Six more years of Putin will worry many countries. But not China

Hong Kong CNNFor leaders across the West, Vladimir Putin’s inevitable landslide win in an election without true opposition was a reminder of his tight control over Russia’s political arena as his war against Ukraine grinds on.

But Chinese leader Xi Jinping, and other leaders benefiting from Putin’s rejection of a Western-led global order, will be cheering his victory.

Partial results reported by Russia’s election authority as of early Monday morning indicated a predictably large victory for the Kremlin leader in the three-day, stage-managed election, with the final outcome a foregone conclusion.

Xi has staked much on his relationship with Putin since the start of the Kremlin’s war more than two years ago, refusing to back away from the “no limits” partnership he declared with the Russian leader weeks before the invasion, while strengthening trade, security, and diplomatic ties.

China has paid a price for this. While it claims neutrality, its refusal to condemn the invasion as the US and its allies united to sanction Russia piqued European suspicion about its motivations. It also drew attention to Beijing’s designs on the self-ruling democracy of Taiwan. An annual NATO report released Thursday reflected the bloc’s hardening line on China, with chief Jens Stoltenberg saying Beijing does “not share our values” and “challenges our interests,” while pointing to its increasing alignment with Moscow.

But China’s stance enabled Xi to stay focused on deeper goals: he sees Putin as a crucial partner in the face of rising tensions with the US and in reshaping a world he believes is unfairly dominated by rules and values set by Washington and its allies. A stable relationship with Moscow, too, allows Beijing to focus on other areas of concern such as Taiwan and the South China Sea.

“Xi sees Putin as a genuine strategic partner,” said Steve Tsang, director of the SOAS China Institute at the University of London, ahead of the Russian election results, adding that anything less than a landslide win for Putin would be “a disappointment” for Beijing.

And Xi, who has centralized control over his own nation like no Chinese leader since Mao Zedong, won’t be alone among leaders applauding Putin’s renewed grip on power.

Kim Jong Un of North Korea recently met Putin in Russia’s Far East during a rare overseas trip that Washington says focused on Moscow buying munitions from Pyongyang.

For Kim, that tightening bond is a major opportunity to strengthen his struggling economy as he continues weapons development in the face of increased coordination between the US and South Korea.

A sanctions-battered government in Iran, which has been expanding its cooperation with Russia and providing it with drones and ammunition, also gains from a continuation of the Putin era.

Even India, while tightening ties with the US and calling for peace in Ukraine, has benefited from continuing exchanges with Russia, especially through its purchase of discounted oil.

Other governments across the Global South have also looked to bolster partnerships with Russia, even as they back peace in Ukraine and have suffered from knock-on economic impacts of the war.


Alternate world order

While the Russian election was no contest, Putin’s ability to maintain his iron grip on power and reach this point without a defeat in Ukraine has not been a sure bet.

The Russian leader has weathered an apparent miscalculation that what his government still calls a “special military operation” in Ukraine would be a swift success. He faced a challenge from the late warlord Yevgeny Prigozhin who launched a brief but failed rebellion, and Western sanctions that severed Russia’s economy from much of the global market.

In response he’s ramped up repression and further quashed dissent across the country – including from the Kremlin’s most charismatic and prominent domestic critic Alexey Navalny, who died in an Arctic prison last month.

Now, as he emerges poised to carry on for at least another six years, Putin presides over an economy that’s surviving sanctions and a battlefield where his opponent has yet to see a decisive breakthrough. Meanwhile, there are nascent signs of fatigue, in particular from the United States, where a presidential election in November could upend American support for Ukraine.

Much could still change in the war. But for countries that remained close to Putin or avoided US-led efforts to isolate him, his win ensures the stability of their Russia ties – and of a rising grouping of vehicles for non-Western alignment.

Russia is set to host an annual summit of the BRICS grouping of major developing economies as its chair this year. The group, since 2011 made up of Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa, almost doubled in size at the start of this year to also include Iran, the United Arab Emirates, Ethiopia, and Egypt.

BRICS is seen as developing countries’ answer to the G7, and its scheduled October summit in Russia’s Kazan will likely underline the stark difference between the two group’s sensibilities. In 2014, G7 countries ousted Russia from what was then a G8 after its 2014 invasion of Crimea, and bailed on its planned summit that year in Sochi.

There is a range of reasons why Putin is seen differently in some parts of the world than in the West: the rise of middle powers that resent US domination of international affairs; the itch for a world order that doesn’t look down on authoritarians or repressive states; or pure economic practicality for economies striving to develop.

US support for Israel, especially amid the ongoing devastation in Gaza, has been a key alienation point for many of these nations and China’s prominent criticism of how Palestinians are treated has resonated across much of the Global South.

Putin, for his part, has painted BRICS as part of a growing movement eclipsing the established order, including in terms of economic heft.

“There is no getting away from this objective reality, and it will remain that way no matter what happens next, including even in Ukraine,” he said during his state of the union address late last month.

Then he underscored a view he’ll likely want both friend and foe to consider as he enters his new term: “No enduring international order is possible without a strong and sovereign Russia.”

Watchful Beijing

But that doesn’t mean countries tied to Moscow aren’t also watching the conflict in Ukraine carefully. That may be especially true for China, Russia’s most powerful strategic partner.

Chinese state media credulously reported the election results Monday with official news agency Xinhua highlighting Putin’s promise to continue to promote “national development,” while another state media headline hailed Russia’s “steadily advancing political process.”

Coverage also highlighted Putin’s comments in a news conference Sunday night, where he pointed to the “coinciding of state interests” between China and Russia and claimed this was a “stabilizing factor” in international relations.

Beijing has reaped significant benefit from the war and stands to continue doing so – as long as it doesn’t trend toward a Russian defeat.

Chinese buyers lapped up record levels of Moscow’s crude oil in 2023, while exports of items such as cars and household electronics to Russia expanded since the invasion, buoying trade to a record high and boosting Chinese yuan-denominated transactions.

Xi has used the war in Ukraine as a platform to pitch his own, albeit vague, alternative system for global security, while a diluted focus of the US government is good news for China.

Beijing, however, says it is working “tirelessly” to bring the conflict to a close as it seeks to carve out an image as peacemaker. It sent special envoy for Eurasia Li Hui on two tours to Russia, Ukraine and other parts of Europe to promote a negotiated end to the conflict, the second of which concluded last week.

Chinese foreign policy thinkers such as Wang Yiwei of Renmin University say Beijing is concerned about nuclear escalation – a threat recently raised again by Putin – and the potential for more European countries to become directly involved in the war. “How to avoid escalating the conflict … that’s Li Hui’s special concern this time,” he told CNN.

But Li, a former ambassador to Russia, and other Chinese officials are seen in much of Europe as merely presenting a plan whose outcome would benefit Putin. That’s in line with European views on Beijing’s stance since the war’s opening days, when it insisted that all sides’ “legitimate security concerns” must be resolved.

For now, as pressure from across the world to end the conflict grows, the foregone results of this weekend’s Russian election will likely only bolster the view in Beijing – and some other non-Western capitals – that they were right to back Putin.