Xi Jinping warned Vladimir Putin against nuclear attack in Ukraine

Receive free War in Ukraine updates We’ll send you a myFT Daily Digest email rounding up the latest War in Ukraine news every morning. Xi Jinping personally warned Vladimir Putin against using nuclear weapons in Ukraine, indicating Beijing harbours concerns about Russia’s war even as it offers tacit backing to […]

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Xi Jinping personally warned Vladimir Putin against using nuclear weapons in Ukraine, indicating Beijing harbours concerns about Russia’s war even as it offers tacit backing to Moscow, according to western and Chinese officials.

The face-to-face message was delivered during the Chinese president’s state visit to Moscow in March, the people added, one of Xi’s first trips outside China after years of isolation under his zero-Covid policy.

Since then, Chinese officials have privately taken credit for convincing the Russian president to back down from his veiled threats of using a nuclear weapon against Ukraine, the people said.

Deterring Putin from using such a weapon has been central to China’s campaign to repair damaged ties with Europe, said a senior adviser to the Chinese government. Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine in 2022 has placed Moscow and its ally Beijing at odds with much of the continent.

China has consistently opposed the use of nuclear weapons in Ukraine in its public statements. But many of Kyiv’s backers have doubted Beijing’s commitment to such deterrence, given Xi’s “no limits” partnership with Putin and a “peace plan” that heavily overlaps with Russian talking points.

Xi’s warning, however, has given them hope that China is backing up its public rhetoric behind closed doors — and potentially threatening consequences for their relationship that would be sufficient to stop Putin from using a nuclear weapon.

“The Chinese are taking credit for sending the message at every level,” a senior US administration official said.

Josep Borrell, the EU’s foreign policy chief, said in March that Xi’s visit “reduces the risk of nuclear war and they [the Chinese] have made it very, very clear”.

China’s ministry of foreign affairs did not immediately respond to a request for comment. But a former government official confirmed that Xi told Putin personally not to use nuclear weapons, noting that China’s stance against their use was included in its position paper on peace in Ukraine.

The Kremlin did not immediately reply to a request for comment.

Putin was left disappointed after Xi’s visit failed to yield any tangible wins for Russia, such as approval for the long-awaited Power of Siberia-2 pipeline, western security officials said. The condemnation of the use of nuclear weapons in their joint communiqué was almost certainly added at China’s behest, the officials added.

If Russia were to use nuclear weapons in Ukraine, “it’s all downside for China”, one official said.

Russia’s invasion is heavily reliant on support from China, which has helped Moscow to navigate economic sanctions that have excluded it from critical global markets and supply chains.

Last year, China’s bilateral trade with Russia reached a record $190bn, as Beijing ramped up purchases of Russian energy and enabled it to import crucial technology including microchips.

China has refrained from criticising Russia for the invasion and has accused the west of fuelling the conflict by supplying arms to Ukraine. Beijing has also made thinly veiled references to “damaging acts of hegemony, domination and bullying” by the US via sanctions.

But the war is threatening to scupper China’s efforts to drive a wedge between Europe and the US, according to the senior Chinese government adviser.

A Russian nuclear strike on Ukraine or one of its European allies would risk turning the continent against China, the adviser said, while sustained pressure from Beijing to prevent such an act might help improve relations with the continent.

Shi Yinhong, professor of international relations at Renmin University in Beijing, said that “Russia has never and will never have China’s approval for using nuclear weapons”. If Russia used nuclear weapons against Ukraine, “China will further distance itself from Russia”, he added.

Xi’s warning suggests China remains worried about the war despite assurances from Putin last October that a tactical nuclear strike would not make any “political or military sense”.

That statement came amid heightened fears in the west that Russia could use the tactical nuclear arms, which are lower-yield warheads, in response to humiliating setbacks in Ukraine.

The US, UK, and France, Nato’s three nuclear powers, told the Kremlin they would strike its forces with conventional weapons if it used tactical nuclear arms. In the wake of the warnings, Putin abandoned his rhetoric and did not mention tactical nuclear weapons publicly for several months.

People close to the Kremlin say the Russian leader independently decided that tactical nuclear weapons would not give Russia an advantage after projecting scenarios resulting from their use. A nuclear strike was likely to turn areas that Putin has claimed for Russia into an irradiated wasteland while doing little to help his forces advance, the people said.

Kyiv has meanwhile expressed concern that Russia could instead cause an accident at the Zaporizhzhia nuclear plant — the largest in Europe, which Russian forces have occupied since March 2022 — and deny responsibility.

Putin mentioned nuclear weapons again last month as Ukraine’s counter-offensive began, saying Russia had delivered tactical warheads to Belarus. Putin quickly added, however, that there was “no need” to do this because Russia’s forces were holding back Ukraine’s advance.

But the statement indicated that even China may be unable to fully deter Putin, said Alexander Gabuev, director of the Carnegie Russia Eurasia Center. “Nuclear weapons are the ultimate insurance Putin has against losing this war catastrophically.”

Additional reporting by Joe Leahy and Nian Liu in Beijing

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