Beijing denies that Xi asked Putin to delay Ukraine invasion

Foreign Affairs

A Bloomberg report suggested that Chinese leader Xi Jinping might have asked his Russian counterpart not to spoil the Olympics with a military offensive in Ukraine. China called the report “a hoax and provocation.”

China Russia Olympics military
Illustration for SupChina by Derek Zheng

Beijing forcefully denied today that Chinese leader Xí Jìnpíng 习近平 has tried to influence Russian President Vladimir Putin over his military plans regarding Ukraine.

According to a Bloomberg report two days ago:

  • “It’s possible Xi asked Putin in their recent call not to invade Ukraine during the [Beijing Winter Olympic] Games, according to one diplomat in Beijing who asked not to be identified talking about such scenarios.”
  • While the report was hardly conclusive, it correctly pointed out that of any world leader, Xi is the one “who may have the biggest influence on Vladimir Putin’s timetable.”

Beijing issued multiple denials today:

  • Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Zhào Lìjiān 赵立坚 said (in English, Chinese) that the Bloomberg report was “purely made out of thin air,” and that it “seeks not only to smear and drive a wedge in China-Russia relations, but also to deliberately disrupt and undermine the Beijing Winter Olympics.”
  • The Chinese embassy in Russia also told state news agency TASS that the Bloomberg report was “a hoax and provocation.”

What’s going on?

“We will likely never know if Xi delivered a quasi-ultimatum to Putin about an invasion’s timing,” said Joe Webster, author of the China-Russia Report newsletter and SupChina’s weekly update on China-Russia relations.

  • “Nevertheless, the diplomat’s conjecture is highly plausible: it’s possible, perhaps even likely, that Xi asked Putin to delay escalation until after the Olympics,” Webster added.

Why the strong denial? Webster explained that China “would hope to conceal any request or demand due to Putin’s legitimation model, as well as China’s sensitivity in Russian domestic politics at both the elite and popular levels.”

  • In other words, the existence of any request or demand from a foreign power as important as China could be seen as constraining Russia’s ability to act independently, which “would therefore trouble much of the Russian security elite, as well as nationalist elements in the populace.”