A state visit to Moscow in late March signaled Chinese President Xi Jinping’s enduring commitment to the close relationship he’s developed with his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin. Early last year, three weeks before Russia invaded Ukraine, Xi and Putin met in Beijing, announcing that their countries’ partnership was now at a level with “no limits” and “no forbidden zones.”

Since the invasion, the alliance has appeared unshaken—despite Moscow’s military failures, its isolation by the West, and the damage the war has brought to the Russian economy from international sanctions and the loss of major export markets for natural gas. The remarkable resilience of the partnership is significant, potentially not least as the foundation of a bloc opposing the West in a new Cold War between democracies and autocracies. Still, China continues to refuse Russia any military assistance against Ukraine, and just last week Beijing’s ambassador to the EU insisted that China wasn’t on Putin’s side in the war at all—and that the phrase “no limits” was just rhetorical. So what’s the status of the relationship, exactly?

Eyck Freymann is the author of One Belt One Road: Chinese Power Meets the World. To Freymann, the close connection between Xi and Putin, and the close alignment between Beijing and Moscow in the years and months leading up to the war, have taken very complicated turns now. Russia is overextended and isolated, needing all the support it can get from its most powerful ally in the world. And China is anxious, needing for its own sake to ensure Putin remains in power while managing increasingly fraught relations around the world—which Russia’s blunder in Ukraine continues to make only more difficult. Meanwhile, neither Beijing nor Ukraine’s allies in the capitals of the West want China to get directly involved in the war—but depending on what happens on the battlefield, none of them may be able to prevent it.

Sean Nangle: How’s the relationship between China and Russia changed since the invasion of Ukraine?

Eyck Freymann: This now-infamous meeting prior to the invasion, where Xi Jinping and Vladimir Putin agreed on their countries’ “no limits” friendship, was a pivotal moment.

Before that, relations between China and Russia had been improving since the mid-1980s—and that had accelerated since 2013, mainly thanks to the unusually close personal relationship between Xi and Putin. The two have met more than 30 times. They know one another better than any other world leaders of similarly sized countries do.

This article is for members only

Join to read on and have access to The Signal‘s full library.

Join now Already have an account? Sign in