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31 January 2022

Putin and Xi “synchronise their watches” on Ukraine

The two leaders will discuss the crisis this week in talks ahead of the Beijing Winter Olympics.

By Katie Stallard

This Friday, 4 February, is the start of the Beijing Winter Olympics, and as all Eve Muirhead fans know, that means it’s time to resume our collective fervour for the Team GB curling team. (Yes, they are in with a shout.) But medal prospects aside, there is also plenty of consequential geopolitics to discuss.

While some countries – including the US, UK, Australia, Japan and Canada – are staging a diplomatic boycott of the games to protest against human rights abuses in China, Vladimir Putin will travel to Beijing to attend the opening ceremony on Friday and hold talks with the Chinese leader, Xi Jinping.

According to Putin’s spokesperson, they will discuss “strategic stability in Europe, guarantees of security for Russia, Russia-US and Russia-Nato dialogue, as well as regional problems”. Or to put that another way: Ukraine, Ukraine, Ukraine, and possibly also Belarus, Kazakhstan and Afghanistan. The two leaders are said to be planning to take the opportunity to “synchronise their watches”.

Until last week, Chinese officials had said very little on the situation in Ukraine beyond perfunctory remarks calling for “dialogue and consultation”. But when the foreign minister, Wang Yi, spoke to the US secretary of state, Antony Blinken, on 27 January, he said Russia’s “legitimate security concerns” must be addressed, giving the first clear indication that Beijing is likely at least to lend diplomatic cover to Moscow in the event of a new conflict.

This is not to say that China would welcome a Russian invasion of Ukraine. Beijing has good relations with Kyiv and signed a deal to build Ukrainian roads, bridges and railway projects last year. Not to mention the slowing Chinese economy, which is enough of a problem to deal with on its own. But with Xi and Putin increasingly aligned in their opposition to the US, it’s difficult to see the Chinese leader doing anything other than offering robust political and economic support to Moscow and, should the need arise, blocking meaningful action at the United Nations Security Council.

Expect to see the two men present an image of lock-step unity and mutual admiration on Friday as they stress their respect for one another’s security concerns. But beyond the bonhomie and continuing bromance, the real question is whether China would abide by US or European sanctions on Russia this time – as its state-owned banks have done quietly since 2014 – and how Beijing would respond to any US attempt to impose export controls that could prevent Chinese companies selling products with American components, such as smartphones, to Russia.

The games themselves will take place inside a “closed-loop” bubble, with athletes and support staff required to be fully vaccinated, submit to daily testing, and remain inside their officially designated zone. The organising committee has announced that no public tickets will be sold after a recent Covid-19 outbreak reached Beijing. Instead, select groups of spectators will be “organised” to fill the stands and applaud during the events. Cheering was already banned.

Still, there’s always the curling.

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