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China used to be Russia’s junior partner. Ukraine changed that.

Moscow and Beijing are less committed to each other than their rhetoric before last year's invasion suggested.

In early February 2022, three weeks before launching his invasion of Ukraine, Russian President Vladimir Putin stood side by side with Chinese President Xi Jinping. The two autocrats had come together in Beijing ahead of the Winter Olympics to declare in a joint statement that the friendship between their states had “no limits” and “no ‘forbidden’ areas of cooperation.”

Since then, what Putin clearly foresaw as a blitzkrieg has become a drawn-out slog. Likewise, over the course of the war, which kicked off a year ago Friday, any hopes the Kremlin may have had of an equal partnership between Moscow and Beijing have slipped away. And the seemingly strengthened relationship that some analysts feared would amount to an “inflection point” in world history has proved to be more of an informal “situationship” at best, with neither side willing to fully commit.

The imbalance between the two was apparent in recent weeks, as NBC News reported that American officials believe China is supplying nonlethal military assistance to Russia for the next phase of its campaign this spring. Secretary of State Antony Blinken went further in an interview with NBC News’ “Meet the Press” on Sunday, saying “there are various kinds of lethal assistance that they are at least contemplating providing, to include weapons.”

Chinese officials have denied this, insisting that Beijing remains neutral in the conflict. Meanwhile, Wang Yi, China’s top-ranked foreign policy official, met with Putin on Wednesday, promoting a peace proposal that he has floated in recent days. Xi is also preparing to give a “peace speech” on Friday, continuing to position China as not taking sides against either party. But the idea that Beijing could act as a neutral interlocutor is worthy of skepticism, given how it has avoided any condemnation of Russia’s invasion and so far benefited from the war.

Before delving deeper, though, let’s pause and appreciate that Russia is a former superpower, one that has continued to demand what it views as its rightful place on the international stage even 30 years after the collapse of the Soviet Union. At Moscow’s peak, Beijing was seen as either a competitor for supremacy in the communist nations or the junior partner in a strategic alliance against the West. At the United Nations Security Council, where the two have positioned themselves as defenders of state sovereignty against American intervention, it’s always been Russia in the lead and China quietly following.

Putin’s war turned that narrative on its head, completing a shift that’s been ongoing for the last decade. China’s economic rise has slowly left Russia further and further behind. The war’s strain on Russian business ties to Europe has left China as a much-needed market, both as a supplier of manufactured goods and importer of natural resources like oil.

It’s a position that Beijing has not hesitated to exploit, as Alexander Gabuev, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, wrote in Foreign Affairs last summer. As Russia flounders under the weight of Western sanctions and stalled offensive, China will “do enough to sustain a friendly regime in the Kremlin — and advance Chinese national interests — by purchasing Russian natural resources at knockdown prices, expanding the market for Chinese technology, promoting Chinese technological standards, and making the renminbi the default regional currency of northern Eurasia,” Gabuev wrote.

The dynamic reflects the mutual aloofness that the two have maintained, even after last year’s pledge of a “no-limits” friendship, compared to the deep ties between U.S. and its NATO allies over Ukraine. “Beijing and Moscow have sought to avoid making commitments to each other, which limits their capacity for cooperation, much less coordination on mutual interests,” Kevin Modlin and Zenel Garcia wrote in The Diplomat in November. “While avoiding deep commitments, China and Russia have historically incurred fewer costs in their bilateral relationship.” It also means that, with public refusals to send military support, Beijing can continue to avoid U.S. sanctions, but Putin can still declare after his meeting with Wang that “Russia and China are reaching new levels of cooperation.”

Xi may well eventually decide that sending further aid to Russia is the only way to forestall a humiliating, potentially regime-ending failure for Putin. Even if eventually defeated in Ukraine, Moscow can still cause problems for the U.S. in places like Syria. But its inability to crush Kyiv has placed the hollow shell of Russian military might on full display, particularly as China’s rise threatens to eclipse it entirely. The very idea that Russia — Russia! — would need backup support from China makes clear which country is the junior partner here.