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Could Xi pull Putin back from the nuclear brink? 


AS Nato and Russia wade ever more inextricably into the quagmire they have made for themselves over Ukraine, is there a third party who might become a peacemaker? Because of Russia’s veto which keeps the UN out, the best candidate would be China. 

Now that Vladimir Putin has brandished his nuclear card – he has an arsenal of 10,000 weapons – the situation, located in Europe but directed by the United States, is gathering speed to the brink of what should be inconceivable. 

How likely is to Putin to start a nuclear war? Don’t ask Joe Biden or Boris Johnson. These are the men who were surprised when he actually launched a ground attack in Ukraine that for three months had been very visibly in the making. No one can guarantee that the generals who concurred with risk in Ukraine will stop him. 

It seems surreal that someone should threaten the potential destruction of a continent and almost certainly his own with it. But nothing that Putin says or does should be ruled out at this stage. The very fact that the West claims Ukrainian forces are holding the Russians at bay makes Putin even more dangerous. He is not a man who contemplates losing. 

Western publics who were never prepared by their leaders for an all-out East-West war must now comprehend the full weight of the possible consequences of this avoidable showdown between two sets of immoveable powers. 

The era of nuclear deterrence, which everyone has taken for granted at least since the Cuban missile crisis 60 years ago, is at stake. All of Europe may become Ukraine before we know it. Even a week ago, that was unthinkable; not any more. 

The nub of this crisis is not complicated. Putin wants Nato off his doorstep, where it has been camped for most of the 21st century, intending to add Ukraine to its membership. Nato won’t even consider talking about it. 

The Russian invasion of Ukraine has not changed the non-negotiable position of either side. Unless it does, apocalypse looms. 

This is where China, America’s peer superpower, may see the offer of mediation as a way of defusing the crisis in ways that would enhance its own position by acting as an honest broker and transform its international image. 

President Xi would be the saviour of Europe – for if Putin does drop a bomb, it will not be on the US – and cement a closer relationship with Russia, which will need alternative markets for its oil and gas exports if the Europeans decide to reduce their reliance on Moscow for energy.  

China’s aim would be to bring both sides to the table in search of a compromise that would be difficult to achieve, but not be impossible if the alternative were nuclear war. The unwillingness to compromise so far is understandable. Russia fears Nato. The former Soviet satellites on Russia’s border who are now Nato members equally fear Russia. Fear is a great catalyst of war. 

The US would not like the idea of having China as the guarantor of European peace, but since Nato and Russia cannot find a solution between them, it could be the best option. It would put the US in China’s debt, weakening its ability to intervene in east Asia, but there may be no other way. 

For Nato to pull back its forward forces, Russia would be obliged to offer non-aggression guarantees to the Baltic states and Poland – the countries that feel most vulnerable to empire-building by Moscow. 

Xi has avoided openly siding with Putin because he is planning an aggression of his own against Taiwan. He has no interest in seeing Russia brought low, leaving space for the US to concentrate on China and its own contested ambitions. 

So far, the Chinese have emphasised the need for a peaceful settlement in central Europe that satisfies both East and West,  which would include the restitution of Ukrainian sovereignty. This doesn’t commit them to intervening, but leaves the door open to playing the white knight. 

As an aside, Putin’s nuclear threat underlines the lunacy of the Biden administration’s abetting of Iran’s nuclear weapons programme. If you can’t be sure of Putin, you absolutely can’t trust the terrorist mullahs not to pursue their influence over the Middle East, and perhaps Europe, with nuclear blackmail. 

Every sinew of international geopolitical diplomacy must be devoted to ensuring the continued integrity of nuclear deterrence as a universal principle which lasted throughout the Cold War and, once broken, could not be restored. 

Nato has a policy of no first strike and it’s impossible to know at this stage how the US would respond if Putin used nuclear weapons, or indeed what form a Russian an attack would take. 

It’s unlikely that he would hit a target in the US, which has the capacity to turn every Russian city into ash. It’s also unlikely that he would go for France or Britain, which are also nuclear powers. 

The best we could hope for if he sends a missile the West’s way is that he would hit an unpopulated area in a non-nuclear country, or even open sea, as a warning of worse to come. 

It’s in no one’s interest that things get so far out of hand that the Russians are pushed into a decisive escalation and it’s up to Nato to ensure that doesn’t happen. 

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Donald Forbes
Donald Forbes
Donald Forbes is a retired Anglo-Scottish journalist now living in France who during a 40-year career worked in eastern Europe before and after communism.

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