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Russian President Vladimir Putin visited Chinese President Xi Jinping in Beijing for the opening of the Winter Olympics in February, weeks before Russia invaded Ukraine.Alexei Druzhinin/The Associated Press

When Vladimir Putin paid a visit to Xi Jinping just before the opening of the Beijing Winter Olympics in February, the two leaders made a show of solidarity that led many Western analysts to conclude that Russia had China’s tacit backing when it invaded Ukraine only days later.

The Russian and Chinese presidents declared then that the friendship between their two countries had “no limits” as they expressed their opposition to the expansion of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and its “ideologized Cold War approaches.”

By the time the two leaders met again last week in Uzbekistan, where they were attending a meeting of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO), the tone of their exchanges had shifted dramatically. Mr. Putin found himself having to account for his bad behaviour in Ukraine.

“We highly appreciate the balanced position of our Chinese friends in connection with the Ukrainian crisis,” Mr. Putin said at the opening of their meeting. “We understand your questions and concerns in this regard.”

Mr. Xi was not alone in appearing to publicly rebuke Mr. Putin, whose invasion of Ukraine has created a global energy crisis and food shortages in less developed countries. Evidence of war crimes committed by Russian soldiers, rivalling some of history’s worst atrocities, is also piling up.

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who also attended the SCO summit, made a point of telling Mr. Putin, with the cameras rolling, that “today’s era is not an era of war, and I have spoken to you on the phone about this.”

For U.S. National Security Council spokesman John Kirby, the comments made by Mr. Xi and Mr. Modi underscored the Russian leader’s growing isolation as he shows no signs of abandoning his reckless military campaign despite repeated setbacks: “Even countries who were not vociferous and strident in opposing him are beginning to question what he’s doing in Ukraine.”

China is Russia’s natural ally only to the extent the two countries have a shared interest in countering U.S. hegemony in international affairs. But Mr. Putin has turned out to be a far less stable “friend” than Mr. Xi had likely ever bargained for. He may even feel burned by the Russian President’s February promise of a swift and easy victory in Ukraine.

Mr. Putin has instead brought the world to the brink of nuclear war – a threat he reiterated again this week as he announced sham referenda in Russian-controlled eastern Ukraine – and reinvigorated the Western alliance. Instead of shirking U.S. responsibility for upholding the international rules-based order, as he did in Afghanistan, President Joe Biden has reacted to Mr. Putin’s invasion by reasserting American leadership globally and by offering apparently unlimited military and financial backing to Ukraine.

That, too, may have surprised Mr. Xi. Both he and Mr. Putin clearly underestimated the extent to which Mr. Biden, so soon after pulling U.S. troops out of Afghanistan, would risk putting U.S. credibility on the line again. The U.S. President has insisted that his country will not put boots on the ground in Ukraine. That, he has said, would be a precursor to a Third World War. But U.S.-supplied weapons and intelligence have made all the difference in Ukraine up to now.

In a 60 Minutes interview that aired last Sunday, Mr. Biden went further than he previously had in committing U.S. forces to defending Taiwan in the event of a Chinese invasion. His comments appeared to be proof that the Russian attack on Ukraine has led Washington to step up efforts to deter China from embarking on a military takeover of Taiwan. In a backhanded way, Russian aggression has concentrated minds and steeled resolve in Washington in ways that Mr. Xi must be regretting. He has only Mr. Putin to thank for that.

None of this suggests Mr. Xi is about to unfriend Mr. Putin any time soon. China is benefiting from cut-rate prices on Russian oil, though China refrained from supplying Russia with weapons and technology. (Russia has turned to North Korea and Iran for arms.) More than anything, Mr. Xi fears that, if domestic opposition to Mr. Putin leads to regime change in Russia, the consequences could be devastating for China’s own ambitions in Eurasia and its Belt and Road Initiative.

Still, the relationship between Mr. Xi and Mr. Putin appears to have entered a new phase. The Chinese leader is clearly none too impressed with his Russian counterpart’s strategic errors and has likely grown wiser to Mr. Putin’s shortcomings. The alliance the two men struck in February is now unlikely to lead to the degree of co-operation between their countries that they had predicted then. That is good news for the rest of the world.