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China's Moment of Decision

Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi recently noted that his Ukrainian counterpart, Dmytro Kuleba, had expressed hope that China would help to mediate a ceasefire. If China is to play that role effectively, it must retain its credibility as an honest broker, including by avoiding any explicit condemnation of Russia’s actions.

CAMBRIDGE – China’s response to Russia’s war against Ukraine has been heavily scrutinized and criticized. While Chinese officials have expressed concern about civilian casualties, they have declined to condemn the attack, which they regard as a response to NATO expansion, and they have declared that they will not join the West in imposing financial sanctions on Russia. Yet China has hardly given full-throated support to Russian President Vladimir Putin. The question is whether this relatively neutral stance by China could prove crucial to preventing further dangerous military escalation.

For most Western politicians, China’s response to the violence Putin has unleashed has been woefully inadequate. As White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki recently put it: “This is not a time to stand on the sidelines. This is a time to be vocal and condemn the actions of President Putin and Russia invading a sovereign country.” For US Senator Marco Rubio of Florida, China’s refusal to condemn the invasion indicates that it is “fine with the slaughter, the indiscriminate slaughter, of innocents in Ukraine.”

In reality, China’s stance is much more nuanced than these interpretations suggest. For starters, despite its claim to disagree with the sanctions the West has imposed on Russia, China has taken actions to comply with some of them by limiting the Chinese financing of certain transactions with Russia. And Chinese financial institutions are not prohibited from complying with Western sanctions. Moreover, China has repeatedly revised its position on Ukraine, gradually strengthening its disapproval of Russia’s actions. Behind the scenes, Chinese leaders discussed and debated policies to modify its relations with Russia.

One hopes that China has refused to side openly with the West against Russia in order to give itself some maneuvering room. Following a phone call, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi noted that his Ukrainian counterpart, Dmytro Kuleba, had expressed hope that China would help to mediate a ceasefire. If China is to play such a role effectively, it must retain its credibility, including by avoiding an explicit condemnation of Putin’s actions, upholding economic relations, and keeping communication channels with Putin open.

In keeping with this role, China may in time adopt a tougher stance on Russia, in order to send a message to Putin, but it must calibrate its actions based on its risk assessment. With the ruble tanking, the Russian stock market on the precipice of collapse, and the military operation in Ukraine meeting stiff resistance, China may calculate that now is not the moment to pile on.

Putin’s complete isolation might sound good to the West. But it should be obvious that cornering a possibly unhinged authoritarian leader who has access to a huge nuclear arsenal creates an existential risk for the entire world. Indeed, Putin has announced that he has put Russia’s nuclear forces on “high alert.”

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This is not a statement to take lightly, especially if Putin truly is non compos mentis. The principle of mutual assured destruction (MAD) amounts to an effective deterrent only if those with the authority to launch nuclear weapons behave rationally. The missile attack on the largest nuclear plant in Europe shows just how reckless Putin is. Even without a deliberate launch of nuclear weapons, a nuclear threat looms large.

Compounding the risk, Putin holds ultimate authority in today’s Russia. Even in the late Soviet Union, there was some diffusion of power. After Nikita Khrushchev’s ouster, Soviet leaders created the “triumvirate arrangement,” which distributed authority among Premier Alexei Kosygin, General Secretary Leonid Brezhnev, and Chairman of the Presidium Anastas Mikoyan.

While the Soviet Union remained a totalitarian state, these leaders checked and balanced one another. This led to a more methodical approach to relations with the United States – and reinforced the efficacy of MAD. No such rationality is shaping Russian decision-making today. Confronting Russia thus demands every possible approach that may mitigate the threat Putin poses.

His assault on Ukraine is barbaric, and the world is right to be outraged. The Ukrainian people, who have shown great courage and made enormous sacrifices, deserve our deepest respect and full support. But a Putin with nothing to lose is the most dangerous Putin of all. To avoid a nuclear war, diplomats and world leaders must remain as emotionally detached and rational as possible.

At this strange and scary moment, the world needs a country that remains relatively neutral, maintains communication with the Kremlin, and has some leverage over Russia. That country is China.

A hopeful scenario is that China is maintaining a dialogue with Putin and that it will deploy a less moralistic approach to the conflict in Ukraine. China should apply quiet diplomacy where appropriate and economic leverage when necessary. But the window for action is closing. The war in Ukraine can easily spiral out of control, which will threaten the stability and economic prospects of China and world peace. Keeping a channel open to Russia can be a useful tactic, but the unwavering goal is to divert Russia from its reckless path of war.

China has adopted a foreign policy that aims to “build a community with a shared future for mankind.” Realizing that vision requires China to urge Putin to stop a war that jeopardizes the future for us all.

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