The Harvard Kennedy School’s Ash Center for Democratic Governance and Innovation held a virtual discussion Thursday on China’s response to Russia's invasion of Ukraine.
Alexandra Vacroux — director of the Davis Center for Russian and Eurasian Studies, which co-sponsored the event — and Anthony Saich, director of the Ash Center, held the discussion as a part of a weeklong series on the war. Other events in the series explored the overall international response and human rights repression within Russia.
According to Saich, Russia’s economy has become increasingly dependent on China. He pointed to a joint statement issued by Russian President Vladimir Putin and Chinese President Xi Jinping in February as evidence of China’s influence, saying the statement was “basically a manifesto for what China wants.”
“That does create an interesting situation of how much China is willing to accommodate supporting Russia moving forward,” Saich said.
Saich also said that so far, the official Chinese position has been soft on Putin over his invasion of Ukraine, lamenting the violence but portraying it as a response to the actions of Western countries, such as the eastward expansion of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.
He added China has advocated for a negotiated settlement between Russia and Ukraine and chose to abstain in a United Nations Security Council vote on the issue.
“It makes comments about the terrible losses. It doesn’t want to see civilians hurt. It does respect Ukraine's territorial integrity,” he said. “But it persistently continues with the view that this is the fault of the West.”
Saich said that China could play a role in de-escalating the conflict, noting the country previously stepped in to help moderate the issue of North Korean nuclearization. He added that China and Ukraine had a “fairly good relationship” prior to the invasion.
“Ukraine has been a major supplier of wheat to China,” Saich said. “China is one of its major trading partners. In fact, in January, Xi Jinping sent [Ukrainian President] Zelensky a congratulatory message lauding their 30 years of diplomatic relations.”
Saich added he believes China would have preferred if Russia only invaded the eastern regions of Ukraine with the goal of pressuring the country out of joining NATO and the European Union. China was also not happy with Russian threats of nuclear attacks, he said.
Vacroux said in an interview after the event that Russia’s history of remaining isolated from the global economy could increase the impact of sanctions imposed on the country.
“It means that sanctions have more power because their economy is less diversified,” Vacroux said. “And so they don't have as many alternative sources of getting income or exports.”
She said the closure of European and American airspaces to Russian planes and a boycott by several large cargo companies have greatly limited the country’s ability to export goods.
She added that Russian oligarchs are unable to force Putin to stop the invasion.
“They might have the interest,” Vacrous said. “It's hard to tell because most of them are not saying anything, but they do not really have power independently of Putin.”
Correction: March 4, 2022
A previous version of this story incorrectly stated a March 3 panel on China’s response to Russia's invasion of Ukraine was hosted by the Davis Center for Russian and Eurasian Studies. In fact, it was hosted by the Harvard Kennedy School’s Ash Center for Democratic Governance and Innovation and co-sponsored by the Davis Center.
—Staff writer Alexander I. Fung can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.