Iranian Boost for Russia's War Highlights Chinese Coolness
The war has catapulted Medvedev back into the #2 seat (for now)
Dmitry Medvedev was in China. His only title is the Deputy Chairman of the Presidential Security Council, and yet the Chinese rolled out the carpet for him. He got a meeting with Xi and a host of other Chinese officials, where he and the Chinese chief were the only ones muzzle-free.
So, Russia still counts for a lot in Beijing. There is no way a delegation led by a US National Security Council guy would ever get a meeting with the Chinese GenSec.
At the same time, the Chinese statement on the war was boilerplate:
“Regarding the Ukraine crisis, Xi said China decides its position and policy based on the merits of the matter concerned, upholds objectivity and fairness, and actively promotes peace talks.”
”Hopefully, relevant parties will remain rational and exercise restraint, carry out comprehensive dialogue, and address joint security concerns through political means, Xi remarked.”
China isn’t interested in distancing itself from Russia over the war, but neither is there any hint of support for the Russian war.
And neither is there any hint of that materially. Unlike with Iran, no Chinese supplies have popped up on the battlefield, except for what anyone can buy on the open market.
In fact, the way that the war has brought Iran and Russia further together has only served to highlight how aloof China has remained to the troubles of its “no-limits partner”.
Russia and Iran, the old allies from Syria, further advanced their military links when Iran helped Russia by selling its Shahed kamikaze drones, and a license to produce them in Russia. Now, the two are in talks for Iran to do the same with its missiles, for which Tehran will receive compensation in technology transfers in aviation and space.
Are China and Russia perhaps doing some of that behind the scenes? I doubt it.
It’s not as if Moscow and Tehran advertised weapons transfers from Iran either. It’s just that people figured it out after Iranian transports started landing in Russia, followed by the appearance of new Iranian-looking drones in Ukraine.
It’s not the lack of a public announcement that is the proof, but the lack of Chinese gear on the Russian side beyond what anyone can order on Alibaba (eg body armor).
But perhaps Medvedev’s visit was an attempt to change that?
If so, Medvedev would probably be a good person to send. Much more so than Putin, Medvedev has acted the part of a war leader. While Putin has desperately tried to project the image of a leader in charge of many parallel policies and projects of which the war in Ukraine is just one, Medvedev has reinvented himself as Mr. SMO. He is war all the time and nothing but war.
So far it has worked for him great. By becoming a kind of an unofficial “VP for the war” he has returned to having the #2 profile in Russia. I don’t think he has a lot of power — he has way too much time for blogging on Telegram for someone with power — but then VPs aren’t known for having power. The significance of a VP is in being the heir apparent.
And his trip to China where he substituted for Putin (who hasn’t traveled outside the ex-USSR since the start of the war) demonstrates his new-old status in the Russian pecking order. Neither the PM Mishustin nor the FM Lavrov can head a delegation that is going to met with Xi, but Medvedev, who a few years ago was all but forgotten, can.
Meanwhile, what is the source of Chinese aloofness? Perhaps China and its business interests do not want more added heat and sanctions from the Empire? Perhaps, but the sanctions are coming anyway. The US just barred Netherlands’ ASML from selling newest chip-making machines to China, in a blow to SMIC which was supposed to make chips that the US was preventing Taiwan’s TSMC from selling to Huawei and others.
I think it is worth remembering that on a few occasions Xi singled out Putin as the one international leader whom he considers his good friend and even something of a role model. (They’re of the same age but Xi assumed power over a decade after Putin.) It is language that Putin never reciprocated.
This is 100% speculation, but I think it is possible that China received no heads-up that Moscow was going to launch the SMO. Actually, I think this is a near-certainty. The Kremlin didn’t bother to inform parts of the Russian government, so why would it warn a foreign country? The Chinese attitude now might be that since Moscow didn’t even give it a heads up, why should the SMO be any of its concern now? If Moscow didn’t think the SMO concerned China in any way then, why should it concern China now? You made your bed, now lie in it as they say.
Moreover, it is entirely possible that Moscow has never approached Beijing with the kind of request they went to Iranians with. If Russia tries to salvage its war by turning to Iran nobody thinks this makes Iran the senior in their partnership. But if Moscow launches an SMO without even so much as a heads-up to Beijing, only to later come cap in hand asking China to risk US ire and sanctions in order to help bail out Russia in Ukraine that absolutely does change the Russian-Chinese dynamic. If Beijing is bailing out Moscow even in the post-Soviet space the two can no longer be co-equal.
I think this sort of stuff matters to the Kremlin. We are looking at a regime that spent 15 years prioritizing managing its relations with the US above every other foreign policy concern. 15 years that could have been spent agitating for East Slavic unity and prioritizing the Moscow-Kiev relationship and Russia’s position in Ukraine were thrown away pursuing a vanity project where DC would finally recognize Moscow as a spiritual equal.
Since China probably wasn’t even warned that war was coming (because Russia thought it would be over in 3 days), and since it likely hasn’t even received a concrete request yet, it probably can’t be faulted too much for also not making the initiative herself. If the kremlins need help (and for Russia’s sake they should probably admit that they do) they should probably humble themselves and come ask for it. And send Putin, not the number 2.