There has been endless argument and analysis about who exactly is to blame for letting the situation with Russia get so out of hand that the country would invade Ukraine.
There has also been endless discussion about where all of this is headed. For example, will the international coalition led by NATO actually convince Russian President Vladimir Putin to withdraw from Ukraine in humiliation, or will it push him to double down, using even more force? Furthermore, will the Russian people rise up in protest either against the war itself or to their very real economic situation, as interest rates soar, the stock market crashes, and people form lines at ATMs?
But missing in much of the discussion is the fact that a single country could shape the future of the war in Ukraine. That country is China.
During the last five years, China and Russia have become closer, especially economically. China signed huge deals with Russia for energy and food in recent months. The pair has also been meeting more often in person, often speaking in code about how they can work together to counter the United States and Europe’s global influence.
Indeed, China’s decades long Belt and Road Initiative, which would bring back the old Silk Road trading route, is deeply reliant on Russia and former Soviet nations.
Today, as Russia is increasingly cut off from the rest of the world, China is the one place Russia can go for assistance.
But the Chinese response, so far, as been complicated.
Officially, China is opposed to the invasion on Ukraine, since Ukraine is a sovereign nation. China has voted that way at the United Nations. That said, China is also parroting the official Russian position on the war over state-owned media to Chinese citizens.
In fairness, China has largely taken a back seat on foreign affairs it is not directly involved in. China wasn’t a major player during the war on terror. Chinese officials do not get engaged on Israel, and even though China is a major investor in Africa, it is not at all using that influence to stem humanitarian crises, like the genocide in Ethiopia’s Tigray region.
Even closer to home, China is in a position to play the dominant role in North Korea’s nuclear antics, but clearly didn’t prevent its next door neighbor from getting a nuclear weapon.
Given China’s recent approach to foreign relations, it would be unusual for Beijing to weigh in on the situation in Ukraine. Yet these are unusual times where even Switzerland, which has an official government policy of neutrality, is choosing to isolate Russia following the invasion.
The fact remains that Russia had an economy the size of Italy before the invasion. If Russia has any grand ambitions — or if it wants to finance this war should it go on longer — it has only one place to turn: China.
If at that moment China decides not to aid Russia, then the situation in Ukraine could be dramatically different. Though the opportunity to have even more leverage over a resource rich land like Russia might be too good for China to turn down.
After Western nations rally behind each other in in the first week of the war, the pressure could entirely turn to China to do something. Chinese President Xi Jinping might be the only person that Putin will listen to anyway.
James Pindell can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @jamespindell and on Instagram @jameswpindell.