Xi’s Moscow visit risks further emboldening Putin

There is no sign the visit of Chinese President Xi Jinping to Moscow will rein in President Vladimir Putin in his war on Ukraine, even if it again highlights a lopsided relationship where Russia is clearly the junior partner, analysts say.

Xi held two days of talks this week in Moscow, his first visit since Putin unleashed his war against Ukraine in February last year.

Every aspect of their body language was scrutinised to try to ascertain the intentions of the two leaders.

Xi, bearing what has been described as a plan to end the conflict, presented himself as a mediator concerned with maintaining stability.

But Putin could only be heartened by Xi’s expressions of support and the sheer symbolism of an in-person visit, even if Russia faces growing dependency on China as Moscow becomes more isolated from the West.

The visit came just after the Hague-based International Criminal Court (ICC) issued an arrest warrant for Putin, the biggest legal challenge the Russian leader has faced.

“The visit of Xi has emboldened Putin, especially after The Hague arrest warrant,” said Liana Fix, a fellow for Europe at the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR).

China’s peace plan was “obviously very strongly in Russia’s favour”, she said, adding that Beijing was ready to give Moscow “time to end the war in its favour”, albeit with implicit backing rather than pro-active support.

“Certainly, Putin would have wished for more — especially on a gas deal with China — but the optics of the visit were so important to him that he accepts Russia’s increasing dependence on China,” she said.

– ‘Gift to Putin’ –

The visit was “perceived by the non-Western world as a counterweight to the decision” of the ICC, said Alexander Baunov, senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

It’s “as if the Chinese leader had broken the curse on Putin” after the warrant was issued, he said.

Sam Greene, director of democratic resilience at the CEPA think tank in Washington, described the visit as a “gift” to Putin — unless there is a new twist like telephone talks between Xi and his Ukrainian counterpart Volodymyr Zelensky, though none have been announced.

It is “essentially permission from Beijing to keep fighting. It is, though, Xi’s only gift to Putin”, Greene wrote on Twitter.

China has not applied Western sanctions against Moscow, instead increasing its imports of hydrocarbons from Russia and maintaining economic interests in Russia during the invasion.

Xi’s recent peace proposals have largely garnered scepticism on the West, in particular the United States.

For Antoine Bondaz, a specialist in Chinese foreign policy at the Foundation for Strategic Research (FRS), “what is at stake today for China in the war in Ukraine is not the future of Ukraine… It’s the Sino-American rivalry and the desire to discredit Western countries”.

Xi’s trip to Moscow represents “anything but distancing” by China from Russia, he added.

– ‘Marriage of convenience’ –

While Xi and Putin sought to emphasise their friendship and respect in their meetings — addressing each other constantly as “dear” — China is very much the senior partner.

Its population and economy dwarf those of its neighbour, where thinly populated regions in the Russian far east keep a wary eye on booming Chinese megacities on the other side of the Amur river that forms part of their border.

Xi’s support is crucial for Putin as he insists that it is only the West that opposes his invasion of Ukraine, and not the international community as a whole.

Moscow increasingly cherishes its ramped-up energy exports to China and would love nothing more than to import Chinese arms for its war, a step Beijing has so far stopped short of allowing.

“While Xi and Putin have many shared interests, it seems increasingly obvious that this is no partnership of equals,” said Jon Alterman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

Bondaz said he did “not think for a moment” that China would deliver arms en masse to Russia, since Beijing would face Western sanctions and damage to its reputation among allies.

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken on Wednesday brushed off China’s diplomacy with Russia as a “marriage of convenience”, saying that Beijing had not yet provided military aid to “junior partner” Moscow for its fight in Ukraine.

Tatiana Jean, director of the Russia Centre at the French Institute for International Relations (IFRI), said that “Putin comes out of this visit strengthened in the short term but more dependent on China in the long term”.

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