China must brace for a weaker or even a “post-Putin” Russia as the prospect of a prolonged war in Ukraine increases, Chinese experts have warned. Addressing an online conference on Saturday afternoon, the geopolitical analysts suggested there was little hope for a peaceful solution to the conflict, adding that risk of a nuclear weapon being used had not diminished. “A protracted war is not avoidable … The deterioration of Russia is also not avoidable. This leads to an increased risk of a nuclear conflict,” Zhu Feng, director of Nanjing University’s Institute of International Relations, said in a discussion at an annual conference held by state tabloid Global Times. “The possibility of a prolonged war is the biggest strategic challenge and grimmest uncertainty for the world today,” Zhu said, discussing “how Russia and Ukraine’s conflict will end”. “I am also concerned that a post-[Vladimir] Putin era will come early … and whether this means Russia will be in greater competition with the West or become more Westernised. “This will significantly harm China and be a huge challenge to our strategic partnership with Russia .” China has been criticised by the West for refusing to condemn Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Instead, Beijing has strengthened its economic and political cooperation with Moscow as US and European powers have hit Russia with sanctions for starting the war. Beijing has said it wants to see a peaceful solution to the conflict via talks yet there has been little sign of any potential common ground since the war started on February 24. Last week, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky asked Western leaders to supply more advanced ammunition to help his country. And in one of its biggest attacks in the war, Russia fired more than 70 missiles at Ukraine on Friday. China-Russia energy trade, already at historic high, can be stronger, Xi says Other Chinese experts at the conference shared Zhu’s concern. Wu Dahui, deputy director of the Russian Research Institute at Tsinghua University, said it was clear that Russia’s influence in its post-Soviet geopolitical backyard in Central Asia, its economic sway and its edge in the war in Ukraine had waned. “The war is going to carry on and escalate,” Wu said. He said one development to watch for was whether Putin would call an early presidential election – expected in 2024 – for next year, and if so, who were the potential candidates Putin could pass on power to. Putin’s spokesman said last month that the president had not yet decided whether to run for six more years. However, no matter who becomes leader in Russia, “there is no need to strengthen our relations towards becoming allies”, Wu said. “We should use this opportunity to make the relationship more pragmatic.” Wu Xinbo, director of the Centre for American Studies of Fudan University, said China should still call for peace even if there was little progress towards such a solution before the next Russian presidential election. “We have to get our message out clearly: we understand Russia’s concerns but we are against using war to address its concerns,” he said. “China has to continue its efforts in pushing for peaceful means to solve the problem, showing such a stance is crucial for our global image.” Zhu also called for China to support the millions of Ukrainian civilians who were suffering in the depths of winter without light, water and heat. “China needs to show its humanitarian side,” Zhu said.