Russian President Vladimir Putin warmly welcomed Chinese leader Xi Jinping to the Kremlin on Monday, sending a powerful message to Western leaders that their efforts to isolate Moscow over the fighting in Ukraine have fallen short.
Xi's trip — his first abroad since his re-election earlier this month — showed off Beijing's new diplomatic swagger and gave a political lift to Putin just days after an international arrest warrant was issued for the Kremlin leader on war crimes charges related to Ukraine.
The two major powers have described Xi’s three-day trip as an opportunity to deepen their “no-limits friendship.” China looks to Russia as a source of oil and gas for its energy-hungry economy, and as a partner in standing up to what both see as U.S. aggression, domination of global affairs and unfair punishment for their human rights records.
The two countries, among the five U.N. Security Council's permanent members, also have held joint military drills, and U.S. officials have picked up indications China is considering supplying Russia with weapons for its fight in Ukraine but have seen no evidence they’ve actually done so.
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They smiled and shook hands before sitting down and making brief statements at the start of their meeting in the Kremlin, calling each other “dear friend” and exchanging compliments. Putin congratulated Xi on his re-election and voiced hope for building even stronger ties.
“China has made a colossal leap ahead in its development in recent years,” Putin said, adding that “it’s causing genuine interest all around the world, and we even feel a bit envious,” as Xi smiled.
He welcomed China’s proposals for a political settlement in Ukraine and noted Russia is open for talks.
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“We will discuss all those issues, including your initiative that we highly respect,” Putin said. “Our cooperation in the international arena undoubtedly helps strengthen the basic principles of the global order and multipolarity.”
Moscow and Beijing share a cause: Both countries have accused Washington of trying to isolate them and hold back their development as they challenge it for regional and global leadership.
In an increasingly multipolar world, the U.S. and its allies have been unable to build a broad front against Putin. While 141 countries condemned Moscow in a United Nations vote marking the first anniversary of Russian troops rolling into Ukraine, several members of the G-20 — including India, China and South Africa — abstained. As well, many African nations have refrained from openly criticizing Russia.
"We hope that the strategic partnership between China and Russia will on the one hand uphold international fairness and justice, and on the other hand promote the common prosperity and development of our countries,” Xi said.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said that over dinner, Putin will likely offer Xi a “detailed explanation” of Moscow's actions in Ukraine. Broader talks involving both countries' officials on a range of subjects are scheduled Tuesday, he added.
For Putin, Xi’s presence is a prestigious, diplomatic boost to show partnership in the face of Western efforts to isolate Russia over Ukraine.
In an article published in the Chinese People’s Daily newspaper, Putin described Xi’s visit as a “landmark event” that “reaffirms the special nature of the Russia-China partnership.”
Putin also specifically said the meeting sent a message to Washington that the two countries aren't prepared to accept attempts to weaken them.
“The U.S. policy of simultaneously deterring Russia and China, as well as all those who do not bend to the American diktat, is getting ever fiercer and more aggressive,” he wrote.
Xi's trip came after the International Criminal Court in The Hague announced Friday it wants to put Putin on trial for the abductions of thousands of children from Ukraine.
China portrays Xi’s visit as part of normal diplomatic exchanges and has offered little detail about what the trip aims to accomplish, though Ukraine cast a long shadow on the talks.
At a daily briefing in Beijing on Monday, Foreign Ministry spokesperson Wang Wenbin said China "will uphold its objective and fair position on the Ukrainian crisis and play a constructive role in promoting peace talks,” he said. Xi didn't directly mention the Ukraine fighting or his peace plan when he sat down for the talks with Putin on Monday.
Beijing’s leap into Ukraine issues follows its recent success in brokering talks between Iran and its chief Middle Eastern rival, Saudi Arabia, which agreed to restore their diplomatic ties after years of tensions.
Following that success, Xi called for China to play a bigger role in managing global affairs.
Although they boast of a “no-limits” partnership, Beijing has conducted a China First policy. It has shrunk from supplying Russia’s military — a move that could worsen relations with Washington and turn important European trade partners against Beijing. On the other hand, it has refused to condemn Moscow’s aggression and criticized Western sanctions against Moscow, while accusing NATO and the United States of provoking Putin’s military action.
Western pressure has made Russia increasingly reliant on Beijing, observers said.
Alexander Gabuev, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment, noted that Beijing is aiming at “getting Russia as a junior partner deeper into China pocket.”
Dmitry Oreshkin, professor at Free University in Riga, observed that Beijing stands to benefit from tensions between Moscow and the West by getting cheap Russian energy resources. “It’s very convenient for China, which couldn't get such a discount before,” he said.
China last month called for a cease-fire and peace talks between Kyiv and Moscow. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy cautiously welcomed Beijing’s involvement, but the overture fizzled.
The Kremlin has welcomed China’s peace plan, while U,S, Secretary of State Antony Blinken said Monday that any proposal that left Russian forces in place in Ukraine would merely let Moscow re-equip and otherwise regain strength to resume its offensive.
“Calling for a cease-fire that does not include the removal of Russian forces from Ukrainian territory would effectively be supporting the ratification of Russian conquest,” he told reporters in Washington. “The world should not be fooled by any tactical move by Russia, supported by China or any other country, to freeze the war on its own terms.”
Kyiv officials say they won’t bend in their terms for a peace accord.
“The first and main point is the capitulation or withdrawal of the Russian occupation troops from the territory of Ukraine in accordance with the norms of international law and the UN Charter,” Oleksiy Danilov, the secretary of Ukraine’s National Security and Defense Council, tweeted on Monday.
That means restoring “sovereignty, independence and territorial integrity,” he wrote.
Ukraine's allies, meanwhile, are stepping up their support. The State Department announced Monday that the U.S. will send Ukraine $350 million in weapons and equipment. The latest package of aid includes ammunition, such as rockets for the High Mobility Artillery Rocket Systems, fuel tanker trucks and riverine boats.
The Kremlin doesn't recognize the authority of the International Criminal Court and has rejected its move against Putin as “legally null and void.” China, the U.S. and Ukraine also don't recognize the ICC, but the court's announcement tarnished Putin's international standing.
China’s Foreign Ministry called on the ICC to “respect the jurisdictional immunity” of a head of state and “avoid politicization and double standards.”
Russia’s Investigative Committee said Monday it is opening a criminal case against a prosecutor and three judges of the ICC over the arrest warrants issued for Putin and his commissioner for children’s rights, Maria Lvova-Belova. The committee called the ICC’s prosecution “unlawful” because it was, among other things, a “criminal prosecution of a knowingly innocent person.”