On February 4, 2022, just before invading Ukraine, Russian President Vladimir Putin traveled to Beijing, where he and Chinese leader Xi Jinping signed a document that hailed a “no limits” partnership. In the two-plus years since, China has refused to condemn the invasion and helped Russia acquire materiel, from machine tools to engines to drones, crucial for the war effort. The flourishing partnership between Xi and Putin has raised serious questions in Western capitals. Is the alliance that linked Moscow and Beijing in the early Cold War back? The Russians and the Chinese have repeatedly dismissed such talk, but they have also asserted that their current partnership is more resilient than the days when they led the communist world together.

Xi would know. His father, Xi Zhongxun, was a high-level Chinese Communist Party (CCP) official whose own career was a microcosm of relations between Beijing and Moscow during the twentieth century, from the early days of the revolution in the 1920s and 1930s to the on-and-off help during the 1940s and the wholesale copying of the Soviet model in the 1950s, and from the open split of the 1960s and 1970s to the rapprochement in the late 1980s. The elder Xi’s dealings with Moscow showed the dangers of intimacy and enmity, how growing too close created unmanageable tensions that produced a costly feud. Understanding that history, the younger Xi by all appearances believes that the current relationship between Moscow and Beijing is indeed stronger than it was in the 1950s, and that he can avoid the strains that led to the earlier split.

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