The view from Moscow and Beijing: What peace in Ukraine and a post-conflict world look like to Xi and Putin
Published in Political News
Just a few days after being branded a war criminal in an international arrest warrant, Russian president Vladimir Putin was talking peace with his most important ally, Chinese president Xi Jinping.
The setting for the get-together was the late fifteenth-century Faceted Chamber, the ornate throne room of Muscovite grand princes and czars. The main topics of discussion were fittingly grandiose: How should hostilities in Ukraine end? And after the war is over, how should the international security system be reshaped?
The reaction of many in the West to the proposals put forward by China and discussed with Russia has been notably suspicious of intentions. U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken warned the world not to be “fooled by any tactical move by Russia, supported by China … to freeze the war on its own terms.”
Such sentiment is understandable. Putin launched a brutal, unprovoked war in Ukraine. Amid the heightened emotional environment of missile attacks on civilians, horrific atrocities against ordinary citizens and deportation of children from Ukraine, even a cool evaluation of ways to end the fighting, declare a cease fire, and begin talks by the belligerents has led to accusations of appeasement. And the peace plan put forward by China on Feb. 24, 2023 and discussed with Putin during a March 20-22 meeting in Moscow has been criticized as overly vague and lacking concrete suggestions.
In such circumstances, it can be difficult to consider what the interest of the other side might actually be in bringing the killing to an end, and their sincerity of any purported efforts to do so.
But as a historian, I ask, what does the world look like from the other side? How has the run up to the war and the war itself been understood by Russia and China? And what do Xi and Putin envision a post-conflict world to look like?
The rulers of both Russia and China see the West-dominated “rules-based international order” – a system that has dominated geopolitics since the end of the Second World War – as designed to uphold the global hegemony of the United States.
The two men’s stated preference is for a multilateral system, one which would most probably result in a number of regional hegemons. This would include, to be sure, China and Russia holding sway in their own neighborhoods.
Xi put the matter rather gently during his Moscow trip: “The international community has recognized that no country is superior to others, no model of governance is universal, and no single country should dictate the international order. The common interest of all humankind is in a world that is united and peaceful, rather than divided and volatile.”
Reflecting his more street tough style, Putin was more blunt. Russia and China “have consistently advocated the shaping of a more just multipolar world order based on international law rather than certain ‘rules’ serving the needs of the ‘golden billion’,” he said, referencing a theory that holds that the billion people in the richest countries of the world consume the greatest portion of the world’s resources.