Mar 19, 2023
Xi’s Embrace of Putin Dents His Chances of Playing Peacemaker on Ukraine
Chinese President Xi Jinping will deliver a strong message of support for Vladimir Putin with his three-day visit to Moscow this week, even as he pitches Beijing’s proposals for brokering an end to the Russian leader’s war in Ukraine.
Xi’s trip marks his most ambitious effort yet to weigh into Europe’s bloodiest conflict since the Second World War, and will be followed by his first conversation with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy since Putin’s February 2022 invasion. It comes on the heels of China’s successful efforts to help Iran and Saudi Arabia patch up years of discord.
But while Xi’s “rock solid” backing of Putin ensures a warm welcome in Moscow on his first trip abroad since securing a third term as president, it also makes him a harder sell as an honest broker to mediate an end to the war. Kyiv has been cool to China’s vague peace proposals, which Ukraine’s allies in the US and Europe dismissed outright.
“Both sides are in ‘let’s give war a chance’ mode,” said Alexander Gabuev, director of the Carnegie Russia-Eurasia Center. “Now is not the right time for diplomacy.”
Putin made a surprise trip to occupied Mariupol, the Ukrainian city largely destroyed by a months-long Russian siege, according to a Kremlin statement Sunday and video released on state television.
Ukraine is preparing an offensive with new weapons provided by its allies, while Russia is digging in for a long fight, hoping to outlast Kyiv and its supporters. Each side blames the other for being unwilling to talk.
Still, Xi’s Moscow visit is a chance to tout his image as a global “ statesman” and challenge US global dominance, defying Washington’s efforts to isolate Putin, who’s hosted only a few other leaders since the war. The trip comes as tensions between Washington and Beijing have spiked.
The US on Friday again denounced China’s Ukraine plan as biased toward Russia, calling on Xi to reach out to Zelenskiy directly.
For Putin, Xi’s arrival is an opportunity to tighten what’s become his most important international relationship, with one-on-one talks and an “informal” dinner planned.
Ahead of the visit, Putin and Xi published articles in each other’s state media praising bilateral ties. Xi called his trip “a journey of friendship, cooperation and peace” while Putin called the Russia-China relationship “the cornerstone of regional and global stability.” Xi said his position on a settlement of the war in Ukraine “reflects the broadest common understanding of the international community on the crisis.”
Trade between the neighbors has surged amid the unprecedented sanctions the US and its allies imposed on Russia over the invasion. Over that period, China has bought more than $65 billion in Russian energy, providing a key source of cash for the Kremlin, as well as vital supplies of technology and other goods. Russia expects trade volume to jump to $200 billion this year from roughly $185 billion in 2022.
“Trade with China is now absolutely vital for Russia,” said Janis Kluge, an analyst of the Russian economy with the German Institute for International and Security Affairs in Berlin. “Economic relations were always asymmetric, but since the start of the war the asymmetry has turned into a dependency.”
But while the Kremlin said the two leaders will discuss energy and the arms trade, there’s no sign major new deals are in the works. The US has warned China against providing lethal aid to Russia, which has also been a major weapons supplier to Beijing.
Henry Huiyao Wang, founder of the Center for China and Globalization, a policy research group in Beijing, said it’s in China’s interest to see an end to the war. “After three years of Covid, China wants to revive its economy,” he said. “That’s its number one priority.”
But a Ukrainian diplomat in Beijing told Bloomberg News they’d seen no evidence of China taking any practical steps to invite parties to talks.
China’s 12-point blueprint has little detail and largely consists of broader foreign policy positions long espoused by Beijing. While its embrace of the principle of territorial integrity won praise in Kyiv, which seeks to drive Russian forces back across the border, a call for freezing forces in current positions is a non-starter.
“Owing to Russia’s increasing reliance on China for commodity exports, critical goods and political support, Xi holds all the cards and is the only global player that could get Putin to settle with Ukraine,” according to Kate Mallinson, founder of Prism Political Risk Management in London. “However, Xi has no immediate incentive to end a conflict which, among other advantages, diminishes resources that the West could give Taiwan.”
Even if the timing is off, Xi’s push will give him the chance to portray China as seeking peace while the US and its allies discuss sending more arms to Ukraine. That message is likely to resonate with much of the non-aligned world, which is reeling from the surge in global food costs triggered by the war.
“I doubt that China believes that the peace plan has any real viability in the near term,” said Joseph Torigian, an assistant professor at the American University. “They likely hope that the most the Russians will give them is an affirmation of its general principles, which China could then use to claim that it is having a positive effect on the course of the war.”
--With assistance from Colum Murphy, Rebecca Choong Wilkins, Yujing Liu, Jing Li and Dan Murtaugh.
(Updates with Xi and Putin praising ties in 10th paragraph. An earlier version corrected the unit measure in the first chart.)
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