of

The View from China and India on Russia’s Escalation in Ukraine

September 28, 2022
6 min read
Photo credit: Vladirina32 / Shutterstock.com
President Vladimir Putin’s latest escalation in Russia’s war against Ukraine—with a partial mobilization, preparations to annex Ukrainian territory, and nuclear threats—followed closely the Shanghai Cooperation Organization summit in Samarkand, Uzbekistan on September 15-16.

On this occasion, he met with China’s President Xi Jinping and India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi, among other leaders. There followed much speculation as to what messages exactly they conveyed to Putin about his actions in Ukraine since the start of the full invasion in February. Below, GMF experts explain how the latest Russian escalation is viewed from Beijing and New Delhi. 

Xi Wants an Outcome that Resembles a Russian Victory, and Fast

Andrew SmallSenior Transatlantic Fellow, Asia Program

The major new phase of Russia’s war in Ukraine has yet again come hot on the heels of a meeting between Presidents Xi Jinping and Vladimir Putin. In February, much of the speculation focused on whether Xi had given a nod and a wink to the invasion. After their meeting at the Shanghai Cooperation Organization summit in Samarkand earlier this month, the question is whether the Chinese “concerns” that Putin referred to influenced his most recent moves on mobilization, annexation, and nuclear threats.

While the details of the two leaders’ exchanges are a matter of conjecture, the strategic backdrop, and the results, are as clear now as they were in February. Back then, the Sino-Russian partnership acted an enabling factor for Putin, giving him the confidence to move forces from Russia’s Far East to Ukraine’s borders and an additional measure of security about the resilience of the Russian economy. At the peak of Western efforts to prevent the invasion, Xi’s sweeping support for Putin’s stance on the European security order was emboldening.

If China’s government was surprised by the way the war has subsequently played out—which seems plausible, given that Russia’s leaders also appear to have expected a Crimea-style short timetable—this did not change its position. Since the invasion, Xi has resisted every opportunity even to pretend to taper back support for or to distance China from Russia. The February joint statement by Putin and Xi remains the most comprehensive manifestation of the two sides’ alignment, but in Beijing’s propaganda, its official pronouncements, and its stance in private meetings since the invasion, there has also been no ambiguity about where it extends its sympathies and where it attributes blame.

While Chinese firms have been cautious over sanctions compliance, this only illustrates the continued vulnerabilities they face if they were to be cut off from access to US technology or the dollar system, not Beijing’s strategic intent or the scope of the economic assistance that it will ultimately provide to Moscow.

There is also little ambiguity about Xi’s preferences as to the outcome of the war. Although Beijing will try to find opportunities in even a disastrous result for Russia, Xi’s central political narrative would be bolstered by a Russian success, harmed by Ukraine holding out, and seriously damaged by a victory for Kyiv backed by a largely united West. Worst of all would be any political turmoil in Russia itself, or the fall of the man Xi once dubbed his “best friend.” Beijing’s first concern was when Moscow did not win quickly. Its greatest concern at present is that Moscow does not appear to be winning slowly either.

None of this is to suggest that Xi’s stance is the direct cause of Putin’s latest escalation, any more than it was the cause of the invasion in the first place. But treating Chinese displeasure at the course of the war as if this is a potential restraining influence gets things the wrong way round. Xi’s famous criticism of the Communist Party leaders in Moscow over the fall of the Soviet Union—“Nobody was a real man. Nobody came out to resist.”—is revealing. Putin is unlikely to have left Samarkand believing that the Chinese leadership wants to see compromise and de-escalation. More plausible is that Xi wanted to see a path to an outcome that resembles a Russian victory, and fast.

 

As the War Intensifies, India’s Tightrope Walk Will Get Tougher

Garima MohanSenior Fellow, Asia Program

Since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, India has been walking a tightrope. Its criticism of the war has been coded. New Delhi has chosen to convey this not by calling Russia out directly but by focusing instead on underlining its support for “territorial integrity and sovereignty,” by reiterating its respect for international law and the UN charter, and by calling for a cessation of violence and a return to “the path of diplomacy and dialogue. Prime Minister Narendra Modi has been in contact with Presidents Volodymyr Zelensky and Vladimir Putin, and New Delhi has provided humanitarian assistance to Kyiv. This muted approach and refusal to criticize Russia openly has resulted in criticism and frustration among India’s Western partners, amplified by its abstentions on key UN votes.

As the war has continued and worsened, however, India’s position has become tougher and it has conveyed its growing disapproval of Russia’s actions. The first such turn came after the atrocities in Bucha, which India condemned “unequivocally” and for which it has supported calls for an independent UN enquiry. Another remarkable change was when Modi expressed his concerns over Ukraine publicly at the recent meeting of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization in Samarkand, saying to Putin that “today’s era is not the era of war.”

A lot has been made of Modi’s statement in Samarkand, but it showed the limits to actors like India being able to influence Russia’s actions when almost immediately afterward Putin announced the new phase of escalation of the war. Some Western countries, particularly in Europe, have been asking for India to play a mediating role in the conflict, but Samarkand showed this is not plausible.

In fact, India and Russia started drifting apart long before the war, especially as India moved closer to the United States and other partners in the West while the Russia-China partnership deepened. Their relationship is based on the one major pillar of defense equipment and technology, but over the last decade New Delhi has been diversifying its defense procurements, turning to partners like France, Israel, and the United States in a bid to reduce its dependence on Moscow. India’s diplomatic interactions with the West far outnumber those with Russia, its partnership with the Quad countries is now central to its foreign policy, and even its political and diplomatic investments in Europe have increased considerably in the last decade. While it might not seem like it right now, the war in Ukraine will only accelerate these trends as Russia becomes even more isolated and less reliable as a partner.

It is not clear yet if India’s strategy and response to the war will pay off yet. It is also not clear what is the threshold beyond which Russia’s actions will prompt public criticism in India. New Delhi is hoping that by avoiding this, it can draw Moscow away from Beijing. China is after all the bigger and more pressing security concern for India. Some may argue that driving a wedge between Russia and China is already a lost cause. It is clear, however, that as the war intensifies, this tightrope walk for India will get tougher.