Chinese President Xi Jinping is making his first trip to Russia since last year’s invasion of Ukraine, and is set to hold talks with President Vladimir Putin.
Our Russia editor Steve Rosenberg and China correspondent Stephen McDonnell consider what each side wants to gain from the talks and what we know about the relationship between the two countries.
Putin turns to a friend for help
Imagine you are Vladimir Putin.
You have started an unplanned war; You are up to your eyeballs in obstacles; Now the International Criminal Court has issued an arrest warrant for war crimes with your name on it.
It’s times like these that you need a friend.
President Xi once called President Putin his “best friend.” The two have much in common: they are both authoritarian leaders, and both embrace the idea of a “multipolar world” without American dominance.
In Moscow they are expected to sign an agreement on “deepening the comprehensive partnership” between the two countries.
At a time when the Kremlin is under intense international pressure, the Chinese president’s state visit is a clear sign of support for Russia — and its president.
Russia’s relationship with China is fundamental to sustaining it.
“Putin is building his own crowd. He no longer trusts the West – and he never will,” believes former Nobel Peace Prize-winning journalist Dmitry Muratov.
“So Putin is looking for allies and trying to make Russia a common bastion with China, India, Latin America and parts of Africa. Putin is building his anti-Western world.”
In this “anti-Western world,” Moscow relies heavily on Beijing — now more than ever, as war rages in Ukraine.
“War has become the organizing principle of Russian domestic politics, foreign policy and economic policy. There is an obsession with destroying Ukraine,” concludes Alexander Gabov, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
“For that you need weapons, money and an economic lifeline. China provides Russia, at a minimum, with components for weapons and civilian technology that can be used for military purposes. It certainly provides money.”
To counter Western sanctions and boost the Russian economy, Russia has been increasing trade with China, primarily in the energy sector. Expect oil, gas and energy pipelines to be on the agenda in the Putin-G talks.
But, again, imagine you are Putin. A year ago you and Shi announced that your partnership had “no limits.” If that is true, can you expect China to help you in Ukraine by providing lethal aid to Russia and facilitating a military victory for Moscow? The US says China is considering doing just that. Beijing denies it.
As they say in Russia, “There’s no harm in wishing for something” – but that doesn’t mean it will happen. As the past year has shown, the “partnership without limits” has its limits. Until now, Beijing has been reluctant to offer direct military aid to Moscow, fearing it would trigger secondary sanctions in the West against Chinese companies. As for Beijing: sorry Russia… China first.
This was put quite bluntly on a recent Russian state television talk show.
“Ahead of President Xi’s visit to Moscow, some experts here are over-excited, even overjoyed,” noted military pundit Mikhail Kodarenok.
“But China can only have one ally: China itself. China can have only one interest: pro-China. Chinese foreign policy is completely philanthropic.”
Xi’s signals to Putin can go only three ways
Officially, Xi Jinping’s visit to Russia is meant to boost bilateral ties between the two neighbors, and of course these governments say they are getting ever closer.
Contracts will be signed, food to be eaten and photo opportunities will be on stage.
All governments have such visits, but why focus on this?
Well, for one, it’s the head of one of the world’s two superpowers visiting an ally — the man who unleashed a bloody invasion of another country in Europe in 2023.
Many analysts have wondered what China might do if Russia appears to be facing a clear, humiliating defeat on the battlefield.
The Chinese government claims to be neutral. Will it back off and let that happen, or will it start pumping in weapons to give the Russian military a better edge?
After Xi arrives in Moscow, he and his Russian counterpart may talk about other things, but all attention will be on the Ukraine crisis.
His signals to Vladimir Putin can only go three ways:
1. Time to consider backing down with some face-saving compromise
2. Green light to proceed or enter hard
3. Nothing from China’s leader
If option one involves Beijing reclaiming the mantle of global peace-building following the Iran-Saudi deal, it would be a very neat feather in Xi’s cap.
The main problem with that option is the extent to which it will also benefit China.
Dark options number two, but there is a reading that Russia’s war with Ukraine plays into Beijing’s geopolitical strategy. The Kremlin confronts the West, NATO is eating up resources, and the war drags on, testing the Western public’s appetite for more conflict should the People’s Liberation Army invade Taiwan by force.
Beijing’s calculation is that the longer a war lasts, the less people will want to engage in another.
The Chinese government’s claim to neutrality also doesn’t match state-controlled news reporting here. Evening TV bulletins play the Kremlin line and devote a large portion of their coverage to blaming the “West” for the “conflict.” It does not speak of a “war” and does not dream of an “invasion” of Ukraine.
Publicly, China says that the sovereignty of all countries (ie, Ukraine’s) must be respected, but the “legitimate security concerns” of other countries (ie, Russia) must be respected.
However, Xi Jinping will not visit Kiev. It is Moscow.
So, when Xi leaves Moscow in a few days, Putin will either worry about wavering Chinese support or be buoyed by the support of one of the planet’s two most powerful men.
The smart money seems to be the latter.