Rare Russia Criticism Within China Shows Simmering Policy Debate
- Ex-ambassador to Ukraine says war making Moscow weaker partner
- Concern grows as Putin’s military offensive gets bogged down
Russian setbacks in Ukraine have begun to prompt more explicit warnings in China about Moscow’s value as a diplomatic partner, in a sign of growing unease over President Xi Jinping’s strategic embrace of Vladimir Putin.
Russia was headed for defeat and being “significantly weakened” by the conflict, a former Chinese ambassador to Ukraine told a recent Chinese Academy of Social Sciences-backed seminar in remarks widely circulated online. The comments, which Bloomberg News was unable to verify, were attributed to retired diplomat Gao Yusheng, who served as China’s top envoy in Kyiv from late 2005 to early 2007.
Gao described the war as the “most important” international event since the Cold War ended, according to an article published by Hong Kong-based Phoenix Television before being taken down. He had previously been posted in Moscow at the time of the Soviet Union’s fall in 1991.
“The so-called revival or revitalization of Russia under the leadership of Putin is a false proposition that does not exist at all,” Gao said. “The failure of the Russian blitzkrieg, the failure to achieve a quick outcome, indicates that Russia is beginning to fail.”
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian told a regular news briefing Wednesday that he was “not aware” of Gao’s speech, a response that was left out of the official transcript. Some prominent nationalist commentators questioned whether Gao’s remarks had been faked.
While China has said it doesn’t support the war, it has repeatedly defended Putin’s rationale for invading and opposed U.S.-led efforts to force Russia’s withdrawal. Chinese diplomats have reaffirmed plans to expand strategic ties with Moscow, a policy course set when Xi declared a “no limits” friendship with Putin in February, just weeks before the invasion.
Beijing’s embrace of Moscow is rooted in part in concern that the US will use its global alliance network and financial influence to contain China as its now doing to Russia. China can’t afford to be similarly isolated, since it depends on the Europe Union and the US for more than one-quarter of its total trade.
The Biden administration has warned China against any effort to support Russia’s war effort, raising the threat of secondary sanctions. At the same time, China’s refusal to condemn the invasion of an aspiring EU member has prompted European leaders to rethink their relationship with Beijing.
The speech by Gao represents one of the most the prominent critiques of China’s Ukraine policy since the invasion, with news that reflects badly on Russia, including allegations of war crime and large troop and equipment losses, glossed over in heavily censored news coverage. Instead, state media is awash with reports and commentaries blaming Washington for stoking tensions.
Besides Gao’s comments, one of the country’s most prominent international relations scholars said this week that the war meant “nothing good” for China because it accelerated a shift from globalization.
“The war makes it almost impossible for Russia to have any global influence,” Yan Xuetong, dean of Tsinghua University’s Institute of International Relations, said in an interview Tuesday with Phoenix TV. The conflict brings “only losses and damages to China, but no benefits whatsoever,” Yan said.
Yan had previously published a commentary in Foreign Affairs in which he argued that Russia’s war had left China in a “strategic predicament” since its balancing strategy had brought economic costs.
Gao, the former ambassador to Ukraine, went further to say that Russia was “duplicitous” and had reneged on promises.
“It has never truly recognized the independence, sovereignty and territorial integrity of other former Soviet countries, and frequently violates their territories and sovereignty,” he said. “This is the greatest threat to peace, security and stability in the Eurasian region.”