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Xi and Putin hold talks in Russia, trading compliments, amid war in Ukraine

Russian President Vladimir Putin and Chinese leader Xi Jinping at a meeting in September 2017. (Tyrone Siu/AFP/Getty Images)
7 min

Russian President Vladimir Putin and Chinese leader Xi Jinping held more than four hours of talks in Moscow on Monday, kicking off a much-anticipated state visit that represents a symbolic joint stand against the United States and its Western allies, which the two leaders have characterized as domineering and hypocritical.

Xi exchanged compliments and pleasantries with Putin even as Russia persists in its brutal war in Ukraine and Putin stands personally accused by the International Criminal Court of war crimes.

Secretary of State Antony Blinken said the visit “suggests that China feels no responsibility to hold the Kremlin accountable for the atrocities committed to Ukraine.”

“And instead of even condemning it,” Blinken added, “it would rather provide diplomatic cover for Russia to continue to commit those very crimes.”

Putin and Xi, each positioned as leader for life of a nuclear power, celebrated their “no limits” relationship in Beijing together in early 2022, just weeks before Putin ordered his full-scale invasion of Ukraine, and over the years they have met about 40 times. Monday’s visit, however, signaled a deepening alliance. It represented a display by China of tacit support for the war and a personal triumph for Putin, who is eager to show he is not isolated on the world stage.

At an initial meeting on Monday afternoon, the leaders appeared relaxed, smiling as they shook hands. “Dear friend, welcome to Russia,” Putin said.

Putin praised Xi’s leadership and complimented China’s “colossal leap forward,” adding: “All over the world, this is of genuine interest, and we even envy you a little.”

Xi, in similarly flattering terms, said he thought Russia had made “significant progress in prosperity” under Putin’s leadership. “You have elections next year, and I’m sure the Russian people will support you,” Xi said.

Elections in Russia are not free or fair. Opposition politicians often are subject to persecution and arrest or face other obstacles to running for office. Putin also pushed through constitutional changes that will let him stay in power at least through 2036.

Xi’s plane arrived at Vnukovo International Airport just southwest of the Russian capital at about 1 p.m. local time Monday. The presidential motorcade then made its way to the center of Moscow, where dozens of people waving Chinese and Russian flags greeted the delegation at the Soluxe Hotel in the north of the city.

Putin and Xi also ate dinner together on Monday and, according to a menu posted by one Kremlin pool reporter, were served quail and mushroom pancakes, venison, and Russian wine.

China's Xi Jinping arrived in Moscow on March 20, marking his first visit to Russia since the invasion of Ukraine. (Video: Russia 24)

Before the talks started, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said that the leaders would discuss the prospects for peace “one way or another” and that Ukraine would “undoubtedly be on the agenda.”

With the world’s attention focused on Xi’s appearance in Moscow, the Ukrainian government urged the Chinese leader to press Putin to respect the U.N. Charter, withdraw Russia’s occupying forces and restore Kyiv’s territorial integrity.

“We expect Beijing to use its influence on Moscow to make it put an end to the aggressive war against Ukraine,” Ukrainian Foreign Ministry spokesman Oleg Nikolenko told The Washington Post. “We stand ready to engage in a closer dialogue with China in order to restore peace in Ukraine in accordance with the principles enshrined in the U.N. Charter, and the latest [U.N. General Assembly] resolution on this matter.”

Late last month, the General Assembly voted 141-7 to call for an end to the war, as well as Russia’s full withdrawal from Ukrainian territory. China was among 32 countries that abstained from the vote.

Ahead of the meeting, the Russian and Chinese leaders each published opinion pieces — Xi’s carried in Rossiyskaya Gazeta; Putin’s in the People’s Daily — in which they denounced what they portrayed as the U.S.-led West’s hegemony and arrogance.

Putin attacked the United States directly in his article. “The U.S.’s policy of simultaneously deterring Russia and China, as well as all those who do not bend to American dictation, is getting ever more fierce and aggressive,” Putin wrote. “The international security and cooperation architecture is being dismantled. Russia has been labeled an ‘immediate threat’ and China a ‘strategic competitor.’”

As Xi visits Russia, Putin sees his anti-U.S. world order taking shape

Xi merely alluded to Washington, writing: “The international community is well aware that no country in the world is superior to all others. There is no universal model of government and there is no world order where the decisive word belongs to a single country. Solidarity and peace on the planet without splits and upheavals meet the common interests of all mankind.”

Since coming to power in 2012, Xi has pursued an increasingly assertive foreign policy to counter what Beijing sees as U.S. efforts to contain China. Beijing’s friendship with Moscow is a key part of China’s strategy to subvert Western-imposed isolation.

Xi and Putin were expected to discuss opportunities to build their bilateral partnership, including economic cooperation, which has soared over the past year and become increasingly vital to Russia amid the bite of Western sanctions. In 2022, Chinese exports to Russia increased by 12.8 percent, while Russian exports to China of crude oil increased, in dollar terms, by 44 percent and exports of natural gas more than doubled, according to industry data.

The leaders may also address Russia’s need for lethal weapons from China, as Moscow’s troops have stalled on the battlefield and as Kyiv awaits deliveries of more powerful and sophisticated weapons from the West, including tanks and air defenses.

“There has been a lot of speculation about military aid, but China has not promised Russia anything,” said Ma Fengshu, director of the Russian and Central Asian Studies Center at Shandong University. “Of course President Xi and Putin will talk about the Ukraine issue, but this meeting will be primarily about enhancing bilateral cooperation between China and Russia, rather than working out a solution to the Ukraine crisis.”

China professes to be neutral in the war, but Xi has not condemned Russia’s invasion or Putin’s effort to annex four Ukrainian regions in a violation of Ukraine’s sovereignty and international law.

Still, Xi is expected to raise to a 12-point peace plan he put forward last month, which called for an end to “unilateral sanctions” but notably did not demand Russia’s withdrawal. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky has expressed openness to speaking with Xi but has vowed to reclaim all occupied lands.

At Monday’s opening meeting, Putin told Xi that Russia was “open to the negotiation process.”

Xi’s trip, while delivering Putin a much-needed distraction from Russia’s failures on the battlefield, also highlights his country’s growing dependence on China, one of its few remaining allies and partners.

Putin visits occupied Mariupol, staking claim to invaded Ukrainian lands

“We have high expectations for the upcoming talks,” Putin wrote in the People’s Daily article.

Meanwhile, Xi wrote that the visit aimed to strengthen the countries’ “friendship, cooperation and peace.”

“I am ready, together with President Vladimir Putin, to outline new plans and measures in the name of opening up new prospects for China-Russia relations of comprehensive partnership and strategic cooperation,” he wrote.

Xi is expected to speak to Zelensky following his Russia trip. A spokesman for Zelensky, Serhiy Nykyforov, said Friday that “there are no specific agreements” about when the call would take place but that “the work is in progress.”

David L. Stern in Kyiv; Robyn Dixon, Mary Ilyushina and Natalia Abbakumova in Riga, Latvia; Lyric Li in Seoul; and Missy Ryan in Washington contributed to this report.

War in Ukraine: What you need to know

The latest: Ukraine’s air defenses shot down more than 30 missiles and drones in a new round of Russian air attacks overnight, the army’s commander said. Secretary of State Antony Blinken says the U.S. “won’t let” Putin impose his will on other nations.

The fight: Russia took control of Bakhmut in eastern Ukraine, where thousands of Russian and Ukrainian soldiers died in the war’s longest and bloodiest battle, in late May. But holding the city will be difficult. The Wagner Group, responsible for the fight and victory in Bakhmut, is allegedly leaving and being replaced by the Russian army.

The upcoming counteroffensive: After a rainy few months left the ground muddy, sticky and unsuitable for heavy vehicles in southern Ukraine, temperatures are rising — and with them, the expectations of a long-awaited counteroffensive against occupying Russian forces.

The frontline: The Washington Post has mapped out the 600-mile front line between Ukrainian and Russian forces.

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