McFAUL: “Deliverables” vs nice words – reflections on the Xi-Putin summit

McFAUL: “Deliverables” vs nice words – reflections on the Xi-Putin summit
All in all, score the summit as a small win for Putin, a much bigger win for Xi. / bne IntelliNews
By Michael McFaul in Stanford March 26, 2023

When I worked at the White House, I helped organise two presidential summits between President Obama and President Medvedev, one in Moscow in the summer of 2009 and one in Washington in the summer of 2010. Members of our team approached these meetings with different philosophies. I believed that we had to use these meetings to achieve concrete “deliverables” (this is State Department jargon) – concrete outcomes that advanced security, economic interests and values of the American people. Back then, for instance, I wanted to make progress on (1) negotiating the New START Treaty, (2) expanding the Northern Distribution Network so we could more securely supply our soldiers in Afghanistan, (3) expanding sanctions on Iran, and (4) pressing Russia to make domestic reforms to qualify for membership in the World Trade Organization.

Others were more interested in abstract goals like “improving relations.” For them, the mood music, the words and the optics were more important than the tangible outcomes. I disagreed. Even when preparing talking points for Obama’s press conferences with Medvedev, I crossed out words like “friend” and “partner.” I have always believed that presidents and prime ministers rarely do things out of “friendship” with their counterparts, even with their closest allies. They do things in the interest of advancing their national agendas (as defined by them). And if two countries negotiate win-win deliverables, then these concrete achievements change the mood music in a positive direction. But not the other way around.

Of course, after a few years of achieving concrete outcomes benefiting American (and I assume Russian) interests, Putin returned to the Kremlin in 2012 and US-Russia relations fell apart. It takes two to tango. Putin was not interested in win-win outcomes with us. For him, it was a zero-sum game: if the US benefited, Russia lost, and vice versa. But that’s a story for another day. (For those who want to learn more detail, read my book, From Cold War to Hot Peace: An American Ambassador in Putin’s Russia.

As I watched the historic Xi-Putin summit this week, I couldn’t help but think about my obsession with deliverables. In an elaborate signing ceremony, which we also used to do, Xi and Putin did sign two agreements, namely the Joint Statement on the Plan for the Economic Cooperation until 2030 and the Joint Declaration on Deepening the Relations of Comprehensive Partnership and Strategic Cooperation Entering a New Era. Those documents do not contain serious deliverables but rather pledges to make more progress on deals already underway or other lofty goals somewhere in the undefined future. In fact, this summit was very short on tangible outcomes but huge on symbolism of this allegedly “no-limit” friendship. All in all, score it as a small win for Putin, a much bigger win for Xi, and neither a win nor a loss for the US, our allies and Ukraine. Things could have turned out much worse for us.

Putin’s biggest (and maybe only) deliverable from this summit was the photo-op. He went all out! He had bands playing at the airport, soldiers standing in sharp attention, giant delegations on both sides, enormous flags, long carpets – all at the backdrop of the grandeur of the Kremlin, which makes everything seem big, historic and important. Having Xi, the second most powerful leader in the world, show up in Moscow just a few days after the International Criminal Court (ICC) issued Putin an arrest warrant for abducting Ukrainian children was an achievement for Putin. 

However, beyond the photo-op and Xi’s words of general praise for the success of their bilateral co-operation, Putin got very little out of the meeting. Did Xi recognise Russia’s invasion, occupation and annexation of Ukraine as legitimate? No. Did Xi publicly pledge a new military assistance package to Russia? No (although more co-operation and joint military exercises have been announced). Did Xi agree to start increasing exports of high-tech components to Russian companies and the military-industrial complex suffering under sanctions? No. Did Xi promise any economic or humanitarian assistance to Russia in war? No. Instead, he reaffirmed his commitment to buy Russian energy for prices well below global market prices. Some “friend.”

Xi certainly got more out of this summit than Putin. The Chinese leader got Putin to reaffirm support for all his plans, like Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), Global Development Initiative, Global Security Initiative and the “building a community with a shared future for mankind”. Xi got Putin to urge against politicising virus tracing and to publicly repeat that Taiwan is an integral part of the People’s Republic of China (Xi did not offer the same sentiment in return regarding Crimea and the four Ukrainian territories that Putin claims to have annexed back in September). Xi also convinced Putin to agree to use yuan in trade of oil and gas with their Asian, African and Latin American partners (something that Putin was against just a year ago). Russia’s attempt to reduce its reliance on US dollars has the potential to aid Xi in turning the yuan – not the ruble – into an international reserve currency

Most importantly, however, Xi got a chance to look like a mediator for peace regarding the war in Ukraine. The key audience for his messaging was not the people in Ukraine, Europe or the United States. American diplomats’ spokespeople quickly dismissed the Chinese 12-point peace plan and Xi’s peace mission as merely window-dressing for Russia’s barbaric invasion. (Zelenskiy, interestingly, was not as dismissive.) Xi’s target audiences were leaders and societies in Africa, Asia, Latin America and the Middle East. In these parts of the world, Xi is seeking to expand Chinese influence in part through more assertive diplomacy, as we saw last week when China brokered the resumption of diplomatic relations between Saudi Arabia and Iran. (You can read my take, with my Stanford colleague, Abbas Milani, here: “How China’s Saudi-Iran Deal Can Serve U.S. Interests.”) His trip to Moscow helped him bolster his image in the Global South as a mediator, a peacemaker and an influential leader capable of diplomatic achievements that Biden cannot realise. 

Xi was following his “have your cake and eat it too” strategy on Russia’s 2022 full-scale invasion of Ukraine. He embraced his friend Putin but did not endorse his war. He rhetorically expressed solidarity with Putin in their common struggle against “American hegemony,” but gave Putin next to nothing concrete. Maybe he signed a secret deal with Putin to supply Russia with new weapons. Time will tell. But it appears that Xi decided not to do so, fearing a bigger break with the United States and Europe.

As I mentioned above, Xi also got new commitments from Putin to supply China with gas and oil at discounted rates. Once the “Strength of Siberia” pipelines are completed, Russia will become even more dependent on China’s imports of Russian oil and gas – and with that, their so-called “equal” relations will become even more unequal. Lenin and other Soviet theorists used to label these kinds of transactions – cheap raw materials moving from the “Third World” (their phrase not mine) to developed countries – as imperialism, the highest stage of capitalism. And some have speculated that Xi cynically wants to see Russia continue to fight in Ukraine and thereby bleed the United States of its military stockpiles. Overall, Xi traded nice words for tangible achievements and did so without radically alienating Ukraine, Europe or even the US.

Therefore the summit was not a bad outcome for Ukraine, Europe and the US. Or more precisely, it could have been a lot worse. Xi’s reluctance to provide Russia with major military assistance so far is a tangible win for American diplomacy. Xi’s unwillingness to endorse Putin’s war is also an achievement for European and Western diplomacy. And although Xi’s peace plan is filled mostly with platitudes, point one is a good one:

“Respecting the sovereignty of all countries. Universally recognised international law, including the purposes and principles of the United Nations charter, must be strictly observed. The sovereignty, independence and territorial integrity of all countries must be effectively upheld.”

I doubt he will or can, but if Xi succeeds in getting Putin to commit to this first point in his plan, this will be a win for Ukraine.

Michael McFaul is a professor at Stamford, advisor to the Ukrainian government and the former US ambassador to Russia.

This comment first appeared in his substack here. Subscribe to his substack here.