(Bloomberg) -- As the U.S. and Europe mount increasingly frantic efforts to deter Russia from any invasion of Ukraine, it’s Chinese President Xi Jinping who may have the biggest influence on Vladimir Putin’s timetable.
The Russian president has said he will join Xi at the opening ceremony Feb. 4 of the Beijing Winter Olympics, where the Chinese leader has lavished billions of dollars to showcase his nation’s superpower status to the world.
The last thing Xi needs is for Putin to overshadow China’s big moment by triggering a global security crisis with the U.S. and Europe. That’s especially the case given Xi is looking to bolster his prestige at home as he seeks endorsement for an unprecedented third term later this year.
The nations have often had each other’s backs on the global stage. They’ve worked in concert to block United Nations Security Council resolutions critical of either, and aligned on collective issues like North Korea. They reveled in the messy U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan. And they’ve largely stayed neutral on actions declared to be in the other’s national interest — such as Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014.
Xi called Putin an “old friend” when they chatted in mid December, while the Russian leader hailed what he said was a “responsible joint approach to solving urgent global issues.”
But kicking off an invasion of Ukraine in the middle of Xi’s Olympic moment would throw a wrench into such warmth, and risk drawing China into the diplomatic fray. It’s possible Xi asked Putin in their recent call not to invade Ukraine during the Games, according to one diplomat in Beijing who asked not to be identified talking about such scenarios. Putin has repeatedly denied he currently intends to attack Ukraine.
China’s Foreign Ministry underscored the importance Beijing attaches to the issue at a Jan. 14 news briefing. All countries should observe a traditional UN Olympic Truce resolution “from seven days before the start of the Olympic Games until seven days after the end of the Paralympic Games,” a spokesman said.
That’s a window spanning from Jan. 28 to March 20, when eastern Ukraine’s frozen winter landscape begins to turn to cloying mud in spring thaws that military analysts in Moscow and the West believe would hinder a rapid Russian incursion. The China-sponsored UN resolution was adopted by consensus last month, with Russia’s representative urging all nations to observe the truce.
“Putin needs to take into account the interests of ideological partners and behave as carefully as possible,” said Andrei Kolesnikov, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Moscow Center. “If Putin invades, he will create a very negative backdrop for the Olympic Games.”
Russia is likely to wait at least until next week, when it says it will get written responses from the U.S. to its security demands. After meeting on Friday in Geneva with Secretary of State Antony Blinken, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov dismissed Western “hysteria” over Ukraine and repeated that Russia has no plans to invade its neighbor, even as it’s massed some 100,000 troops near the border.
Read more: U.S. and Russia Hold Their Ground as Ukraine Standoff Drags On
While Russia’s less likely to launch a full-scale invasion immediately, it may opt for a more limited incursion into Ukraine around mid-February, two people familiar with recent Western assessments said. Other actions including cyber attacks and attempts to destabilize Ukraine could take place in parallel or precede an intervention. That assessment doesn’t mean a larger invasion is out of the question, as Western allies have repeatedly said they don’t know Putin’s intentions.
Russian forces continue to arrive in Belarus for joint military drills from Feb. 10-20, amid U.S. and NATO alarm that they could be used to attack Ukraine from the north. The closing ceremony at the Winter Olympics is on Feb. 20.
Why Russia-Ukraine Tensions Are So Hard to Defuse: QuickTake
Putin and China have been here before. Russia’s 2008 war with Georgia erupted on the day of the opening ceremony of the Beijing Summer Olympics, to the chagrin of Chinese leaders, prompting Putin to fly home to direct military operations.
Days after Putin hosted the closing ceremony of the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, on which he’d spent a record $50 billion to stage the Games, Russian forces began their operation to annex Crimea from Ukraine.
Beijing Olympics Put Spotlight on Richer, More Confident China
Putin plans to brief Xi on Russia’s demand for security guarantees from the U.S. and its North Atlantic Treaty Organization allies when the two meet in Beijing, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters Tuesday. While there’s been “no coordination” between them on the issue, “naturally, President Putin will inform Xi about what is going on,” he said.
Asked at a briefing this week about the possibility of a Russian invasion, Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian said Beijing advocates “balanced and just treatment of security concerns” while calling on all sides to “resolve differences through dialogue and consultation.”
Russia has little incentive to antagonize China, its largest trading partner with total trade of $112 billion in 2020 and a giant consumer of Russian energy and minerals. China was the single biggest importer of Russian coal, buying more than 29 million tons in 2020 or 15% of total exports, according to the RBC news site.
Amid the diplomatic efforts to defuse the current crisis, U.S. President Joe Biden has issued increasingly urgent warnings about the risk of a Russian assault on Ukraine. The U.S. and Europe have threatened “severe” sanctions in response if that happens, measures that may cause Putin to draw even closer to China to mitigate the impact on Russia’s economy.
Read more: Ukraine’s Army Is Underfunded, Outgunned and Not Ready to Stop a Russian Invasion
Still, some say if Putin does plan to act, he will do so at the best time for Russia, despite the potential fallout.
“Putin can’t sacrifice Russia’s strategic interests and security to make a neighbor feel good, even if he is highly respected and strategically important,” said Tatiana Stanovaya, a political consultant and founder of R.Politik. If the Russian leader believes security talks with the U.S. are achieving nothing “then he will go into Ukraine, regardless of any request from China.”
©2022 Bloomberg L.P.