Xi Jinping has landed in Moscow for meetings with Vladimir Putin, the first time China’s leader has visited his neighbor and close strategic partner since Russia began its unprovoked invasion of Ukraine.
Xi’s visit comes days after the International Criminal Court in the Hague accused Putin of committing war crimes in Ukraine and issued a warrant for his arrest.
Ukraine is expected to be a key point of discussion during Xi’s three-day visit, which will be closely watched for any potential impact on an entrenched conflict that has killed tens of thousands and triggered a mass humanitarian crisis.
Xi’s trip is likely to be seen in some Western capitals as a ringing endorsement of the Russian leader in the face of broad international condemnation of his war – unless the Chinese leader is somehow able to deliver a concrete diplomatic breakthrough.
“One way or another, the topics which are touched upon in [Beijing’s peace] plan, of course, will inevitably be touched upon during the exchange of views on Ukraine [between Putin and Xi],” Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov told reporters on Monday.
“Of course, exhaustive explanations will be given by President Putin, so that [Chinese] President Xi Jinping can get a first-hand view of the current situation from the Russian side,” he added.
China has billed the trip as a “journey of friendship, cooperation and peace,” amid a push from Beijing to frame itself as a key proponent for the resolution of the conflict.
But Western leaders have expressed skepticism about China’s potential role as a peacemaker and its claimed neutrality. The United States and its allies have instead since last month warned that China is considering sending lethal aid to Russia for its war effort, which Beijing has denied.
Xi’s visit is expected to provide a platform for the two countries to further deepen their close strategic alignment, which spans diplomatic coordination, joint military training and robust trade.
In a statement released after Xi landed on Monday, the Chinese leader said: “In the face of a turbulent and changing world, China is willing to continue to work with Russia to firmly safeguard the international order.”
Xi was greeted on his arrival at Vnukovo airport near Moscow by Dmitry Chernyshenko, one of Russia’s 10 deputy prime ministers.
Putin and Xi both touted the “new impetus” their meeting would bring to their bilateral relationship in separate letters published in each other’s national state-run media outlets ahead of the visit.
Both also used the letters to decry “hegemony” – an allusion to their shared aim of pushing back against what they see as a US-led world order.
Xi will need to tread carefully during his visit to Moscow. At stake for the Chinese leader is whether he can both bolster ties with a partner China sees as crucial to countering that perceived US dominance, while not alienating a Europe that has become increasingly wary of the China-Russia rapport.
Putin launched his invasion days after he and Xi declared a “no limits” partnership last February.
Since that time China has claimed neutrality, but backed Kremlin rhetoric blaming NATO for the conflict, refused to condemn the invasion, and continued to support Moscow financially by significantly increasing purchases of Russian fuel.
China has recently sought to revamp its image, positing itself as a proponent of peace and defending its relationship with Russia as good for global stability. Last month, Beijing released a vaguely worded position paper on the “political solution” to the conflict in Ukraine.
On Friday following the announcement of Xi’s Moscow trip, the White House expressed concerns about potential proposals from China that would be “one-sided and reflect only the Russian perspective.”
For example, a proposal for a ceasefire – which China has repeatedly called for – would merely provide a way for Russia to regroup before launching a reprisal, said John Kirby, spokesman for the National Security Council.
Kyiv is also expected to be closely watching the proceedings, and reiterated on Monday that any plan for peace must start with a Russian withdrawal.
Oleksiy Danilov, Secretary of the National Security and Defense Council of Ukraine, tweeted Monday: “The formula for the successful implementation of China’s “Peace Plan.” The first and foremost point is the surrender or withdrawal of Russian occupation forces from the territory of Ukraine in accordance with international law and the UN Charter…in order to restore sovereignty, independence and territorial integrity.”
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky has in the past publicly expressed an interest in speaking with Xi about the conflict, though communication between the two countries has not reached higher than Ukraine’s ministerial level since the war began.
Ukrainian, Chinese and US officials all declined last week to confirm a potential virtual meeting between Zelensky and Xi, following a Wall Street Journal report that the two were planning to speak for the first time after Xi’s then-potential Moscow trip.
In contrast, this week’s state visit marks the fortieth meeting between Putin and Xi since the Chinese leader came to power in 2012.
The personal chemistry between the two authoritarian leaders is widely seen as a key driver of tightening ties between the countries in recent years – and will also be closely scrutinized during the visit.
Past meetings between the leaders have put that rapport on full display, with photo-ops including Putin presenting Xi with ice cream on his 66th birthday during a 2019 meeting in Tajikistan, and the two cooking Russian pancakes together on the sidelines of a forum in Vladivostok in 2018.
The two last met in person in September during a Shanghai Cooperation Organization summit, part of Xi’s first overseas trip following nearly three years without travel during the pandemic.
Putin, who referred to Xi as his “good old friend” in his letter published in Chinese state media Monday, is expected to play up the meeting domestically as proof that Russia is not isolated on the world’s stage.
But with the Ukraine war looming over the visit, it remains to be seen how much Xi too will seek to play up those optics.
Both leaders, however, have already set the stage for the meeting to increase bilateral cooperation.
During the visit they would “jointly adopt a new vision, a new blueprint and new measures for the growth of China-Russia comprehensive strategic partnership of coordination in the years to come,” Xi wrote in his letter published Monday in Russian state media.
The meeting is expected to start with a one-on-one meeting followed by an “informal lunch” Monday, with negotiations set to take place Tuesday, a Kremlin spokesperson said last week.