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Opinion Here’s the real lesson from the showy Xi-Putin meeting

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Pentagon strategists have always divided the world into East and West, with U.S. regional forces under European Command or Indo-Pacific Command. But looking at the embrace of Presidents Xi Jinping and Vladimir Putin this week, you wonder whether we may need a single “Eurasian Command” to handle an integrated threat.

A strong China is bolstering a weak Russia. That’s the real headline that describes the showy meetings in Moscow this week between the two countries’ leaders. The Chinese aren’t providing weapons (yet), but Xi certainly offered moral and psychological support in what might be described as a get-well visit to an ailing relative. White House spokesman John Kirby on Tuesday rightly called Putin a “junior partner.”

The paradox of the Ukraine war is that Putin’s bid for greater power in Europe has made him weaker. This diminished Russia will fall increasingly under China’s sway — unless there’s an unlikely turn post-Ukraine and a Western-leaning leader replaces Putin. Maybe that’s the biggest reason for Xi’s fraternal visit: He is bolstering a flank against America and the West.

China’s dominance over a weaker Russia will take many forms in the coming years. Russia has lost its energy markets in Europe because of its reckless invasion, so it will depend ever more on demand from China and other Asian customers. China’s economic sway grows every year in central Asia and in Russia’s own far east. Its hard power in space, cyber, robotics and artificial intelligence will increasingly dwarf Russia’s.

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Xi’s rescue strategy for Russia seems to center on a peace plan that would stanch the bleeding in Ukraine. From what we know, Xi proposes a cease-fire agreement that would freeze Russia’s gains from last year’s illegal invasion. That version won’t fly with Ukraine or the United States. We won’t know for a few days whether Xi will talk with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky in a way that opens a real process of negotiation. That seems unlikely. But so did the Iran-Saudi deal that Xi brokered this month.

By playing the peacemaker, Xi can position himself better to take other, harsher rescue measures if Ukraine rejects a cease-fire. He could offer ammunition for Russia, arguing he’s only leveling the playing field. He could try to mobilize nations of the Global South, such as India, South Africa and Brazil, to pressure Ukraine to end the fighting. Xi wants to keep the high ground, invoking the sanctity of the United Nations charter even as he affirms his support for the Russian leader who shattered that charter’s norms. It’s a shameless approach, but smart diplomacy.

Xi’s emerging role as the leader of a Eurasian bloc presents dilemmas for U.S. strategists. For a generation, separating China from Russia was a central goal of U.S. foreign policy. Driving that wedge was a major reason for the historic visit to China in 1972 by President Richard M. Nixon and national security adviser Henry Kissinger. The Biden administration initially hoped it could try that strategy in reverse — warming relations with Moscow in the June 2021 summit in Geneva in part to concentrate on the Chinese challenge. That didn’t work out as the White House hoped, to put it mildly.

Now it’s Xi who is the triangulator. He is playing off the bitter split between the United States and Russia, helping Putin, but also keeping a bit of distance, too. Xi similarly used China’s close relations with Iran to make the diplomatic breakthrough between Riyadh and Tehran that the United States could never achieve.

Though Putin was beaming in Xi’s reflected glow this week, the visit was a reminder of just how isolated the Russian leader is. President Biden hosts a prominent foreign leader at the White House every other week. When was the last time you saw a major foreign leader visit the Kremlin? (The president of Belarus doesn’t count.) Xi’s get-well visit will give his “dear friend” Putin a psychological boost and help his domestic popularity. But other than China and a few outliers, Russian stands alone.

If you were looking for another reason why it’s important that Ukraine succeeds against Russia, consider the photos from Moscow. “The President of Eurasia” — I fear that’s the invisible caption of the pictures of Xi that we’re seeing amid the Kremlin’s golden doors and red carpets. The idea that a vast swath of the world is dominated by a China that stands so resolutely against freedom and democracy is chilling. If this alliance succeeds, we will live in a darker world.

The bottom line: The International Criminal Court indicted Putin last week for war crimes. Xi is his only powerful friend. Dealing with them separately is bad enough. If they truly become partners in Eurasia, sharing dominion under a Chinese banner, that would be worse.