invade. Russian military forces had moved in to the region under the pretenses of peacekeeping (Abkhazia is another disputed territory resulting from the collapse of the Soviet Union). In today’s Ukrainian situation, the influx of Russian troops to Belarus, in addition to those amassed in Russia’s west, ensure that the Kremlin has the necessary firepower in place should such a similar scenario ensue. Given this reality, it would only be logical for Chinese leader Xi Jinping to take the necessary precautions to ensure that Moscow and Putin do not once again divert international attention from Beijing. The Olympics are a traditional time to showcase one’s country, and the 2008 games impressed the world with China’s precision, discipline, and organization. Its opening ceremony remains one of the most impressive in Olympic history. The need for some positive press is especially true in the COVID era. Attention over the origins of the virus, and Beijing’s subsequent implicit responsibility in the resulting pandemic, mean that Xi also has the opportunity to regain some international esteem through his regime’s handling of the games. The “zero-COVID” policy guarantees strict rules and regulations. Being able to tout zero new cases of infection when athletes and coaches from around the world gather together for two weeks is a good talking point for the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). It can be expounded upon to stress to the world how the CCP way of crisis management—mandatory compliance and obedience at the end of a gun—is the correct way. Putin and Xi’s scheduled meeting on the opening day of the Olympics further suggest that China is guarding against a repeat of 2008. It will be the first time the two leaders have met in person since 2019. But what about after opening day? It appears that Xi should be all set during the entire two weeks of the games as well. The scheduling of the joint military exercises between Russia and Belarus suggest that any potential operation will not take place until the Olympics are over. Titled “Allied Resolve 2022,” its first stage will mostly focus on the operational ability for Russian and Belarusian forces to coordinate troop deployments. After finishing on Feb. 9, the exercise will transition to its second phase. According to the Russian Ministry of Defence, this will focus on “protecting the interests of the Union State.” This includes “suppressing and repelling external aggression during a defensive operation.” The second phase will notably finish on Feb. 20, subsequently concluding the entire training exercise. This date happens to coincide with the end of the Beijing Olympic Games. Russian service members attend a ceremony opening the military exercise Zapad-2021 staged by the armed forces of Russia and Belarus at the Obuz-Lesnovsky training ground in Brest Region

Did Xi Tell Putin to Hold Off on Ukraine Invasion?

Commentary

Imagine this frightening scenario: It is the first day of the Beijing Winter Olympic Games and pro-Russian separatists in Eastern Ukraine have begun firing on Ukrainian government forces.

After several days of fighting, Russian troops decide to enter the country in open support of the separatists. Amassed forces in Russia’s west join troops stationed in Belarus to quickly and effectively launch a full-scale assault on the Ukrainian military.

Moscow claims that its incursion is necessary to protect the ethnically Russian east from a fascistic Western-backed government. Knowing it is unlikely that U.S.-led NATO will threaten war and massive casualties in order to protect non-member Ukraine, a ceasefire will be reached under the tutelage of Moscow. Both sides will likely have suffered a significant number of casualties.

Russia will have come to the negotiating table while still maintaining troops in the Donbass. After securing a largely autonomous governance status for the latter region, the Kremlin will begin withdrawing its troops—most of them, at least. Some will remain under the auspices of securing the stability and protection of the region.

In the best-case scenario, the frozen conflict in Ukraine’s east will be perpetuated, and with it Moscow’s direct veto over Ukrainian ascension to NATO. This is assuming that the United States has not militarily engaged Russia with the troops that Washington has stationed in Ukraine, which would threaten large-scale land war between the two nuclear-armed powers.

Frightening indeed. But not far-fetched.

This closely mirrors the series of events that played out in August 2008 when Russia invaded its southern neighbor—and NATO hopeful—Georgia. Firing between rebel forces in the breakaway region of South Ossetia and the Georgian military began on the day before the opening ceremony of the 2008 Beijing Summer Olympics. Both Russian President Vladimir Putin and Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili had to fly home to deal with the deteriorating crisis.

Then, like now, Moscow had previously stationed troops in the areas surrounding the region it intended to invade. Russian military forces had moved in to the region under the pretenses of peacekeeping (Abkhazia is another disputed territory resulting from the collapse of the Soviet Union). In today’s Ukrainian situation, the influx of Russian troops to Belarus, in addition to those amassed in Russia’s west, ensure that the Kremlin has the necessary firepower in place should such a similar scenario ensue.

Given this reality, it would only be logical for Chinese leader Xi Jinping to take the necessary precautions to ensure that Moscow and Putin do not once again divert international attention from Beijing. The Olympics are a traditional time to showcase one’s country, and the 2008 games impressed the world with China’s precision, discipline, and organization. Its opening ceremony remains one of the most impressive in Olympic history.

The need for some positive press is especially true in the COVID era. Attention over the origins of the virus, and Beijing’s subsequent implicit responsibility in the resulting pandemic, mean that Xi also has the opportunity to regain some international esteem through his regime’s handling of the games.

The “zero-COVID” policy guarantees strict rules and regulations. Being able to tout zero new cases of infection when athletes and coaches from around the world gather together for two weeks is a good talking point for the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). It can be expounded upon to stress to the world how the CCP way of crisis management—mandatory compliance and obedience at the end of a gun—is the correct way.

Putin and Xi’s scheduled meeting on the opening day of the Olympics further suggest that China is guarding against a repeat of 2008. It will be the first time the two leaders have met in person since 2019.

But what about after opening day? It appears that Xi should be all set during the entire two weeks of the games as well. The scheduling of the joint military exercises between Russia and Belarus suggest that any potential operation will not take place until the Olympics are over.

Titled “Allied Resolve 2022,” its first stage will mostly focus on the operational ability for Russian and Belarusian forces to coordinate troop deployments. After finishing on Feb. 9, the exercise will transition to its second phase. According to the Russian Ministry of Defence, this will focus on “protecting the interests of the Union State.” This includes “suppressing and repelling external aggression during a defensive operation.” The second phase will notably finish on Feb. 20, subsequently concluding the entire training exercise. This date happens to coincide with the end of the Beijing Olympic Games.

Epoch Times Photo
Russian service members attend a ceremony opening the military exercise Zapad-2021 staged by the armed forces of Russia and Belarus at the Obuz-Lesnovsky training ground in Brest Region, Belarus, on Sept. 9, 2021. (Vadim Yakubyonok/BelTA/Handout via Reuters)

The 2008 Russia-Georgia war detracted attention from China’s showcase of disciplinary prowess. Xi has a strong incentive to ensure that Putin does not seize on a period of time traditionally defined by international cordiality to plunge Eastern Europe into war. Still, Beijing has been careful not to weigh in on one side or the other regarding the heightening tensions in Ukraine. It has, however, vehemently condemned any Western accusations that the announcement of the upcoming Xi and Putin meeting is indicative of anything other than the growing Sino-Russian relationship.

This was the case when a recent Bloomberg article made the accusation that Putin and Xi were colluding to push back Putin’s invasion of Ukraine. Citing an anonymous diplomat in Beijing, the authors propose that a recent call between Xi and Putin resulted in a Chinese request for Russia to halt an invasion—at least until after the games. The piece has been derided as unfounded defamation by both Chinese and Russian official spokespeople.

It is unlikely that Xi holds the power to directly order Putin to stand down. The Russian president has demonstrated throughout his tenure in office that he has no problem gambling when the odds are in his favor. He correctly predicted that any repercussions to his Georgia incursion would not outweigh the cost of having a NATO member on his southern border. The same was the case with the 2014 annexation of Crimea as well as Russia’s intervention in support of Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad during that country’s civil war.

This is once again the case in Ukraine where recent statements by U.S. President Joe Biden have suggested a survivable economic retaliation to any Russian aggression—although it seems this situation has been changing as the United States threatens an increasingly punitive reaction to the latter, including possible military retaliation. With the energy security of Europe still largely reliant on Russian oil and gas imports, Europe cannot afford to totally cut off its economic partnership with Moscow. Putin holds direct control over an important factor in his cost-benefit analysis of intervening in Ukraine.

Should he be planning an invasion of Eastern Ukraine, however, maintaining good relations with China is still essential. The Putin-Xi summit is likely to discuss important bilateral relations between the two regarding the Power of Siberia 2 natural gas pipeline and new initiatives aimed at expanding economic and political cooperation. Extraterritorial aggression will be met with international condemnation, and Moscow will need its diplomatic connection with Beijing.

Whether explicitly agreed to or not, Russia gains much and loses little from actively choosing to not rain on Beijing’s Olympics parade.

Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.


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Dominick Sansone writes on international relations with a focus on comparative politics, U.S. foreign policy, and Russia-China relations. Previously a Fulbright recipient in Bulgaria, he has also lived in North Macedonia and Bologna, Italy. His writing has been published in the National Interest, RealClear Defense, and the American Conservative.