Putin and Xi meet amid mounting crises for both leaders

Hong Kong

Russian President Vladimir Putin told his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping in a virtual meeting on Friday that their partnership is more important than ever amid “unprecedented pressure” from the West as Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine increasingly isolates them on the global stage.

As Putin’s war in Ukraine rages on and Xi grapples with an unprecedented Covid outbreak, a phone call between the two leaders on Friday underscored their mutual trust amid mounting crises at home.

In an opening speech broadcast on Russian state television, Putin said that the stabilizing force of Russian-Chinese relations is becoming even more critical amid rising geopolitical tensions.

Describing relations between the two nations as “the best in history,” the Russian leader said they “could stand up to all scrutiny,” and invited Xi to visit Moscow in spring 2023.

“We share the same views on the causes, course and logic of the ongoing transformation of the global geopolitical landscape,” Putin said.

“In the face of unprecedented pressure and provocation from the West, we defend our principled positions and defend not only our own interests but also all those who stand for a truly democratic system and the right of countries to freely determine their own destiny.”

Putin added that the two countries would strengthen cooperation between their armed forces and pointed to a growth in trade despite “unfavorable market conditions”, alluding to the waves of economic sanctions Russia has faced since invading Ukraine.

Repeating Putin’s message of unity, Xi said the two countries should have “strict strategic coordination” and “bring more stability to the world,” according to Chinese state-run media Xinhua.

China is “ready to work with Russia” to “stand against hegemonism and power politics,” counter unilateralism, protectionism and “bullying,” and uphold sovereignty, security, international equality and justice, Xi said, Chinese state media reported.

Xi also said China is ready to resume normal cross-border travel with Russia and other countries “in an orderly manner,” Xinhua reported.

Moscow and Beijing have grown closer in recent years, with Xi and Putin declaring weeks before Russia invaded Ukraine in February that the two countries have a borderless partnership. Analysts were on the lookout for signs on Friday that the Chinese leader’s support for his Russian counterpart had waned.

China has repeatedly refused to condemn the aggression, instead repeatedly blaming NATO and the United States for the conflict — and remains one of Russia’s key remaining backers as outrage over the invasion mounts, leaving Russia increasingly alone.

But more than 10 months into the loop war, the world looks very different – and the dynamic between both partners has shifted accordingly, experts say.

Instead of an expected quick victory, Putin’s invasion has stalled with numerous battlefield setbacks, including a lack of basic equipment. Many Russians face economic difficulties in a bitter winter.

On Thursday, Russia launched what Ukrainian officials described as one of the largest rocket fires since the war began in February, with blasts rocking villages and towns across Ukraine, damaging civilian infrastructure and killing at least three people.

Ukrainian officials had been warning for days that Russia was preparing to launch a full-scale attack on the power grid to shut down in 2022, which would plunge the country into darkness while Ukrainians try to ring in the Lunar New Year holiday.

“China is itching for (the war) to end,” said Yun Sun, director of the China program at Washington-based think tank Stimson Center.

“Xi will try to stress the importance of peace to Putin,” she added. “As Russia grows impatient at the lack of progress on the battlefield, China sees the timing for peace talks as ripe.”

China, too, is becoming increasingly isolated in its attitude toward Russia, said Alfred Wu, an associate professor at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy at the National University of Singapore.

Wu cited Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi as an example of a hardened stance on Russia’s war.

Although India has not directly condemned the invasion of Moscow, Modi told Putin in September that now is not the time for war and urged him to move towards peace. This postponement is another reason Xi may be excited for a quick fix, Wu said.

Xi had already shown signs of impatience during his last meeting with Putin in September at a regional summit in Uzbekistan. At the time, Putin acknowledged that Beijing had “questions and concerns” about the invasion, in what appeared to be a veiled admission of their differing views.

But according to experts, China’s domestic political situation has also changed significantly in recent months, which could require a different approach to Putin this time.

The country is currently battling its worst-ever Covid outbreak, having finally abandoned its strict zero-Covid policy, with restrictions easing and borders partially reopening. The reversal came after an unprecedented wave of protests across the country against zero-Covid — in some cases augmented by broader grievances against Xi and the ruling Communist Party.

At the heart of this crisis is Xi – who entered a norm-breaking third term in October with a tight grip on power and a narrow circle of loyalists.

“Now that domestic problems are out of the way, Xi is in a better position to work on Russia,” said the Stimson Center’s Sun, referring to his power consolidation in October.

She added that despite the war’s unpopularity, China and Russia “are aligned for geopolitical reasons.” Both countries face tensions with the West, and the two leaders have often touted a shared vision for a new world order.

“The two heads of state will emphasize their partnership, cooperation and strong bond. They will want to send the message that all of these go beyond the war in Ukraine,” Sun said. “(The war) has been a nuisance for China over the past year and has hurt China’s interest in Europe. But the damage is not great enough that China is abandoning Russia.”

Wu also acknowledged that the relationship is “fundamental for both countries,” citing China’s ability to benefit from Ukraine because of its access to Russian oil.

However, he added China’s protests, the outbreak of Covid and the resulting economic toll have put Xi in a more vulnerable position that could mean less material and outspoken support for Russia. Now more than ever, China is unable to risk sanctions.

“The policy tools that Xi Jinping can use to support Russia are quite limited now, it’s quite limited,” Wu said. “Politically, domestic support for Xi has declined dramatically. His third term doesn’t actually begin with a rosy picture.”

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