Thirteen months after Russia’s illegal invasion of Ukraine, Moscow and Beijing are continuing to deepen their ties even as China has sought to portray itself as a neutral player in the war. This week’s summit between Chinese Communist Party leader Xi Jinping and Russian President Vladimir Putin comes on the heels of the International Criminal Court’s warrant for Putin for war crimes. For Putin, the summit demonstrated that despite Western sanction and opprobrium, Russia is not an isolated pariah state. Meanwhile, Xi used the summit to further the image he has tried to burnish of Beijing as a peacemaker and advance his vision of an alternative multilateral order, breaking away from the U.S.-led system.
USIP’s Andrew Scobell, Heather Ashby, Mary Glantz and Jennifer Staats look at the key takeaways from the visit, how the Ukraine war factored in and what’s next for the deepening Xi-Putin relationship.
Why did Xi visit Putin?
Scobell: This week Chinese Communist Party leader Xi Jinping traveled to Moscow to hold a three-day summit with Russian dictator Vladimir Putin. This was Xi’s first visit to Russia since the COVID-19 pandemic and his first visit to Russia since Putin’s unprovoked military invasion of Ukraine in February 2022. The decision by Xi to travel to Moscow at this time was intended to highlight the enduring bilateral alignment between the two countries and emphasize the close personal ties between the two leaders.
Xi characterized the relationship as “mature and resilient," and earlier referred to Putin as his “best, most intimate friend.” While a Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson described Xi’s visit to Moscow as a “trip for peace,” the summit really seemed to be about accentuating China-Russia solidarity rather than working to bring an end to the war in Ukraine. Indeed, it is hard to imagine many other leaders of a great power being eager to spend three days with another leader who had just been charged with war crimes by the ICC.
Why did Putin invite Xi?
Ashby: There were several reasons why Putin invited Xi to Moscow. One of Putin’s basic goals was to demonstrate that he and Russia are not isolated. For Putin, Xi’s visit — the first since the ICC issued a warrant for his arrest — was a statement that European and American efforts to mobilize countries to condemn Russia for its brutal invasion of Ukraine are not working and the Russian government and Putin still have global partners.
As the sanctions against Russia mount and are further implemented, Putin and the Russian government need international partners to not only help the country evade sanctions, but bolster its economy through trade in commodities, finance and logistics. Putin and his inner circle want to mitigate the impact of sanctions on the Russian population to avoid potential unrest that could threaten the Putin’s control.
China has played a prominent role in assisting the Russian government in reducing the impact of sanctions on its economy, and Putin was hoping this visit would produce an agreement on a new pipeline for Russian gas to transit Siberia into China. While Putin’s meeting with Xi resulted in further economic cooperation between the two countries in the areas of finance, technology, commodities and logistics, Xi left without announcing a new pipeline deal. Putin also is continuing his aspirations for foreign direct investment in and development of eastern Russia. With Japan — which has previously been engaged in efforts to develop eastern Russia — joining sanctions against Russia, Chinese investment has become even more important for eastern Russia’s development.
While in power, Putin has consistently articulated the view that the world was heading toward multipolarity. In China, Russia believes it has a partner with heft to help advance a multipolar world. Moreover, Moscow believes that that Russia-China relationship offers an example for other countries of state-to-state relations that can challenge the Western rules-based international order.
What are the key takeaways from the Putin-Xi summit?
Scobell: Aside from the three-day summit offering multiple opportunities for photographs and video footage to show the two leaders being chummy, the visit allowed Xi and Putin to signal to the world that Russia and China have indeed formed an “axis of authoritarians.” Although falling short of an outright military alliance, the bilateral relationship has become much more than a mere “axis of convenience.” While China has so far opted not to provide arms to Russia, Xi and Putin signed multiple agreements to strengthen economic ties that bind the two great powers closer together (see previous answer) and increase Moscow’s dependence on Beijing. Moreover, Putin and Xi together, in a nine-point joint statement, explicitly identified the United States as their common adversary and clearly articulated the strategic logic of their geopolitical alignment.
How did Ukraine factor into the summit?
Glantz: The fact that Xi’s meeting with Putin took place at all was a statement of sorts on Ukraine, particularly given the ICC’s issuance of an arrest warrant for the Russian president for war crimes committed in Ukraine. Xi’s presence was thus an implicit statement that the Chinese regime is not concerned about Putin being an accused war criminal.
Despite this, for Putin and Xi, Ukraine did not seem to be the central focus of the summit, which instead concentrated on the growing economic relationship between the two countries. Nonetheless, with China’s issuance of a February 24 position paper on a “political settlement of the Ukraine conflict,” most international observers were watching to see what role Ukraine played in their conversation.
If Putin was hoping for an endorsement of his war in Ukraine, he was disappointed. In the official documents and press appearances at the summit, the two leaders seemed to just reiterate their previous positions that a diplomatic settlement in the Ukraine war would be useful. In a joint declaration, Ukraine was mentioned only as the last of nine points. The statement reads:
“The Chinese side positively assesses the willingness of the Russian side to make efforts to restart the peace talks as soon as possible. Russia welcomes China's readiness to play a positive role in the politico-diplomatic settlement of the Ukrainian crisis and the constructive considerations set forth in the document ‘On China's Position on the Political Settlement of the Ukrainian Crisis’ drawn up by the Chinese side.”
In his remarks to the press, Putin took a more bellicose tone, asserting that while he welcomed the Chinese initiative to move toward a political settlement, it was clear the West was not ready for peace. For his part, Xi just reiterated that China actively supports negotiations. Thus, Xi left Moscow the way he arrived: calling for negotiations but apparently not making China’s relationship with Russia contingent upon an end to the war in Ukraine. In the same way, Xi did not offer any public support for Putin’s war and China did not make a public commitment to provide weapons for Russia’s military.
What other significant takeaways were there?
Scobell and Staats: The fact that Beijing appears to have a made a conscious decision not to provide weapons to Moscow strongly suggests that strongman Xi has yet to give up on prospect of cordial and business-like relations between China, the United States and Europe. Notwithstanding the hostile rhetoric directed toward Washington and NATO members, Xi continues to hold out hope for continued economic interaction with these countries. China, much more so than Russia, remains deeply enmeshed in the global economy and has a lot to lose if Beijing completely alienates Western capitals. The United States has gone to great pains to stress that Chinese weapons sales to Russia is a bright red line and this point seems to have resonated in Beijing.
Whether China’s considerable effort to try and position itself as a neutral state in Russia’s ongoing war of aggression against Ukraine — albeit it one highly sympathetic to and closely aligned with the aggressor — will pay dividends with the rest of the world remains to be seen. What is striking is the balancing act Xi is attempting — clearly choosing sides while also trying to portray himself as having not done so. As noted elsewhere, where Russia and Ukraine are concerned, China is also playing to a global audience, where Xi wants to score points as a neutral power working for peace, especially in countries throughout the Global South that are sympathetic to Russia. The fact that China has portrayed itself as an impartial observer intent on encouraging both sides to resolve hostilities through negotiations strongly suggests that Xi wants to keep all options open for Beijing.
What’s next in the Putin-Xi bromance?
Ashby and Glantz: Putin will continue to seek opportunities to meet with Xi and demonstrate the strength of the Russia-China relationship. After the announcement of an ICC warrant for Putin, it becomes even more critical for the Russian government and its president to avoid isolation and present itself as a player on the world stage. Russia’s relationship with China is vital for Putin’s dream of a multi-polar world that displaces what he sees as United States’ dominance. So vital, in fact, that Putin appears to be increasingly willing to play junior partner to Xi.