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Can Russia Win in Ukraine Without Major Help from China?

As the war has turned into a grind which Russia cannot win – so long as the West supports Ukraine – Putin has increasingly looked to China. Chinese support would indeed be that game-changer if Putin can pull it out of Xi. China’s economy is large and productive. But Chinese intervention has always been more hope than strategy, and this month’s Xi-Putin meeting indicates that yet again.

NASAMS like used in Ukraine. Image Credit: Raytheon.

The Russian spring offensive in Ukraine already appears to be running out of steam. No less than the President of Ukraine himself recently visited the frontlines’ most contested sector – the city of Bakhmut. Volodymyr Zelensky is known for his courage – he stayed in Kiev last February as the Russians marched on it. But visiting Bakhmut, against which the Russians have thrown the weight of their forces this spring, would be remarkably risky if the chances of Russian breakthrough were genuine.

Zelensky also felt secure enough this month to receive the Japanese prime minister in Kiev, at the same time Chinese President Xi Jinping visited Russian President Putin in Moscow. And certainly the frontlines have not moved much. Russia was supposed to come off the winter refreshed and restocked, capable once again of major offensive action. This has not been the case. There have been no armored punches threatening a breakthrough, no wide-front advances threatening to overstretch Ukrainian reserves.

Instead, Russia is doing again what it has done since last summer – targeting a few small cities in the east with massive, human-wave infantry assaults, while randomly terror-shelling Ukrainian cities. The former has resulted in high casualties and small advances, while the latter continues to alienate world opinion for pointlessly killing noncombatants. This is not a winning strategy, and if this is the best Putin has after just a year of war, it is unclear how expects to win if the war drags on as it appears it will.

What Happened to Last Fall’s Russian Mobilization?

Last autumn, as a Ukrainian offensive re-took occupied territory, Putin faced a choice. He could either retrench to more defensible positions and negotiate, or escalate in a renewed bid to win. He chose the latter. Nuclear escalation was out of the question, which meant a mobilization of the population for another try at a conventional victory. Much was made of the scale of the mobilization – potentially hundreds of thousands of new soldiers. A force of that size – properly trained, kitted, and led – would likely win the war.

Six months later, it is remarkable how little that call-up has returned for Russia. The frontlines have not changed much since Ukraine’s last major victory, at Kherson late last year. As many have noted, the Russian army is still making the same mistakes it made last year. Russia continues to waster manpower in grinding infantry attacks against entrenched positions. The big offensive portended by last year’s big mobilization never showed up.

This raises serious sustainability questions for the Russians. The war is barely a year old, and Russia had six months to prepare for this spring’s push. Yet Putin has very little to show for it. Were the recruits simply wasted – thrown at entrenched Ukrainian positions with little training or weaponry? Does Russia really have that much manpower to waste? Will Putin have to mobilize again? Will that ignite resistance as future mobilizations will have to cut more deeply into society?

Russian strategy in the war has always seemed to rely on a gimmicky game-changer to turn things around – the threat of nuclear weapons would force Ukraine and NATO to negotiate, Western support for Ukraine would collapse because of high oil prices and cold weather, China would come to the rescue, and so on. Indeed, Western analysts have suspected something like this too. We have found it hard to believe what we see before our eyes – that Ukraine is beating the Russians and the Russians have no serious plan to win the war besides doing more of the same.

Will China Bailout Putin? Probably Not

As the war has turned into a grind which Russia cannot win – so long as the West supports Ukraine – Putin has increasingly looked to China. Chinese support would indeed be that game-changer if Putin can pull it out of Xi. China’s economy is large and productive. But Chinese intervention has always been more hope than strategy, and this month’s Xi-Putin meeting indicates that yet again.

For all the two presidents’ big talk about their enduring partnership, Xi gave Putin remarkably little. He blamed NATO for the war, but he also warned explicitly against nuclear weapons use. Xi also did not promise weapons shipments, which Putin clearly needs. Xi will buy Russian oil, and that will help prevent a Russian economic collapse. Xi clearly does not want a massive Russian defeat followed by a regime implosion.

But Putin needs to win the war, not just stave off collapse. The longer the war drags on, the more Russia falls further behind the West and China, the more Russia becomes a humiliating junior partner to China. Yet the Chinese assistance to prosecute a victory is not forthcoming. Putin needs to prove he can win on his own, and yet his military is fighting as poorly this year as last year.

Putin is Stuck in Ukraine

Putin is in a tight spot. Chinese help would activate a massive Western backlash against China, so Xi will not provide it. The Russian military, astonishingly, seems unable to adapt to its enemy and has wasted tens of thousands of new fighters for no major gains this year. As long as Ukraine does not lose, it is winning. Russia is the aggressor; if it does not win, it will tire and pressure will grow to retrench.

We all keep waiting for some kind of major Russian coup which will turn this around. We are all wary of saying that great power Russia is losing, especially to a middle power like Ukraine. Yet that is what is happening and it is increasingly clear that Putin does not know what to do about it.

Dr. Robert E. Kelly ( is a professor in the Department of Political Science at Pusan National University and 19FortyFive Contributing Editor.

Written By

Dr. Robert E. Kelly (@Robert_E_Kelly; website) is a professor of international relations in the Department of Political Science at Pusan National University. Dr. Kelly is now a 1945 Contributing Editor as well. 



  1. Johnny Ray

    March 25, 2023 at 9:56 pm

    China would be wise to sit on the fence and play both sides in this war game. To launch full throat public support of Russian imperial war would certainly have immediate world wide, very negative, repercussions.

    That’s not to say they aren’t doing some sneaky, backdoor, underhanded stuff. A little bit here, a little bit there.

    Regardless, it’s doubtful they would be willing to risk their world wide economic power and standing to support a relatively small group of Russian criminals attempting to steal a whole country.

    Stranger things have happened, however.

  2. TheDon

    March 25, 2023 at 10:41 pm

    In war..its hard to tell.
    It is troubling if a russian chinese nk iran alliance exists.
    All efforts to break this are important.
    The US needs a philosophy change. Make more friends, less sanctions.

  3. Brian

    March 26, 2023 at 12:00 am

    “Does Russia really have that much manpower to waste?”

    Yup! Their population is roughly 3 times greater than the population of Ukraine before millions of Ukrainians left.

    The Russian way of war is human attrition. They don’t share the western sensibilities of the sanctity of human life. If they lose 4 to 1 lives, they consider that a victory.

    And the Russian infrastructure remains intact (the Ukrainian infrastructure is being ground down) and the Russians can sell oil on the black market and they have allies in Turkey, Iran and China.

    Chilling, isn’t it?

  4. Commentar

    March 26, 2023 at 12:05 am

    China is unreliable.

    Beijing cares more about its paramount leader’s image more than anything else, even above the very future of its people.

    What putin needs to do is unleash a couple of nukes at kyiv and perhaps one at oslo (in retaliation for the nord stream sabotage).

    That will force biden, the democrat global fascismo leader to eyeball beijing for a retaliatory strike.

    It will result in an internal crisis in china, with people openly calling for xi jinping to be handed over to washington to answer some charges.

    Meanwhile, the PLA high command will withdraw all its personnel from djibouti and double down on its ABM system to face future or coming US missile nuke azimuths.

    A more reliable china will then emerge, by which time the war in europe would be over.

  5. 403Forbidden

    March 26, 2023 at 12:48 am

    In our 21st century, the US has unveiled its real self to tbe world, by first withdrawing from ABM treaty in 2002, then invading Iraq in 2003, and setting up the famous abu ghraib torture nightmare, then the gitmo camp, then today expanding NATO.

    The reason is US wants to control and rule the entire globe and is thus putting enormous pressure on rivals regarded as standing in its way.

    The US is pressuring rivals via endless war drills, war rehearsals, nuclear warhead life extension programs, new ICBMs like the LGM-35 and most of all pursuing proxy wars and provocative flights and sail-bys by warships, submarines, warplanes and strategic bombers.

    Thus the world is facing a nuclear struggle or a thermonuclear arms race, and the one country that has quickly recognized this threat is north korea.

    North korea just very recently tested its underwater nuclear drone which appears to be bery similar to the russian kanyon but a bit smaller in size.

    That is the biggest ace or ‘trump card’ in north korea’s possession and it will surely forestall US ambitions for the world.

  6. 404NotFound

    March 26, 2023 at 3:03 am

    The current proxy war in ukraine started by joe biden is just an ‘appetizer’ or entree as french people like to prefer to say.

    The real deal or main dish is ww3, a war to be fought far away from the US, far away from its shores, a war that would eventually see washington emerge as the winner who takes all.

    Thus, biden today has moscow tangled all up at sixes & sevens in the muddy mud in ukraine while he secretly consorts or colludes with xi jinping to advance his woke agenda.

    It’s therefore crystal clear both biden and xi can’t be trusted. Thus the situation today.

    China must get rid of xi while US must kick out biden to avoid the coming ww3.

    If that isn’t possible, countries like russia, north korea and iran must develop space-based nuclear weapons systems in addition to rocket-boosted underwater nuclear-capable hi speed torpedo systems.

  7. Walker

    March 26, 2023 at 4:22 am

    I have no doubt China would love to help I. The following conditions that one it would ensure that Russia would win, can be done without drawing too much attention to themselves and last but not least would be a major benefit To China to do so. China will weigh the risks vs rewards and I think they will likely do a compromise. Mostly give Russia lip service while getting Russia more indebted to China while not going out too far on a limb. China will try to play both sides. It will look for ways to be the one and only country to come out on top. Russia would be wise to not trust China. But they really don’t have any choice. Russia is in trouble no matter what China does. Russia really screwed themselves. And it’s good to see them go down. The west just needs to watch China closely and be ready to make sure China doesn’t take the wrong step.

  8. Webej

    March 26, 2023 at 7:54 am

    Boy, have you had the wool pulled over your eyes:
    –Zelensky stayed in a bunker for two months until he received assurances via the Israeli PM that Russia was not going to target him: No bravery.
    –Zelensky did not just visit Bakhmut, but Chasi Yar.
    –Joe didn’t go to Kiev until receiving Russian reassurances.
    If Russia had targeted the Bankhova, it would be fully bombed out by now.

    »pointlessly killing noncombatants
    Virtually all the spectacular apartment hits were UA’s own aging Air Defense missiles coming down at random spots

    »Xi also did not promise weapons shipments
    How would you know if they secretly supplied 1 million shells?

    »Russia becomes a humiliating junior partner to China
    Perhaps China is the junior partner in need of Russian aerospace know-how and Zircon missile technology to defeat the USN?

    »Russian strategy in the war has always seemed to rely on a gimmicky game-changer
    An exact articulation of Western coverage of Ukraine’s hopes.

    Russia has already said what it’s strategy is.
    1. Force the UA to talk & settle problems (for 9 years)
    2. Demilitarize, destroying UA forces if necessary

    Russia has been willing to trade terrain for lives: Once the enemy is destroyed, the terrain is all yours. A war of attrition is won by favorable casualty ratio’s. All reports from the trenches support this; virtually none support the ‘human wave’ propaganda. 90% of casualties are shrapnel, and Russia is firing about 10× as many shells, mowing the battle space before moving in.

  9. Gary Jacobs

    March 26, 2023 at 9:30 am


    LoL, On Day 1 of the invasion Zelensky started his standard video updates from outside. Many others from outside in the early days as well. Pretending he was pulling a Putin hiding in his bunker is pure fantasy.

    As for his recent visit, I dont know if he was in Bakhmut of Chavis Yar, but in practical terms there isnt much of a difference, Russia has been trying to take both. And Chavis Yar is well within barrell artillery range of Russian forces.

    If you think the human wave situation for Russia isnt real, you need to get yourself better sources of info. In fact the Russian units are often posting videos themselves. You dont even have to take the Ukrainians word for it. Go look up the Russian 155th Naval Infantry in Vuhledar. At least there it’s a bit more with armored vehicles, but they are being ordered to attack along the same routes, through minefields, every time. The kill ratio is at least 10 dead Russians for every Ukrainian in Vuhledar. When they lost enough armored vehicles, they tried to switch to human waves, without much success.

    For quite some time it was barely better in Bakhmut. Russian gains in the area have brought closer combat, and closed the gap on that ratio in Bakhmut. There are plenty of videos of Russian / Wagner soldiers using the dead bodies of other Russian soldiers for cover.

  10. len

    March 26, 2023 at 10:24 am

    China need not interfere.
    As both sides push more troops through the meat grinder their ranks become more diminished. That’s where Russia has the upper hand. Russia has a greater population of fighting age persons than does Ukraine. Russia has plenty of old soviet hardware left to spend. As they say the West/(U.S.) will keep furnishing weapons as the corporate profits are reaped. Until they fight Russia down to the last Ukrainian.

  11. Gary Jacobs

    March 26, 2023 at 11:28 am

    404fool, Commentar, Webej, and all the Putiniasta trolls:

    I encourage you all to go watch the latest video posted by Wagner chief Prigozhin himself.

    Prigozhin’s latest video traded in his usual bluster and bravado for caution and warning, which sure sounds like he is preparing his supporters for defeat.

    Looking over a map of eastern Ukraine, Prigozhin calmly outlines what he expects of coming spring counteroffensives from Ukrainian forces, namely a claim that Ukraine has concentrated 80,000 reserves around Bakhmut as part of a spring push to return to 1991 borders.

    Prigozhin also claimed he expects to see Ukrainian offensives toward Crimea and occupied cities in southern Ukraine, including Berdyansk, Melitopol, and Mariupol.

    In the same setting, Prigozhin expresses doubts about Nazis in Ukraine and assures the audience they are not fighting NATO, but exclusively Ukrainians.

    Prigohzin’s warnings of a Ukrainian counteroffensive may not be without merit, either. Commander of the Ground Forces of Ukraine, Col. Gen. Oleksandr Syrskyi, said in a Telegram post that Kyiv will ‘very soon’ take advantage of Russian attrition in a counteroffensive on Bakhmut.

    “The aggressor does not give up hope of taking Bakhmut at any cost, despite losing manpower and equipment,” Syrskyi said. “The main forces of the Russian Federation in this direction are representatives of the Wagner PMC.

    They spare nothing; they lose significant forces. Very soon, we will take advantage of this opportunity, as we once did near Kyiv, Kharkiv, Balaklia, and Kupiansk.”

    Of course, the Wagner boss may be trying to put public pressure on Shoigu to send more ammo more quickly. But taking his warnings of defeat at face value cannot be dismissed outright. Ukraine atritting Russian forces in this area as they conducted a fighting retreat from Lysychansk helped enable offensives in Kherson and Kharkiv last year as well.

    Furthermore, The Ukrainians are learning combined arms breaching maneuvers from the west to get through the series of Maginot Lines the Russians have created in the south to Melitopol. And as the weather dries the mud, it’s the perfect terrain for western supplied tanks to show why they are so much better than anything Russia has. Better range on the guns, better armor, better training, and an actual purpose to fighting: liberation of their own homeland.

    Russia is so concerned about the extent to which Ukraine can counter attack their weak forces that satellite images show Russia is further preparing for a Ukrainian offensive on occupied Crimea. Russian construction crews remain busy building trenches and concrete pillboxes along the Crimean coastline.

    Except Ukraine doesnt have to go all Normandy on Crimea to make life there untenable for Russians. Taking back south east Kherson gives plenty of positions to fire a steady diet of missiles and drones into Crimea.

    Only time will tell if the US gets Ukraine the ammo and armor they need to expel the Russian Imperialist Invaders. But up until now Ukraine has been using the hand me downs from our mothball closet to grind down the Russian military. With better weapons in their hands, Ukraine can administer a series of pivotal defeats on Russia this summer.

    Have a liberating day.

  12. Jim

    March 26, 2023 at 12:15 pm

    A grind that Russia can’t win.

    A conclusion, not an analysis.

    Russia hasn’t engaged in a Spring offensive.

    Rather, it’s grinding it out @ Bakhmut… and also putting pressure up & down the contact line… so far, Russia has mostly “spoiled” the front, making it difficult to concentrate forces for an offensive… hard to pull troops off the line when it’s being probed in force.

    But reports also state 80,000 Ukrainian soldiers have concentrated around Bakhmut according the the Wagner Company head guy, Prigozhin.

    Prigozhin thinks there is going to be a counter-offensive to relieve Bakhmut.

    Each side has been hampered by late Winter snow & rain.

    Spring is only six days old… Ukraine often sees a late Spring.

    This is a typical “fog of war” cheerleading article, say your side is winning when it’s hard to tell due to… the fog of war.

    Some analysts state territory is not important, rather it’s the destruction of the army, men & material… Russia is doing it by way of attrition… the territory & cities will be taken after a collapse… by way of attrition… so, they say…

    But static lines invite this very kind of article…

    Russia doesn’t want to rely on China and China doesn’t want to get involved… but I suspect “necessary” military use parts and assemblages are being sent… plus, economic support by buying Russian oil & gas, plus other raw resources… this is a substantial help.

    This article portends further articles… hope is creeping back into the pro Ukrainian side.

    How long will it last… until Bakhmut falls.

    Then pessimism will reemerge with a vengeance.

    Enjoy the warmer weather for now.

    Six days into Spring… the dice is still dancing on the Craps table… nothing has come to rest, yet.

  13. TheDon

    March 26, 2023 at 1:01 pm

    Stupidest war ever.
    Europe has the longest string of peace ever. Whats wrong with Putin?

  14. Gary Jacobs

    March 26, 2023 at 4:26 pm


    LoL “Each side has been hampered by late Winter snow & rain.”

    Glad you finally found out that weather is a factor. You have been fighting that fact for quite some time.

    And yet still you get it wrong. It wasnt the snow that was the problem. It’s the mud, and the fact that this was one of, if not actually the warmest winters in the recorder history of Ukraine. The ground simply did not freeze for long periods of time this winter the way it usually does.

    Furthermore, Russia’s other big problem is that they knew Ukraine was about to get a huge amount of western equipment that is several order of magnitude better than what Russia has…and so contrary to your faux notion of smarts, Russia prematurely launched offensive operations while the ground in Ukraine was still muddy. Politics and Putin’s ego also played a factor as Russia tried to achieve gains by dates with historical significance.

    None of those decisions have worked out well for Russia, and Ukraine now has a chance to take advantage of all those mistakes by Russia [and you] IF western weapons deliveries and training arrive in a timely manner.

    At least some of that appears to be happening with Leopards and Bradleys, among others. They also need a good supply of GLSDB, JDAM-er, and other long range precision fire to extend their reach and disrupt Russian supply and reinforcements.

    Some of that is clearly happening with all the strikes around Melitopol and Mariupol. Hopefully those are just teasers and the pace+ferocity will increase as we get closer to the beginning of large scale counter offensives.

    The series of Maginot Lines that Russia created in the south are particularly vulnerable, and the terrain is particularly suited for western tanks and combined arms breach maneuvers to decimate Russian troops in the area. In order for them to be well protected, they also need long range semi-mobile SAM systems like the SAMP/T that EU countries have pledged to provide. With a range of 150km, they offer good protection from air assault for advancing ground units.

    Many shorter range mobile SAM units have already been provided.

    Bottom line: Only time will tell how it all plays out, but the conditions are forming for Russia’s Imperialist forces to be in real trouble this summer. Now Ukraine has to be able to take advantage of those conditions.

  15. Jim

    March 26, 2023 at 5:32 pm

    Snow & rain causes… mud.

    Theoretically weather issues apply equally… but I did hear Ukraine supporters bring it up in response to pauses or hold ups.

    As far as equipment… heard a lot… blah, blah, blah… I’ll believe it when I see it.

    Six days into Spring… the dice is still dancing on the Craps table… nothing has come to rest, yet.

  16. Jacksonian Libertarian

    March 26, 2023 at 8:12 pm

    “Xi clearly does not want a massive Russian defeat followed by a regime implosion.”

    What would give anyone that idea? Xi has to see that the Russian Fareast/Siberia is looking like a ripe hanging fruit ready to fall into his hands. The Russian military is already 50% destroyed, if the regime implodes after a Russian defeat, China can just step in to save the millions of ethnic Chinese from chaos and double China’s territory. Why pay for Russian oil, when you can just take it?

  17. Gary Jacobs

    March 27, 2023 at 8:39 am


    LoL…conveniently ignoring the strategically sound decision by Ukraine to not go on offense in mud, and Russia’s mistake in doing so.

    The basic minimum ratio is three attackers for every one defender. Otherwise the attackers stand to lose a lot of people and equipment. Add in the 8 years Ukraine has had to fortify defenses in many of these areas, and mud causing the attackers to funnel into the exact same routes of attack that the defenders can fix their fire on, and you have a massive loss of men and equipment as the Russians are experiencing right now.

    You can blah blah the equipment differential all you want, but the fact remains that the Ukrainians are grinding the Russians down largely with the left overs from our mothball closet.

    As for the weather, you can pretend you meant those add up to mud… but with a big country like Ukraine it can rain and snow in different places at the same time. Not to mention you were claiming ‘late winter’, when in reality it’s been a problem the entire winter – possibly the warmest in Ukrainian history.

    Your lazy approach to facts and inattention to detail is precisely one of several factors that causes you to jump to incorrect conclusions all the time. And your inability to do critical thinking nor correct your mistakes causes you to dig yourself into deeper and deeper holes of confirmation bias.

    The list of your mistakes along these lines is endless. You cant even read and comprehend a transcript from Victoria Nuland correctly when it says the exact opposite of what you claim it does. That’s one of the most basic attention to detail mistakes ever. And that mistake cascades into you constantly blaming ‘neocons’ for Ukraine, when your core argument about Nuland is false.

  18. Webej

    March 27, 2023 at 10:11 am

    @ Jacksonian
    You have forgotten that Russia is nuclear armed.

    @ Gary
    How will they loft those JDAMs without being shot down by AD?
    How will they get enough ammo?
    Why are you taking Prigohzin literally, so far he is a troll and a blabbermouth? And why take Syrskyi at his word? This is a war, and everything anybody says is for PR effect.
    You seem to think you have a better grasp of tactics, equipment capabilities, and strategy than do the participants. Where is all the evidence of hundreds of thousands of attritted Russians? You need some better evidence for casualty ratios. Analysis requires objectivity and dispassion.

  19. Webej

    March 27, 2023 at 10:21 am

    » an actual purpose to fighting: liberation of their own homeland

    The only people fighting for their own homeland are the DPR/LNR battalions. All the people from Carpathia, Odessa, and Lvov are far from their ancestral home. As for the Russians, Novorossiya has been part of Russia about 5× as long as it has been a province of Kyiv. Many Ukrainians don’t speak Ukrainian, but they all speak Russian. Humorous anecdotes abound about Ukrainians getting into street fights with other refugees, mistaking them for Russians.

  20. Jim

    March 27, 2023 at 10:51 am

    Gary, you convict yourself with your own words.

    You keep bringing up Victoria Nuland of your own volition.

    (I didn’t mention Nuland on this comment thread.)

    Everyone knows Nuland is a Neoconservative and she is the Biden administration point person for Ukraine. Everybody knows her husband, Robert Kagan, is an intellectual leader of the Neoconservatives… everybody knows how central Victoria Nuland was to the U. S. supported 2014 coup against the democratically elected president.

    But to pull this back to the state of military affairs on the front and the wider war:

    President Zelensky stated in an interview with Japanese newspaper Yomiuri, the situation on the frontline “was not good,” … “we can’t start (the offensive) yet. Without tanks, artillery and HIMARS, we cannot send our brave soldiers to the front lines.”

    “We are waiting for ammunition to arrive from our partners,” President Zelensky added.

    These are quotes from Zelensky, himself.

    You don’t help your credibility… especially when you drone on and on… like a broken record.

  21. GhostTomahawk

    March 27, 2023 at 3:03 pm

    Think about this… without full financial, military and intelligence support from the western world Ukraine would be defeated.

    All the US is assured of doing is having to restock massive amounts of military equipment munitions and supply at 2023 dollars. While Ukraine will ultimately lose a battle of attrition… with our without help from China.

  22. Ole

    March 27, 2023 at 8:39 pm

    “while the latter continues to alienate world opinion.” The world opinion towards Russia and China is at an all time high. Every country seeing the sanctions, is asking itself “will we be next.” To the point were they want to get out of trading with dollars and shifting to the Chinese Yen. The West is riddled with crazy amounts of debt and inflation and on top of that demonstrates that it doesn’t know any friends. The African continent, India, the Middle East – everyone is steering away from us. We CAN have a place in this new world but if we carry on, we’re gonna be on the sidelines. Not good. We had many things to offer. We offered dominance instead.

  23. dave

    March 28, 2023 at 12:03 am

    I wonder what the authors on this site will be saying by summer, LOL! Probably making themselves scarce.

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