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Will China stop Russia going nuclear?

When Chinese diplomats say they want the war to end, they undoubtedly mean it – but not at any cost.

By Katie Stallard

This article was originally published on 26 October. On 21 February, Putin gave a speech in which he announced that he will suspend Russia’s involvement in the New Start nuclear arms treaty. Following his speech, China’s top diplomat Wang Yi flew to Moscow to meet Kremlin officials.

On 20 October Vladimir Putin visited an army base in Ryazan, south east of Moscow, where newly drafted recruits for his war against Ukraine are being trained. The Russian president clambered beneath a net and fired a sniper rifle. He watched a group of soldiers running through an exercise. “Feeling confident?” he asked one of them in front of the ministry of defence cameras. “Yes sir!” was the reply. Putin inspected the kit that is supposedly being issued to all conscripts and asked the assembled soldiers whether they had any complaints, which of course they did not.

The whole performance was clearly designed to show that the Russian leader has a firm grip on the situation and that his mobilisation effort is going well. This is not the case. Hundreds of thousands of draft-age men have fled Russia, while reports abound of new recruits being sent to fight with minimal training and equipment. They are joining a losing battle. The new commander of Russian forces in Ukraine, Sergei Surovikin, a notoriously ruthless officer whose colleagues call him “General Armageddon”, warned on 19 October that the situation in the southern city of Kherson was “difficult” as Ukrainian forces close in on the regional capital.

[See also: Navigating nuclear menace – podcast episode]

Yet the more his offensive flounders, the more Putin has sought to broaden the scope of this war. Since 10 October, Russian missiles and Iranian-supplied drones have bombarded Ukraine’s power and water plants, destroying more than a third of the country’s energy infrastructure and leading to rolling blackouts. Then there is the ever-present threat of Russia’s nuclear arsenal, which Putin has invoked several times in recent weeks. This has only become more urgent since the Russian defence minister Sergei Shoigu claimed on 23 October that Ukraine was preparing to detonate a “dirty bomb” containing radioactive waste, causing Western officials to warn that Russia might itself be planning to stage such an attack. These fears have prompted calls for those who still have influence on him, such as China’s leader Xi Jinping, to rein him in.

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Beijing has adopted a cautious approach since the start of the conflict, blaming the US for provoking the crisis and providing Moscow with an economic lifeline, but largely abiding by Western sanctions and declining to recognise Russia’s territorial claims, including over Crimea. During their meeting in Samarkand, Uzbekistan, on 15 September, Putin publicly acknowledged that Xi had “concerns” about the war, stoking optimism among some in the West that relations between the two were cooling. “Xi must make clear to Putin that nuclear use is a line he must not cross and that nuclear saber-rattling itself threatens the global nuclear order,” urged a group of former senior US officials in a subsequent Washington Post newspaper op-ed.

[See also: Vladimir Putin’s land grab is an act of desperation]

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This may be wishful thinking. As Tong Zhao, a senior fellow in the nuclear policy programme at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace think tank, wrote in a briefing paper published on 13 October, Beijing has so far adopted a “sympathetic view toward Russia’s nuclear sabre-rattling”. Chinese officials do not share the alarm of their Western counterparts, he wrote, because they believe Putin is using these nuclear threats “as a tool to delay and reduce Western intervention”. This has already proved effective: at the start of the war, when Volodymyr Zelensky was pleading with Western leaders to enforce a no-fly zone over Ukraine, Putin’s televised order to place Russia’s strategic forces on a “special regime of combat duty” helped to ensure that those requests were turned down. “According to the mainstream Chinese view, Russian nuclear signalling has largely worked,” wrote Zhao, warning that China is learning its own lessons from the conflict and could make use of the same coercive approach in the future, particularly with regard to Taiwan.

Even if Putin detonated a nuclear weapon over the Black Sea as a “demonstration shot”, it is unlikely that this would cause an immediate shift in China’s policy. In that scenario, Bonny Lin, director of the China Power Project at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies, told me, China would likely carry on calling for negotiations. “Recently, official Chinese media reported that Zelensky has signed a decree ruling out negotiations with Putin,” she said. “A case could be made to Beijing as to why Russia has to escalate to try to end the conflict if Ukraine refuses to negotiate.” A Russian tactical nuclear strike in Ukraine would make it more difficult, but not impossible, for Beijing to maintain this position. “If the Russian tactical use is limited, against military targets only, and coupled with an offer to end to conflict, Beijing could publicly criticise Russian nuclear use, but push for an end to the conflict to prevent a larger nuclear escalation,” Lin said. The use of nuclear weapons against civilians would likely cross a red line for China, she added, though Xi would not necessarily immediately sign up to international sanctions. “Instead, Beijing may argue that the priority is to end the conflict and make sure that the conflict does not become a nuclear war.”

Beyond the terrible suffering the invasion has wrought in Ukraine, it has pushed up global food and energy prices, and reinvigorated the Western alliances that view China as a growing threat. When Chinese diplomats say they would like to see an end to the war, they undoubtedly mean it. But not at any cost. Xi still values Putin as a partner in their shared contest against the US. He does not want Putin’s regime to collapse, perhaps to be replaced by a pro-Western government. As long as he does not believe that Putin will follow through on his threats, Xi will tolerate his continued nuclear sabre-rattling and the barbarous winter to come.

[See also: China Under Xi – podcast series]

This article appears in the 26 Oct 2022 issue of the New Statesman, State of Disorder