‘Good old friend’: Putin offers praise for Xi ahead of first trip to Russia since Ukraine invasion

Russian president lauds Xi ahead of meeting, while Beijing calls for a ‘rational way’ out of the crisis

Vladimir Putin has praised “good old friend” Xi Jinping in a newspaper article published in China on the eve of a state visit by the Chinese president that will reaffirm the leaders’ strong ties and provide Moscow with an opportunity to emphasise that it has not been isolated by the global community.

The two leaders, who are believed to share a strong personal relationship, will meet one-on-one on Monday, followed by an informal lunch, Putin’s spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, said.

In an article written for a Chinese newspaper on Sunday, Putin welcomed China’s willingness to play what he characterised as a “constructive role” in solving the Ukraine “crisis”.

The Russian president called Xi his “good old friend” and said Russia had high hopes for his visit, the Chinese leader’s first to Russia since Putin launched his invasion of Ukraine last year.

In the article, Putin said: “We are grateful for the balanced line of [China] in connection with the events taking place in Ukraine, for understanding their background and true causes. We welcome China’s willingness to play a constructive role in resolving the crisis.”

Xi in turn published an article in Rossiiskaya Gazeta, a daily published by the Russian government, in which he called for “pragmatism” on Ukraine.

He said China’s proposal, a 12-point paper released last month and largely dismissed by the west, represents “as much as possible the unity of the world community’s views”.

Xi said his trip to Russia aimed to strengthen the friendship between the two countries, “an all-encompassing partnership and strategic interaction,” in a world threatened by “acts of hegemony, despotism and bullying”.

“There is no universal model of government and there is no world order where the decisive word belongs to a single country,” Xi wrote.

Analysts said the visit by Xi was important to Moscow. “China is by far the most important ally for Russia,” said Alexander Gabuev, an expert on Russia’s relations with China at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

“That Xi, the leader of the second most powerful country in the world, is ready to visit Moscow during the war in Ukraine is hugely symbolic.”

The visit comes three days after Putin was made the subject of an arrest warrant by the international criminal court for overseeing the abduction of Ukrainian children, sending Russia another significant step on the path to becoming a pariah state, and two days after he made a surprise visit to the occupied city of Mariupol in an apparent show of defiance towards the court and the west in general.

Xi’s visit comes at a time of growing Russian dependence on Beijing, with Xi holding the upper hand over Putin one year into the war in Ukraine, experts said.

“There was already a large imbalance in power before the war. Now, with Russia’s isolation from the west, that power asymmetry is on steroids,” Gabuev said. “China has all of the leverage it wants, and it will only increase going forward,” he added.

Gabuev pointed to the growing economic dependence of Russia on Beijing, with China now accounting for more than 40% of Russia’s total imports, according to the state trade data.

Data shows that China has stepped in to supply Russia with large volumes of products for both civilian and military use, including raw materials and computer chips – vital resources for Moscow to keep its war machine afloat.

Chinese imports of Russian oil increased by 8% last year. Imports of Russian gas increased by 50% according to Gazprom, Russia’s top producer.

This shift partly explains why the Russian economy has fared better than many economists have predicted after the introduction of unprecedented western sanctions on the country.

But while Moscow has managed to redirect some of its trade flows towards China, the country’s budget recorded a deficit of almost $25bn in January after the west introduced a series of price caps and embargos on Russian energy exports, the lifeblood of Russia’s economy.

“For Russia, it will very important to discuss increased oil and gas sales and the continued flow of critical components,” Gabuev said.

When Xi lands in Moscow, he too will be well aware of the stakes of his visit. It will be widely interpreted as a show of support for Putin and the man Xi has described as his “best friend”.

But Xi will also want to demonstrate to the world that he can be a restraining force on Putin, for example by preventing him from deploying nuclear weapons on the battlefield in Ukraine.

Xi is also reported to be planning a call with Volodymyr Zelenskiy. That call would partly be an effort to “balance the negative impact that his visit to Moscow will have” on Xi’s relations with the west, said Bonnie Glaser, the director of the Indo-Pacific Program at the German Marshall Fund, a thinktank.

Xi is trying to play the role of global statesman. On Monday last week he called for China to play a bigger role in managing global affairs, after brokering a deal between Saudi Arabia and Iran to restore diplomatic relations, a move which was seen in China as a win against US influence in the Middle East. Xi said China would bring “positive energy to world peace and development”.

China has all but given up on its relationship with the US. But Xi is keen to maintain ties with Europe, an important trading partner.

One of the main domestic challenges Xi faces as he embarks on his third term as China’s president is how to rebuild the economy from the battering it endured during his zero-Covid policy.

But “Europe is increasingly tied to the United States, because of its views on Ukraine. This is hampering China’s efforts to improve ties with Europe,” notes Glaser.

China last month proposed a 12-point peace plan for dealing with the war, though it did not address critical details such as whether Russian troops should withdraw.

“The talks might produce a more concrete roadmap for peace out of the conflict,” said Andrey Kortunov, director general of the Russian International Affairs Council, a research organisation close to the Russian government.

“People will be watching for the result,” said Yun Sun, director of the China Program at the Stimson Center, a Washington thinktank.

“If Russia agrees to talk to Ukraine as the result of Xi’s trip, it will boost China’s credibility as a mediator.”

Xi’s peacemaking efforts may be dismissed as empty posturing. He has refused to condemn the invasion and, in tangible terms, China’s support for Russia since the start of the war has been unwavering.

And while Moscow has welcomed the Chinese peace proposal, it has shown no clear intention of climbing down from its maximalist goals of regime change in Ukraine.

In a string of public statements over the last month, Putin has indicated that he expected the war to continue, preparing his population for a years-long conflict that he has framed as an existential battle for the country’s survival.

But with Russia unable to force a breakthrough during its grinding winter offensive in eastern Ukraine and new reports emerging that its military is running low on ammunition, officials in Washington have expressed worry that Moscow will renew its calls for Chinese military assistance.

“The topic of military-technical cooperation will undoubtedly be discussed,” Kremlin aide Yuri Ushakov told the Russian news outlet Vedomosti, adding that defence minister Sergei Shoigu will participate in the talks.

Last month, the US secretary of state, Antony Blinken, said China was considering supplying weapons and ammunition to Russia, warning that such a move would have “serious consequences” for Beijing.

Observers, however, question whether China would go as far as supplying Moscow with lethal weapons on a large scale unless Russian forces were facing an immediate defeat on the battlefield.

Such a move would be uncharacteristically reckless of Beijing, which is not in a position to weather the economic backlash that such a move would provoke.

“Bejing is currently content with the current status quo, it is unclear for now if it is willing to go further and supply weapons,” said Gabuev.

“For Xi, it is important to prevent a major Russian defeat which … could jeopardise Putin’s position.”


Pjotr Sauer and Amy Hawkins

The GuardianTramp

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