Chinese president Xi Jinping is headed to Moscow next week to meet with Russia’s Vladimir Putin. Xi last visited Russia in 2019, though the two leaders have met in person multiple times since then, including in Beijing just weeks before the invasion and in Samarkand, Uzbekistan, last September.
Virtual meetings are a fairly regular affair for the two. This summit, however, is qualitatively different from the rest: it will take place in the heart of Russia while Moscow is waging war on Ukraine.
To give Putin such a significant endorsement on the world stage underscores just how close the two powers are, even if Russia is, by almost any metric, the underdog in the partnership. Clearly, Xi sees his relationship with Putin as valuable, because this meeting will only deepen suspicions in the West about Beijing’s intentions, particularly but not exclusively regarding Ukraine. That, of course, should not be a surprise: both men harbor deep enmity towards the United States and the international system it leads.
The war in Ukraine is at a critical stage as the next six months are likely to determine who wins the conflict. Both sides have acute shortages of equipment and ammunition. Casualties are mounting. The West has shown some signs of division as the fighting drags on. Ukraine is likely to launch a major offensive in the coming weeks and months that could decisively turn the tide in its favor.
With this in mind, the dynamics and products of Xi and Putin’s meeting will be important to watch. Putin has the most at stake, but Xi has much to gain as well. He will surely push his Russia-friendly twelve-point peace plan, and may flesh it out further with Moscow to present it as a united front. The Chinese leader is supposedly planning to talk with Ukraine’s Zelensky after the meeting, which indicates that Xi wants to play a diplomatic role.
But Western leaders should make no mistake: Xi, if he does take the diplomatic route, will do so because it will expand China’s power at the expense of the West. He does not want Ukraine to win because that would be a severe setback for his anti-American agenda. So, too, would it set a precedent for Taiwan. It’s hard to tell just how far Xi would be willing to go to ensure Russia is not defeated, but if US intelligence is correct, he may well be willing to supply Moscow with vital weapons. This could become more likely if his one-sided peace plan fails.
It’s unlikely there will be any publicly aired divisions between the two men, especially during such a meticulously planned state visit. Xi will trot out his platitudes backing sovereignty and territorial integrity, as hollow as the two sides’ professed support for democracy. It is also unlikely that Xi will make any moves that would endanger China’s standing with Europe, which is already plumbing new depths. The really consequential items will be managed in private, unless Xi makes the improbable choice to ditch his neutrality act.
Barring exceptional circumstances, both sides are almost guaranteed a win next week. Putin gets to show he is a powerful force in international politics by meeting with the leader of the world’s second most powerful country. Xi gets to play the role of senior partner and, most likely, the diplomatic pioneer seeking peace. It will be a theater performance, but one with incredibly high stakes for Ukraine and world peace.