China's Stake in the Ukraine-Russia Conflict

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Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych (L) shakes hands with Chinese President Xi Jinping (R) during a signing ceremony at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing on December 5, 2013.
From and

As Secretary of State John Kerry lands in Kiev, the United States and the European Union examine their options against Russia in Ukraine.

But with Russia  in the spotlight, China—another ally of deposed Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych—watches the unrest unfold in  Kiev  and  Crimea from the sidelines.

Since Yanukovych assumed the presidency, China has invested a total of $10 billion dollars in Ukraine, and pledged $8 billion more when Yanukovych visited Beijing last December.

Jonathan FenbyChina director of the research company Trusted Sources and author of “Will China Dominate the 21st Century?,” and Timothy Snyder, professor of history at Yale University and author of "Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin," examine China's financial interests in the region, and the Chinese investment in the outcome of the Ukraine-Russia conflict.  

"China's reaction is quite complicated," says Fenby. "They were quite invested in the old regime and that makes their present position difficult."

Fenby says that China has built up strong economic links with Ukraine and the previous regime—China has bought weapons from Ukraine, and they made big investments in farm land because the nation is in need of wheat and grain. 

"On top of that, China hates the idea of any country intervening in the internal affairs of another country, and that is partly self-defensive," says Fenby. "In this case it's interesting because it doesn't see Vladimir Putin as intervening, but it sees the West as meddling in a way it shouldn't do and in a way that China doesn't want it to do. But at the same time, it is probably a bit leery of throwing all of its weight behind Moscow at this point because there are differences between Moscow and Beijing."

When it comes to Russia, Snyder says the intentions of Moscow have finally been brought to light with this conflict.

"I think the leadership in Russia has now finally clarified its own new anti-Western ideology, and I think that has a great deal to do with why it is invading Ukraine," says Snyder. "Putin, after a long time thinking, has decided that he is going to be the defender of right-wing, socially conservative values, and that means the oppression of sexual and ethnic minorities. It means the definition of Russia as a cradle of a kind of special civilization. This is related to the general conflict because both the Americans and the Europeans tend to make their arguments in terms of principles—whether those are principles of human rights or principles of national sovereignty. Putin seems to have shifted to a different kind of argumentation all together, where he regards those things as empty facades and the only things that truly matter are the deep immutable and, in a way, undescribable values of Russian culture."

Putin has said that the Russian response is designed to quell threats by ultranationalists, including anti-Semites. However, Snyder says the Kremlin's attempt to categorize the current Ukrainian government as anti-Semitic is "outrageous," noting that not only is the Ukrainian Prime Minister is Jewish, but governors of Eastern regions are also Jewish, and individuals involved in the protests and uprising also share the faith.

"The past Ukrainian regime used anti-Semitism against he protesters because some of them are Jewish—that claim is an attempt to put the entire debate on the wrong track," says Snyder. "It doesn't reflect reality at all—all it reflects is Kremlin propaganda."

Fenby says that both the Russians and the Chinese have a pragmatic interest in maintaining control over ethnic minorities within their own nations, a key divider from the West. In China, the original populations of the Tibetan and Xinjiang territories are not pan-Chinese but are made up of Buddhists and Uighur Muslims, respectively. Since these two territories are "essential to Chinese unity," says Fenby, China has made attempts to quell any ethnic divisions in these areas by describing them as separatists and fundamentalists. 

"Chinese foreign policy is all over the place and this leaves it somewhat dangling in limbo here and I think pretty uncertain what to do over Ukraine," says Fenby.