Xi and Putin call on NATO to abandon expansion as Ukraine tensions grow

6 February 2022

The situation in Ukraine represents a massive and immediate threat to international peace and security. Peaceful resolution and de-escalation are required. Instead of flooding the region with weapons the root causes of the conflict need to be identified and addressed. Flexible and creative solutions are possible. See NATO Watch Briefing No.90.

Russian President Vladimir Putin and Chinese President Xi Jinping met at the Beijing Winter Olympics on 4 February in a show of solidarity. The meeting came amidst Russia’s rising tensions with the United States and NATO about a potential Russian invasion of Ukraine. The two leaders released a joint statement that expressed shared views on numerous geopolitical issues. While avoiding direct mention of the crisis in Ukraine, the statement expressed opposition to NATO granting membership to other countries: “The parties oppose the further expansion of NATO, call on the North Atlantic alliance to abandon the ideologised approaches of the cold war, respect the sovereignty, security and interests of other countries, the diversity of their civilisational and cultural-historical patterns, and treat the peaceful development of other states objectively and fairly”.

The discussions marked the two leaders’ first in-person meeting since 2019 and came as China and Russia increasingly align their foreign policies in opposition to the Western bloc and other major powers. China and Russia also pledged to step up cooperation to prevent “colour revolutions” and external interference. Reflecting Russian interests in Ukraine, China said it “understands and supports the proposals put forward by the Russian Federation on the formation of long-term legally binding security guarantees in Europe”, the document said.

The document also addresses Chinese concerns about US-led trade and security alliances in the Asia-Pacific. “The parties oppose the formation of closed bloc structures and opposing camps in the Asia Pacific region, and remain highly vigilant about the negative impact of the US Indo-Pacific strategy on peace and stability in this region”, the document read.

A full-grown alliance between Moscow and Beijing remains unlikely, but China and Russia are signalling that they want to push back US influence in their respective regions. The statement also devoted an entire section on the two sides’ shared understanding of “democracy” and claimed both countries “have long-standing traditions of democracy”. But they said that the advocacy of democracy and human rights “must not be used to put pressure on other countries”.

The crisis in Ukraine

Moscow’s deployment of about 115,000 troops near its border with Ukraine has prompted western nations to warn of an invasion and threaten “severe consequences” in response to any Russian attack. NATO said Russia made additional deployments to Ukraine's northern neighbour Belarus in recent days and was expected to have 30,000 troops there for joint military exercises until 20 February. Russia denies planning to invade Ukraine and has described the exercises with Belarus as a rehearsal in repelling external aggression. NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said: "This is the biggest Russian deployment there since the Cold War, with an expected 30,000 combat troops" as well as Spetsnaz special operations forces, SU-35 fighter jets, S-400 air defence systems and nuclear-capable Iskander missiles.

The United States said it would send nearly 3,000 extra troops to Poland and Romania to send a "strong signal" to Putin and the world that "NATO matters to the United States and it matters to our allies". The United States had already announced that it was putting 8,500 troops on heightened alert to be ready to deploy at short notice as part of a NATO Response Force (NRF). NATO has so far not taken the decision to activate the NRF, which would require the agreement of its 30 member states. NATO has no intention of deploying troops to Ukraine should Russia invade, but it has begun to reinforce the defences of nearby member countries — notably Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania and Poland – as well as in the Black Sea region near Bulgaria and Romania. The United States has also sent a senior cybersecurity official to NATO headquarters to prepare for potential Russian cyberattacks on Ukraine, Europe and the United States.

On 3 February, the United States accused Russia of an elaborate plot to fabricate an attack by Ukrainian forces that Russia could use as a pretext to take military action. No detailed information backing up the claims was provided, but the declassified intelligence was shared with Ukraine and European allies. Ukraine itself has played down the threat of invasion. Ukraine’s foreign minister, Dmytro Kuleba, on 2 February insisted that Russia does not currently have enough troops in place to mount a further invasion, a day after UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson travelled to Kyiv and said there was a “clear and present danger” of an imminent military campaign.

It is also notable that there are anti-war voices in Russia. In an open letter, a group of prominent Russian activists, academics, journalists and other public figures accused the Russian “Party of War” in the Kremlin of seeking a conflict in Ukraine. “We, the responsible citizens of Russia and patriots of our country, appeal to the political leadership in Russia and make an open and public challenge to the Party of War, that has formed within the authorities,” the appeal read. “We express the point of view of the part of Russian society that hates war and believes it a crime to even use the threat of war … in foreign policy rhetoric”. “Our position is extremely simple: Russia does not need a war with Ukraine and the West,” the letter said. More than 2,000 people have publicly signed the letter.

Rejection of Russian security demands

Leaked documents confirmed the US and NATO rejection of Russian security demands that included barring Ukraine from joining NATO and withdrawing allied forces and weapons systems from eastern Europe, while expressing a willingness to talk about arms control and confidence-building measures. Broad outlines of the written replies to Russian demands were already known, but the leaked documents revealed the difficulties in reaching a diplomatic resolution for tensions between the West and Russia. President Putin said on 1 February that the West had ignored Russia's main concerns and accused the United States of trying to lure it into war, but he said Russia was still interested in dialogue.

The leaders of both France and Germany have said they plan to travel to Moscow in the coming weeks to continue talks with Putin. The French president, Emmanuel Macron, is expected to visit Moscow on 7 February and then travel on to Kyiv on 8 February. Germany’s Olaf Scholz will travel to Kyiv on the 14 February and Moscow the next day.

Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan has offered to mediate between Russia and Ukraine in the crisis, but Ukraine and Turkey are expected to sign a framework agreement on manufacturing Turkish drones in Ukraine, a move that is certain to irritate Moscow. Ukraine has already deployed Turkish-made drones in the war with the Russian-backed separatists in Donbas. Given the reality that Ukraine will not join NATO anytime soon, Kyiv is developing a series of bilateral agreements with regional military powers, including Turkey, Poland and the UK.

On 31 January the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) held an emergency session to discuss the threat of a Russian invasion of Ukraine. The United States used the meeting to publicly criticize the Russian buildup of troops along the Ukrainian border. Russia called for a vote to block the session, however, the meeting proceeded after 10 security council members voted in favour of continuing, while three abstained and Russia and China opposed. The UNSC remained divided about how to de-escalate the crisis.