It’s no secret that Putin’s war with Ukraine is going very badly for China. The alliance between Moscow and Beijing has always been an uneasy one at best. Now Xi Jinping is likely having some buyer’s remorse. He may be regretting ever backing Putin’s invasion. What might have seemed like a good idea at the time – let Russia flex muscles against a weak West, and while Russia distracts the world, start building up forces to attack Taiwan – has turned out to be a catastrophically bad decision for China. 

Russia has been waging an inept war. Russian forces have been performing terribly, supply lines have been mangled, they don’t have warm meals, their communications have been intercepted -- this invasion will be studied in war colleges for years to come. Even worse, in an effort to show its might, Russia has been committing war crimes, while the whole world watches. As plucky Ukraine fights back, Russia bombs maternity hospitals and mines humanitarian corridors.

As Russia’s ally, China is being tarred by the same brush. While the war gets uglier, China is facing blowback from the rest of the world as the country refuses to repudiate Moscow. The longer the war goes on, the more China is going to suffer for their loyalty. You can almost hear the leadership in Beijing asking, “What has Putin ever done for us?”

The West has mobilized against Russia. This might have been Putin and Xi’s biggest miscalculation. Both leaders must have expected that Europe and the U.S. would find high gas prices too much to stomach.  They must have thought that western leaders would make angry noises but look the other way, as the West did when Russia invaded Crimea. Instead, citizens rallied. Yes, soaring gas prices will have political fallout for Biden and his European counterparts. But for right now, the world is showing a great deal of fortitude in pushing back against Putin.

Western sanctions are working. The global banking system has cut off most Russian banks from the SWIFT network. As part of those sanctions, the West has accelerated pressure on China, warning it not to provide clearing services to Russia. So far China hasn’t been willing to breach these financial sanctions. That may change, and it could still change if China sees that a continued alliance with a weak and isolated Russia is to its benefit.

To be sure, it hasn’t been all dire for China. They’ve been buying up Russian oil at bargain-basement prices, which is a smart move. And the disruptions in the supply chain of Russian exports such as semiconductors and Ukrainian exports, such as sunflower oil (critical to Big Pharma) can be a net benefit to China’s own industries.

However, if and when Putin doubles down on his war, China is going to suffer even more. If China thought it could benefit from the invasion by turning on Taiwan, calculating that the U.S. and its allies wouldn’t be able to focus on two fronts, it’s lost that momentum. And in fact, since Chinese military might and weaponry is on par with that of Russia’s, it’s gotten an object lesson of how its weapons will fare in a war against the West.

What complicates matters even more is China’s existing strong relationship with Ukraine. Just three months ago China made a defense commitment to Ukraine. Its best military tech comes from Ukraine, not Russia. Now China’s abandonment of Ukraine has likely ended that pipeline for years to come. That cheap gas might have come at a high price after all.

It’s not likely that Western calls for Beijing to repudiate Moscow are going to have any effect. Whatever Xi does, it will have to benefit China or Xi himself. Reports out of China indicate that the hierarchy of the Communist Party leadership just beneath Xi is profoundly dissatisfied with his leadership. There are even rumors of Xi family corruption. All of these rumors indicate that a fall from grace could be imminent. On the other hand, if Xi can uncouple China from Russia or even better, find a way to convince Putin to pull back without damaging his ego, it could redeem China in the eyes of the world and shore up his precarious presidency. 

Xi may feel that he’s between a rock and hard place, but he really isn’t. All he has to do is think of China’s best interests. Does it make sense to back a warmongering ally who is committing war crimes and who is being isolated by the rest of the world? Or can Xi weigh China's position as an economic powerhouse outweigh old ideologies and stale alliances?

Only time will tell – and time may be running out.

(David Jacobson, J.D., is the executive/academic director of working professional education teaching global business strategy to MBAs and online MBAs in the Cox School of Business at SMU.)

Isolated, bleeding money and with its currency in freefall, Russia has grasped for the friendship of giant southwestern ally -- China Isolated, bleeding money and with its currency in freefall, Russia has grasped for the friendship of giant southwestern ally -- China Photo: SPUTNIK via AFP / Alexei Druzhinin