The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Xi meets Putin in show of anti-West unity, but there’s unease, too

7 min

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It’s the most significant arrival in Moscow since Russia launched its invasion of Ukraine last year. After weeks of diplomatic noise about a planned meeting, Chinese President Xi Jinping landed in the Russian capital for a three-day state visit. He’ll be feted Tuesday at state dinner hosted by Russian President Vladimir Putin in the Kremlin’s 15th century Faceted Chamber, the famed banquet hall of the czars where Ivan the Terrible celebrated his conquest of lands in Central Asia and Peter the Great hailed his 1709 victory over the Swedes at Poltava, in what’s now Ukraine.

It’s also the same room where former U.S. president Ronald Reagan softened his “evil empire,” anti-Communist bravura in 1988, toasting instead to “the art of friendly persuasion, the hope of peace with freedom, the hope of holding out for a better way of settling things” at a dinner with Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev. The bonhomie between those two leaders prefigured the eventual end of the Cold War and the collapse and disintegration of the Soviet Union, an event that remains a source of grievance and regret for Putin.

While highlighting their own friendship, Xi and Putin are, to varying degrees, offering a joint front against a perceived shared adversary. The script surrounding the two autocrats’ confab is one of unity and umbrage with the West. Writing in China’s state-run People’s Daily ahead of Xi’s visit, Putin decried “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.”

In Kremlin-run RIA Novosti, Xi took a subtler approach, elliptically pushing back against the democracy versus autocracy rhetoric touted by President Biden and his Western allies. “There is no universal model of government and there is no world order where the decisive word belongs to a single country,” Xi wrote. “Solidarity and peace on the planet without splits and upheavals meet the common interests of all mankind.”

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

Chinese leader Xi Jinping met Russia's Vladimir Putin in Moscow on March 20 to promote Beijing's role as a potential peacemaker in Ukraine. (Video: Reuters)

On one level, the meeting of the world’s two most prominent autocrats represents the hardening of an ideological axis. Both leaders see themselves hemmed in by a confrontational, meddling United States; both resent Washington’s grandstanding over the international order and rule of law, while their state mouthpieces routinely call out perceived American hypocrisy and double standards; and both have their own visions of a world order where supposed American hegemony is unraveled.

The pictures of Xi and Putin together in Moscow will send a clear message. Russia and China remain close partners — linked by their joint hostility to America and its allies,” observed Financial Times columnist Gideon Rachman.

High on the agenda is talk of peace. Beijing, which is nominally neutral on Russia’s war with Ukraine, recently issued its position paper on the conflict, itemizing a 12-point peace plan that could settle matters. While analysts largely dismissed it at as a sop to the Kremlin, China is nevertheless positioning itself as a potential broker for a future cease-fire. Xi comes to Moscow in the wake of China successfully ushering in a thaw in relations between Saudi Arabia and Iran, a diplomatic feat the United States had little ability of its own to accomplish.

For now, most outside observers are skeptical. On Monday, U.S. officials warned against any Sino-Russian calls for a cease-fire in Ukraine, arguing that would only make concrete Russia’s illegal invasion. “All that’s going to do … is ratify Russia’s conquest to date,” White House national security spokesman John Kirby said. “All that’s going to do is give Putin more time to refit, retrain, reman and try to plan for renewed offenses at a time of his choosing.”

Secretary of State Antony Blinken said that Xi’s visit, which came days after the International Criminal Court put out a warrant for Putin’s arrest on war crimes charges, suggested that “China feels no responsibility to hold the Kremlin accountable for the atrocities committed to Ukraine,” and would “rather provide diplomatic cover for Russia to continue to commit those very crimes.”

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

There’s no doubt China has sensed opportunity in the crisis. “Beijing refuses to condemn the invasion, has blamed the United States for the war and criticizes Western sanctions designed to starve Putin’s war machine of funds,” my colleagues noted. “With Russia’s economy under intense pressure, China last year kept it afloat, boosting trade with Russia — including a sharp increase in Chinese exports of electronic chips that Moscow needs for weapons production — and a steep rise in purchases of Russian oil.”

As the West seeks to isolate Russia, China’s leverage over Moscow has only grown. That’s a position of influence that Russian policy elites would have warned against before Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, but are in no position to thwart now. Some Chinese commentators reject the invocation of an ironclad “alliance” between the two countries, pointing to a deeper of history of friction, as well as current differences both in terms of strategic interests and political styles.

China and Russia may both believe “that the current international order is unfair, unreasonable, and imperfect,” said Zhao Long, a senior fellow at the Shanghai Institutes for International Studies, in a recent interview with a Chinese outlet, but they approach this status quo in markedly different ways.

“China’s emphasis is on reform and improvement, not starting all over again,” Zhao added, gesturing to Putin’s border-smashing revanchism. “But it is obvious that Russia has already had an impulse before the war, hoping to carry out a ‘subversive’ reconstruction of the entire international system and international order. In the aftermath of this conflict, I am afraid, Russia’s desire to dismantle the current international order will grow even stronger.”

While Chinese officials and analysts may quietly disapprove of Russia’s conduct, they have found accommodation with Putin, who by necessity is consolidating Russia’s role as a junior partner to China on the world stage. Among other developments, because of sanctions, Russia is now trading its dependence on the dollar to reliance on the Chinese yuan.

“Russian leaders like to emphasize the unprecedented strategic cooperation between the two countries,” wrote Alexandra Prokopenko for Carnegie Politika, the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace’s blog on Russia and Eurasia. “Yet in reality, this cooperation makes Moscow increasingly dependent on Beijing.”

Alexander Gabuev, the director of the Berlin-based Carnegie Russia Eurasia Center and an authority on Sino-Russian relations, argued that the time may come when China will use its clout with the Kremlin to extract further political concession, especially as the West cuts its own economic ties to Russia. Beijing may expect Russia in the future to allow it access to Arctic naval bases or alter its own dealings with China’s regional rivals, like India.

“China is content simply to monetize its growing geoeconomic leverage over Russia by securing discounts on its hydrocarbon exports and conquering its consumer market,” Gabuev wrote in the Economist. “But it is probably only a matter of time before China demands more political loyalty for its help in keeping Putin’s regime afloat.”