Putin needs Chinese military support. Could he get it?

For Putin, the facts on the ground will make grim reading. Over 100,000 soldiers killed, possibly double that injured. New recruits are being incorporated into existing battalions just to cover for those KIA and IIA. Over half of the battle-ready tanks have been destroyed, and evidence suggests the Russians have nearly run out of missiles too, with perhaps enough remaining for two or three barrages at most. Perhaps most importantly, the latest intelligence suggests that the artillery rounds will all be used up by March at the current rate, which overall would mean the Russian army is completely impotent.

The Russians have already raided Belarus for their artillery shells in inventory and without significant support with their military campaign, at best can hope to freeze the conflict on the ground. However, smart tech involving drones and precision missiles means that trenches are less effective than they once were, and as winter sets in, there is a real danger of frostbite and malnutrition for front-line troops. Indeed, unless Putin does something remarkable, the Russians risk being routed in 2023.

Hence the recent announcement of a Chinese state visit to Russia is noteworthy. Up to now, China has sought to walk a fine line, by only supporting Russia in aspects which won’t trigger sanctions. However, if China could be convinced to support Russia militarily, with say artillery shells, tanks, and drones, this would mean the newly enlisted soldiers currently in training, would have proper military support upon being deployed.

The Chinese typically play a self-interested game and openly taking on the west has rarely seemed a good strategy. What has changed which means they may now decide to support Putin?
  • For China, they know that in the event they look to take back Taiwan, any of the financial penalties the west has placed on Russia will be placed on them, and given the mood music in China indicates their willingness to force a reunification, already they will be planning for a western response. Testing their military systems in a proxy war in Ukraine is an excellent way to assess how effectively Taiwan’s defensive systems could withstand a Chinese assault.
  • Putin is so desperate for aid, the cost incurred by western penalties could be offset by long-term guaranteed rates for oil and gas and other raw materials, well below market prices, which could help to stimulate Chinese industry. The Chinese economy has slowed down since COVID – this could be a booster.
  • Finally and perhaps most importantly China has finally ended lockdown. The impact of the world cup in China was to make people question why their lockdowns continued if life was returning to normality elsewhere. The truth is, that SINOVAC has proven to be largely ineffective as a vaccine against later versions of COVID, meaning that the death rate could be staggeringly high. There is a danger that this in itself becomes destabilizing in China. But Russia has the SPUTNIK vaccine, (allegedly created through stealing the IP that led to the Astrazeneca vaccine) which does work.
With that, could Russia offer China a grand bargain? Unlimited sputnik vaccines combined with reduced oil & gas prices in return for military assistance?

Almost definitely, reading between the lines, this is the deal on the table. The question is if China wants to risk joining forces with Russia at this stage, with everything that would entail. By spring, when the state visit happens, Russia will be at a point where if it doesn’t get significant support, the war effort could collapse, so don’t be surprised if China does come to their aid, albeit at a significant price. If China does start supporting the Russian war effort, expect it to be akin to how NATO currently supports Ukraine.

In terms of how that could change the course of the war? That will then depend on the western response. Suffice it to say, this war is far from over and for Putin, his gambit is to push the west to still be having to support Ukraine when winter hits in December 2023, as by that point, reserves will be used up and the impact of this war will really start to bite on the domestic economies of Europe. As the cold hits next winter, he will believe that will be the point when western support for Ukraine finally dries up and he is able to enforce terms that suit him. But to get to that point, he needs Chinese support.

About the author: James Chaplin
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