They’re “friends without limits”. But President Vladimir Putin has still managed to cross a red line with China. With Chairman Xi openly criticising threats of nuclear war, Moscow now denies it ever did so.
Even before his troops crossed into Ukraine, President Putin threatened “unimaginable consequences” if NATO was to intervene.
He said he’d put his nuclear arsenal on high alert. His state-controlled media immediately began speculating about attacks on the UK and the potential deployment of “victory weapons” such as the Poseidon nuclear torpedo.
The threats did not stop there.
Putin said he would use “all available means” to defend Russian nationals. Days later, his staged referendums in eastern Ukraine delivered 99-per-cent majorities for their assimilation into the Russian fold.
It’s tough talk. Of the worst kind. The consequences of nuclear war would be unimaginable.
And the fallout has already begun – even though no shot has been fired.
The law according to Xi
“Nuclear weapons must not be used, and nuclear wars must not be fought,” China’s Chairman Xi Jinping proclaimed at the weekend.
The statement came after months of strangely undefined relations between Moscow and Beijing.
Did China support Russia’s invasion of a sovereign nation? Would Beijing provide Moscow with material support? Where is the diplomatic support for a friend in need?
Chairman Xi attended the G20 summit of world leaders this week. President Putin did not. Perhaps he knew what was coming.
“President Biden and President Xi reiterated their agreement that a nuclear war should never be fought and can never be won, and underscored their opposition to the use or threat of use of nuclear weapons in Ukraine,” a White House summary of a three-hour meeting between the pair reads.
Strangely, these words were not reflected in the official Beijing version of events.
Nevertheless, former supreme commander of NATO James Stavridis says: “That reads like a joint shot across the bow.”
Little wonder, then, that Kremlin press secretary Dmitry Peskov soon after declared Russia had never made such a threat.
“We don’t think it permissible to raise such questions, not to speak of discussing this,” he said.
States of denial
Peskov repeatedly attempted to dismiss the elephant in the room.
“You may have noticed that no one on the Russian side talks about this, nor have they talked about it before,” he said.
Instead, he blamed the West as the source of all nuclear sabre rattling: “This is discussed in European countries, and anywhere else, to build up tension in a completely prohibited, impermissible, and potentially dangerous sphere.”
But Putin is on the public record. As is a multitude of his Kremlin and state-media cronies.
It’s no more deniable than the war against Ukraine itself.
“China has chosen not to take sides between Russia and Ukraine, but when it comes to nuclear weapons, things are different because this involves the survival of humanity,” retired People’s Liberation Army senior Colonel Zhou Bo told the South China Morning Post.
But things aren’t really that different, he explained: Russia never threatened to use them anyway.
“The Russian government never directly and expressly said it would use nuclear weapons. It only implied numerous times that it might use nuclear weapons. At the same time, it has also said that it would not use nuclear weapons.”
But Zhou conceded Russia’s position was not clear: “This is worrisome. You cannot toy with a nuke.”
What is clear is the damage a nuclear exchange would do to China. And the world.
“(Xi) knows that the very worst thing that could happen to the global economy would be a nuclear release by Moscow followed by immediate escalation — probably including direct involvement by North Atlantic Treaty Organisation forces,” says Stavridis. “So it makes sense that Beijing would be working behind the scenes to tame Putin on the nuclear issue.”
Between the lines
Putin’s bluster may be running out of puff.
“Moscow and Beijing are undoubtedly maintaining close communications as the debacle in Ukraine unfolds, and Chinese impatience — with both the mission’s failure and the attendant damage to the global economy — is palpable,” says Stavridis.
China’s outgoing Premier Li Keqiang added to this sense of discomfort clear during a visit to the East Asia Summit Cambodia last week.
The Chinese Communist Party’s second-in-command stressed nuclear weapon threats were “irresponsible”. But he did not mention Russia.
But this demonstrated “some discomfort in Beijing about what we’ve seen in terms of reckless rhetoric and activity on the part of Russia”, an anonymous White House official told US media at the summit.
They said Li “put a clear emphasis on sovereignty, on the irresponsibility of nuclear threats, the need to ensure that nuclear weapons are not used in the way that some have suggested”.
There also was “undeniably some discomfort in Beijing about what we’ve seen in terms of reckless rhetoric and activity on the part of Russia”, the official added. “I think it is also undeniable that China is probably both surprised and even a little bit embarrassed by the conduct of Russian military operations.”
And it’s not the first time China’s leadership has directed veiled criticism at the Kremlin.
Chairman Xi didn’t name names at his recent meeting with US Chancellor Olaf Scholz. But he did warn against the use of nuclear weapons in Ukraine.
Clear and present danger
Putin knows he’s in trouble with Xi.
In September, the Russian leader publicly acknowledged that Beijing had “questions” and “concerns” about the conduct of his war.
But that didn’t stop him from issuing another nuclear thread just days later: “To defend Russia and our people, we doubtlessly will use all weapons resources at our disposal. This is not a bluff.”
But that message has changed since Xi began openly questioning Putin’s judgment.
Moscow has quietly agreed to enter talks with Washington over reviving a defunct nuclear weapons inspection regimen. And that opens the door to fresh strategic-arms reduction talks.
And Russian diplomats backtracked on Putin’s threats by issuing a notice pronouncing that nuclear weapons would only be used if the “existence of the country was at stake”.
Then, earlier this week, the director of the CIA travelled to Turkey to have talks with his Russian counterpart. He had previously travelled to Moscow in November last year to warn the Kremlin he knew of their plans for Ukraine.
This time, CIA Director Bill Burns had more success.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said Russia’s Foreign Intelligence Service chief Sergey Naryshkin had agreed not to use nuclear weapons in the near future.
This may be the outcome Chairman Xi wants.
China is continuing to build new nuclear missile bunkers in its deserts and develop new precision-guided warheads. But Beijing’s stated ambition to boost its arsenal to 1000 weapons falls far short of that held by the US and Russia.
“Putin’s fiasco has come just as China’s military ambitions are expanding,” says Stavridis. “Fortunately, Xi seems to want China to move forward in a responsible way with expanding its nuclear forces. So the last thing he needs is Putin making rash, and possibly empty, threats.”
Jamie Seidel is a freelance writer | @JamieSeidel