America’s so-called New Right likes to argue that supporting Ukraine’s fight against Russian invaders isn’t in the U.S.’s interest. A large part of this argument is that the war in Ukraine is a dangerous distraction from our necessary showdown with China. South Dakota governor Kristi Noem, for example, was recently asked if opposing Russia in Ukraine was a vital American national strategic interest. She responded immediately, “The primary external threat to the United States [is] in Communist China,” and went on to explain that “we’re taking our eye off the ball” by looking at Ukraine. Missouri Sen. Josh Hawley, the most outspoken of the “eye off the ball” contingent, said in February, “The core problem is that our actions in Ukraine are directly affecting our ability to project force elsewhere. Specifically, to deter China in the Pacific.”
Perhaps they should consider that Chinese leader Xi Jinping doesn’t see things that way. He’s meeting with Vladimir Putin in Moscow next week because he understands that China’s confrontation with the U.S. is already underway—in Ukraine.
The anti-Ukraine right can lampoon talk of freedom and a rules-based international order all it likes. Its leaders can dismiss Harry S. Truman’s assertion that “it must be the policy of the United States to support free peoples who are resisting attempted subjugation by armed minorities or by outside pressures.” You don’t need noble ideals to understand what’s at stake in Ukraine. And what the Hawleys and Noems don’t understand is that Putin’s war was, from the start, a joint Russian-Chinese act of aggression aimed at the West.
On February 4, 2022, Putin met with Xi in Beijing and the two leaders issued a 5,000 word statement declaring that the partnership between their countries had “no limits.” While in China, Putin announced that Russian gas giant Gazprom had secured a 30-year supply deal with China. Around the same time, intelligence reports indicate, senior Chinese officials told their Russian counterparts not to invade Ukraine until the close of the Winter Olympics in Beijing. The Olympics ended on February 20. The next day Putin recognized Ukraine’s separatist regions Luhansk and Donetsk as independent states and sent ahead Russian “peacekeepers” to back up the claim. On February 24, Russia launched its full-scale war.
Behind a public fog of false neutrality, China has been assisting Russia ever since. At the Washington Post, Josh Rogin has a partial list of China’s efforts to help its “no-limit” ally defeat Ukraine: From promoting a pro-Russian narrative in Chinese state-run media to bolstering Russia’s energy industry to helping Putin evade Western sanctions. And China has been supplying Putin’s forces with (so far) non-lethal weapons.
Hawley says the idea that “if we stand up to one bully, all the others will just slink away” is “Hollywood” and “not reality.” But his characterization isn’t even worthy of an action-movie trailer. It’s not merely that a decisive U.S.-supported Ukrainian victory will deter China from making a grab for Taiwan (although that’s true). It’s that China’s aspirations are intimately tied to Russia’s fortunes on the battlefield. Gazprom, for example, isn’t set to start ratcheting up gas flow to China for a couple more years. That’s a potential $117 billion worth of gas that Beijing is not prepared to see vanish in a military defeat.
For now, China is doing all it can to keep sanctioned Russian energy markets afloat. Last year, it increased its purchase of Russian crude by 45 percent, Russian coal by 54 percent, and Russian gas by 155 percent.
Is Xi really considering supplying Russia with lethal weaponry? Of course he is. This is China’s fight. Xi isn’t going to Moscow to broker peace. He’s going to affirm his commitment to Putin and his war. That’s where his eye is. And whatever comes out of next week’s trip, you can bet it won’t be genuine progress toward a credible negotiation between Russia and Ukraine.
You want a Hollywood scenario? Try this: The U.S. just lets Russia, and by extension China, win a war of aggression against an American ally, and Xi will be left quaking in his boots. You want reality? Send in the F-16s.