The Ukraine war began to visibly affect international relationships in the 52nd week of the conflict, as Washington declared Russian President Vladimir Putin a failure, Moscow revived nuclear threats and China assumed a more assertive posture towards the United States.
A year after Russian troops poured into Ukraine’s eastern Donbas region, a prelude to Russia’s full-blown invasion of Ukraine, US President Joe Biden made a surprise visit to Kyiv and declared that the Russian president had failed.
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“He thought autocrats like himself were tough and leaders of democracies were soft,” Biden said in a speech delivered later that day on Polish soil.
“And then, he met the iron will of America and the nations everywhere that refused to accept a world governed by fear and force.
Biden upheld Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy as a worthy adversary to Putin, who has refused to acknowledge Zelenskyy as an equal.
“[Putin] found himself at war with a nation led by a man whose courage would be forged in fire and steel: President Zelenskyy.”
Biden concluded, “Ukraine will never be a victory for Russia. Never.”
Biden’s visit to Kyiv, which is still part of a war zone, was fraught with risk, but loaded with symbolism. Biden and Zelenskyy were filmed and photographed walking in the centre of the city.
Putin spoke for two hours the following day to justify his invasion.
“A year ago, in order to protect people on our historical lands, to ensure the security of our country, to eliminate the threat that came from the neo-Nazi regime that developed in Ukraine after the 2014 coup, a decision was made to conduct a special military operation,” said Putin, referring to the Maidan Revolution that unseated Ukraine’s pro-Russia president, Viktor Yanukovich.
“We did everything possible, indeed everything possible, to solve this problem by peaceful means,” said Putin. He has held that Russia can never be secure with Ukraine as a NATO member on its border. NATO began Ukraine’s membership process in 2008.
Consistent with his past statements, Putin painted the West as neocolonial and aggressive.
“The concepts of honour, trust, decency are not for them. Over the long centuries of colonialism, diktat, hegemony, they got used to being allowed everything, got used to spitting on the whole world.”
A US-China proxy war?
More ominously, China is now thinking of supplying Russia with weapons, said US Secretary of State Antony Blinken.
“The concern that we have now is based on information we have that they’re considering providing lethal support, and we’ve made very clear to them that that would cause a serious problem for us and in our relationship,” Blinken told CBS.
Blinken clarified that he was referring to weapons and ammunition, but did not say what type of weapons.
“It is the US, not China, that has been pouring weapons into the battlefield,” shot back Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin the following day. “The US is in no position to tell China what to do.”
Biden had warned Chinese President Xi Jinping of “consequences” should Beijing offer Moscow “material support” on March 18 last year.
Xi has been navigating a careful line.
In June, he was critical of the US, calling on the world to “reject the Cold War mentality and bloc confrontation, oppose unilateral sanctions and abuse of sanctions, and reject the small circles built around hegemonism”, references to the economic sanctions the US has imposed on China and Russia.
But in September, Xi told Putin he had “questions and concerns” about the war, and spoke of the need to “inject stability” into world affairs.
He was even more reproachful of Putin the following month when he and Biden met on the sidelines of the G20 summit in Indonesia.
“The international community should … jointly oppose the use or threats to use nuclear weapons, advocate that nuclear weapons must not be used and nuclear wars must not be fought, in order to prevent a nuclear crisis in Eurasia,” Xi said.
Meanwhile, Russia cultivated fears of nuclear war.
As early as April, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov warned of the risk of a third world war.
“I would not want to elevate those risks artificially. Many would like that. The danger is serious, real. And we must not underestimate it,” he said on Russian state television.
Putin returned to the tactic of implying nuclear escalation during his February 21 speech.
“I am forced to announce today that Russia is suspending its participation in the strategic offensive arms treaty,” Putin said, referring to the New START treaty, which caps the number of strategic nuclear warheads the US and Russia can deploy.
He did not announce a full withdrawal from the treaty, which was renewed in 2021 for five years.
During his speech, Putin called on the state nuclear energy agency, Rosatom, to be ready to resume nuclear weapons testing.
Instead of reprimanding Putin this time, China rewarded him with a visit by top diplomat Wang Yi the following day, apparently a forerunner to a state visit by Xi.
“We await a visit of the President of the People’s Republic of China to Russia, we have agreed on this,” Putin told Wang. “Everything is progressing, developing. We are reaching new frontiers,” Putin said.
China’s decision to draw closer to Russia in its hour of need could realign global relationships fundamentally.
Russia has so far presented itself as being in a contest with the US, which has provided Ukraine with much of the weaponry that keeps it fighting.
Should China become Russia’s weapons provider, it could introduce a symmetry, in which the US and China were each sponsoring a champion in this war. That might be calculated to elevate China to the status of an alternative superpower to the US, but it would likely demote Russia.
There were further ominous international developments surrounding the Ukraine war.
The Kyiv Post and other media broke the news of a 17-page strategy document they say details “Russia’s plans to subjugate Belarus and dismantle its independence”.
According to the document, Belarus must have a full currency union with Russia by 2030. Its media should be under Moscow’s state control, and key military industries would have to move to Russia. The ultimate goal would be to declare a Union State comprising Russia and Belarus – something akin to the USSR.