Russian President Vladimir Putin is expected to visit China for its forthcoming Belt and Road summit in October.
The upcoming trip, which was reported by Bloomberg, would be his first diplomatic trip abroad since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
The trip will present an opportunity for Putin to play the statesman on the world stage, and flaunt his defiance of the International Criminal Court arrest warrant issued for war crimes in Ukraine.
Yet it also exposes the stark limitations of Putin’s global power, and his new dependence on China’s autocratic leader, Xi Jinping.
“The longer the war between Russia and Ukraine drags on, the more Moscow’s economic and diplomatic dependence on Beijing will grow,” Ali Wyne, an analyst with the Eurasia Group, told Insider.
Putin isolated amid assassination fears
Since the February 2022 invasion of Ukraine, Putin has cut an isolated figure and is rarely seen in public.
He lives in fear of assassination and betrayal, reports claim, and according to Bloomberg’s sources, he believes that China is one of few countries that can guarantee his security.
He’s made only one foreign trip since the Ukraine invasion, to the devastated occupied Ukrainian city of Mariupol. He last visited China in February 2022.
Last week, Putin had to attend the BRICS summit in South Africa remotely in order to spare the hosts the dilemma of deciding whether to act on the ICC warrant and arrest him (China is not a signatory of the ICC’s Rome Statute). Putin is also skipping the G20 summit in India.
Xi has remained a steadfast ally, providing Russia with vital economic and diplomatic backing amid the Ukraine war, punishing international sanctions, and the internal turmoil it has provoked in Russia.
Last week, the leader of the Wagner mercenary group rebellion against the Kremlin, Yevgeny Prigozhin, died in a plane explosion that Western officials believe was likely ordered by Putin as the Russian leader seeks to regain the unchallenged authority he once wielded.
But Xi has his own agenda.
Analysts have told Insider that China is playing a balancing act and is backing Russia as part of a ploy to damage the power of the US, Ukraine’s main international backer and Beijing’s key global rival.
An uncomfortable alliance
Yet Xi is also keen not to alienate Ukraine’s Western European allies, whose good graces he depends on to maintain vital trade links for China’s ailing economy.
He has driven a hard bargain with Russia as a condition for his support, scolding the Russian leader for menacing the West with nuclear weapons and refusing to provide Russia with the military equipment it urgently needs to bolster its ill-equipped forces.
Yet such is Putin’s dependence on Xi, he is in no position to hit back. The imbalance in the relationship is brought into relief by the fact that the Russian leader is dependent on Xi to break his international isolation and project his authority in person on the world stage.
“The sanctions have exacerbated the already asymmetrical relationship between Russia and China,” Maria Shagina, a senior research fellow at the International Institute for Strategic Studies, told The Financial Times in March. “It’s hard to hide the fact that Russia is now a junior partner.”
In recent weeks, some nations in the so-called Global South have shown receptiveness to Ukraine’s plans to bring an end to the conflict.
And as he seeks to rally them to Russia’s cause, Putin may have to get used to the new unfamiliar role of playing second fiddle to China’s leader.
“With the West having largely decoupled from it, and with India looking to reduce energy and arms ties with it, Russia recognizes that strengthening its relationship with China—both bilaterally and through groupings such as the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, the expanded BRICS, and the G20—is essential to contesting the Western narrative that Moscow is isolated on the world stage,” said Wyne.