Live updates: Russia’s war in Ukraine

Russian President Vladimir Putin reviews a military honor guard with Chinese leader Xi Jinping during a welcoming ceremony outside the Great Hall of the People in Beijing on June 8, 2018. (Greg Baker/Pool/AFP/Getty Images)

The last time Chinese leader Xi Jinping and Russian President Vladimir Putin sat down face to face, they declared triumphantly the arrival of a “new era” in international relations.

Amid a Western diplomatic boycott of the Beijing Winter Olympics and a looming crisis in Ukraine, the world’s two most powerful autocrats shared their vision for a new world order: it would better accommodate their nations’ interests, and no longer be dominated by the West. 

In a 5,000-word joint statement, the two leaders declared a friendship with “no limits” and spelled out their shared grievances toward the United States and its allies.

“The world is going through momentous changes,” their joint statement said, noting the “transformation of the global governance architecture and world order.”

More than 200 days later, Xi and Putin are to meet again at a regional summit in the city of Samarkand in southeastern Uzbekistan. Much has changed, but not necessarily in ways China or Russia could have predicted. 

Three weeks after meeting Xi in Beijing — and just days after the Winter Olympics ended, Putin launched a full-scale invasion of Ukraine. He had expected a quick victory, but seven months in, Russia is far from winning. Its forces are exhausted, demoralized, and fleeing territories they have occupied for months.

And that is making China nervous. Having grown ever closer to Moscow under Xi, Beijing has a direct stake in the war’s outcome. A defeated Russia will strengthen the West and become a less useful and reliable asset in China’s great power rivalry with the US. A weakened Moscow might also be less of a distraction for the US, thereby enabling Washington to focus more squarely on Beijing.

Xi has a fine line to tread. If he leans too much into helping Russia, he risks exposing China to Western sanctions and diplomatic blowback that would harm its own interests. The backlash would also come at a sensitive time for Xi, who is only weeks away from seeking a norm-breaking third term at the 20th Party Congress.

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