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Putin and Xi’s big Moscow meeting, briefly explained

China wants to use Russia to improve its image as a diplomatic leader.

Russian President Vladimir Putin, left, and Chinese President Xi Jinping arrive to pose for a photograph during their meeting in Beijing, on February 4, 2022. The two are meeting in Moscow this week.
Alexei Druzhnin/Sputnik/AFP via Getty Images
Li Zhou is a politics reporter at Vox, where she covers Congress and elections. Previously, she was a tech policy reporter at Politico and an editorial fellow at the Atlantic.

This week, Chinese President Xi Jinping is visiting Russian President Vladimir Putin for the first time since the latter invaded Ukraine last year. Xi arrived in Russia Monday for a three-day meeting in Moscow, in which the two are poised to discuss next steps related to the war as well as how they can continue to grow other areas of a “comprehensive partnership” more broadly.

The two leaders are coming into this meeting with slightly different needs. Russia, increasingly isolated diplomatically and in the midst of a major effort on several fronts of the invasion, is likely using this chance to once again push for military support from China and underscore the relationship it still has with a major world power.

China, meanwhile, is focused on maintaining its economic and strategic ties with Russia, without alienating countries in Europe and Africa. As a result, China has stopped short of offering Russia lethal aid and is likely to continue doing so. For China, this meeting is also a chance to burnish its diplomatic credentials, something it signaled in its purported advocacy for “peace talks.”

Given their differing aims, this meeting probably won’t result in concrete military commitments so much as posturing by China and discussions of the two countries’ trade relationship.

“I think it’s still relatively unlikely we’ll get any major announcements on the war in Ukraine from this summit, or on Chinese military aid to Russia,” says Emma Ashford, a fellow at the Atlantic Council. “Instead, I’d expect any announcements to focus on China’s priorities: locking in favorable rates for Russian gas exports, etc.”

What Russia wants

Russia has pushed for Chinese military support in the past and could well use this meeting to continue making its case. According to a February CNN report, US intelligence believes that China has been weighing whether to provide drones and ammunition to Russia.

China changing its position on military aid would be a watershed moment, but it’s less likely because of the consequences that decision would bring. “There would be really serious reputational losses but also economic losses for the Chinese in terms of sanctions and secondary sanctions,” says Joseph Torigian, an assistant professor at American University.

This meeting also gives Russia a chance to provide its perspective on how the war is going to a partner that’s been somewhat skeptical so far. “Exhaustive clarifications will be given by President Putin, so that President Xi can get a first-hand view of the current moment from the Russian side,” Dmitry Peskov, a spokesperson for the Kremlin, told reporters on Monday.

When it comes to any negotiations on an end to the war, Russia will also likely look to get China’s backing for its conditions for peace, says Oleg Ignatov, the International Crisis Group’s senior analyst on Russia. “For [Putin], it’s very important that China would accept his vision of how this war would end,” says Ignatov. “Putin says that Russia is ready to negotiate only if Ukraine and the West accept the status quo. Status quo means that Russia is occupying parts of Ukraine.”

Trade is set to be a central issue, too. Russia has been increasingly dependent on China’s economic support since the war began, including relying on it as a market for energy exports. Although Europe’s purchases of Russian oil and gas have dipped significantly, China has helped offset these losses by purchasing these resources instead. According to the Wall Street Journal, trade between China and Russia could hit $200 billion by 2024.

What China wants

For China, the meeting will help reaffirm its longstanding relationship with Russia while underscoring the limits of that support.

Preserving a relationship with Russia is important for China geographically, economically, and politically, the Carnegie Endowment’s Alexander Gabuev explains. “Its strategic relations with Russia are ... of great significance given the two countries’ long and now undisputed border, their complementary economies, and Russia’s role as a source of commodities and some advanced weapons,” Gabuev writes.

Trade with Russia is also crucial for China, with the country making up about 30 percent of Russian exports and 40 percent of Russian imports in 2022, per the Economist. “We need to boost two-way trade,” Xi said in the statement released ahead of the meeting.

The two countries also remain bonded by similarities in their authoritarian approach to governance as well as a shared goal of preventing the expansion of US power. For China, the partnership with Russia, which falls short of a formal alliance, is especially valuable to have against the backdrop of rising tensions with the US driven by economic competition and recent incidents like the discovery of a spy balloon over American airspace.

“By having this kind of partnership, the Chinese can warn the United States that they have support from another major power,” says Torigian. “They see the strategic partnership with the Russian federation as a long-term asset as they worry the US will increase its efforts to contain China.”

At the same time, China also wants to be seen as a global peacemaker. Last month, it released a 12-point peace plan to end the war in Ukraine, but critics widely viewed it as a symbolic position and a way for the country to improve its image with other European and African countries even as its support simultaneously skews toward Russia.

“The ... likeliest scenario [could be] that Xi will make only a symbolic effort to promote peace because his real goal is to improve Beijing’s standing in Western Europe and the Global South by appearing neutral while actually leaning decidedly toward Moscow,” says Stephen Wertheim, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment.

That it released the plan at all, however, speaks to how China wants to be perceived on the world stage. Thus far, Xi has not spoken with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy since the start of the war, but he’s reportedly expected to hold an online call following the visit to Russia in another bid to demonstrate efforts at diplomacy.

Publicly pushing for peace is a continuation of China’s balancing act regarding the war in Ukraine: Although it signaled support for Russia by declining to condemn its invasion and preserving trade ties, it also claimed a position of neutrality in order to preserve its own international standing.

Whether China continues this posture, and whether its stance on military support changes, could become apparent in this visit. Both Putin and Xi released statements ahead of the trip underscoring the “friendship” between the two countries and the hopes that they can continue to grow an already strong economic relationship.

This meeting is another opportunity for China to walk this line. “China is trying to execute a difficult balancing act: strengthening its relationship with Russia, one of its few major-power partners, while attempting to stabilize ties with Europe that have deteriorated sharply since the onset of the coronavirus pandemic,” says Ali Wyne, a senior analyst with the Eurasia group.