Putin Has a Big Brother in Xi

Russian President Vladimir V. Putin and I have something in common. My big brother, Joe-Ray, died during the World War II. Unlike Putin’s big brother, though, mine was done in by meningitis – not by the Germans.

Putin’s brother Viktor died during the 872-day German blockade of Leningrad (now St. Petersburg) from Sept. 1941 to Jan. 1944). It was the most lethal siege in history. The grief in our home after Joe-Ray’s slow, painful death was palpable, but my parents could at least visit him in the hospital; and I know where he is buried.

Putin’s parents were deprived of even those small things: 1 year-old Viktor was taken from them to join other infants/children whose families could not feed them. Yes, a draconian measure, but their best chance to survive the siege.

Putin described the circumstances in unusually personal comments ten years ago:

“My parents told me that children were taken from their families in 1941, and my mother had a child taken from her – with the goal of saving him.” Putin’s remarks came at an annual wreath-laying at the enormous cemetery in St. Petersburg, where 470,000 lie buried in mass graves. Referring to Viktor, Putin added: “They said he had died, but they never said where he was buried.”

In the book “First Person,” Putin wrote that his mother had been so close to starvation that she lost consciousness and “they laid her out with the corpses” until someone heard her moaning. His father, hospitalized with war wounds, set aside his rations to feed her. Vladimir was born years later, on Oct. 7, 1952 in Leningrad.

Absent Big Brothers

This unusual “foreword” is an attempt to provide some sense of how if feels to grow up without a big brother to help protect you – Putin on the streets of Leningrad, I on the streets of the Bronx. The point here is that, even as a statesman, Putin has been way out there, alone, without demonstrably strong support – until now. With apologies to the State Farm PR people: “Like a good neighbor, Xi Jinping is there”. (Needless to say, “Big Brother” in this context has nothing to do with George Orwell.)

Solidarity between Putin and Xi was what both wanted to underscore at their meeting on Dec. 15. It was hard to miss, but there are still some troglodytes around who see China and Russia more as enemies than friends.

He Who Has Eyes to See …

The sum and substance of what Russia and China decided to demonstrate at the Putin-Xi virtual summit on Dec. 15 shines through the video of the highly scripted first minute of their conversation. This segment apparently is the only video portion released so far; it was picked up by the NY Times, as well as other outlets. Still, most commentators seemed to miss its significance, even though the video included subtitles (and lots of body language) for anyone truly interested.

Please click on the segment, or read the transcript (from the subtitles):

Putin: “Dear friend, dear President Xi Jinping.

Next February I expect we can finally meet in person in Beijing as we have agreed. We will hold talks and then participate in the opening ceremony of the Winter Olympic Games. I am grateful for your invitation to attend this landmark event.”

Xi: “Dear President Putin, my old friend. It’s my pleasure to meet you at the end of this year by video the second time this year.

This is our 37th meeting since 2013. You have hailed on many occasions China-Russia relations as a model in international collaboration in the 21st Century, strongly supporting China’s position on safeguarding its core interests, and firmly opposed attempts to drive a wedge between our two countries. I highly appreciate it.”

Gratuitous declarations that the U.S. will officially boycott the Winter Olympics February in Beijing may not strike most of us as a grave matter of state; the Chinese, of course, take this much more seriously. Clearly, Putin wanted to align his initial remarks closely with China, and at variance with the US and its knee-jerk allies who have fallen in line to snub the Winter Games. In any event, for Putin and Xi, it was a felicitous way into the conversation.

It is Xi’s comments that merit particular attention. Thirty-seven meetings since 2013! Do the math: 4-plus summits a year, even taking into account Covid restrictions on travel. What better way to put flesh on “Dear President Putin, my old friend”?

Core Interests

The last several weeks have given the words “core interests” unusual prominence and importance. Russia has core interests regarding Ukraine, further NATO expansion, and emplacement of missiles within range of sensitive sites in Russia. For China, the “core interest” is, of course, Taiwan, and Beijing is determined to deter any action that violates the One-China agreements that have kept the peace for a half-century. Xi expresses appreciation not only for Putin’s help in safeguarding [China’s] core interests, but also for the fact that Putin has “firmly opposed attempts to drive a wedge between the two countries – ending the clip as it began, with an obvious dig at the US.

The Draft Treaties

The draft treaties given on Dec. 15 to a US diplomat visiting Moscow are extraordinarily far reaching in terms of spelling out the kind of Russian core interests that President Xi can now be expected to stand behind. And whether Russia and China have a formal defense alliance or something short of that became largely moot on Dec. 15 when Chinese President Xi Jinping stated that “this relationship even exceeds an alliance in its closeness and effectiveness.”

The Xi big-brother factor, in addition to what can assumed to be outspoken warnings from Putin at his virtual summit with President Joe Biden, presumably has played a role in Washington’s willingness to discuss the Russian proposals. In other words, the White House has decided to reject those claiming they are “non-starters.” They are starters. And that is a good thing.