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Xi, Putin and Russia’s war

Xi, Putin and Russia’s war


The Chinese president has just returned from a three-day visit to Russia. What did we learn about Xi Jinping’s support for Vladimir Putin’s war in Ukraine?

“Just days after the International Criminal Court accused the Russian president of war crimes, a major show of support from the leader of the world’s second largest superpower. President Xi calling Putin his dear friend, praising his firm leadership, predicting he’ll win election next year, Putin promising to discuss a Chinese peace plan.”

NBC News

It is, perhaps, the world’s most powerful bromance.

Xi Jinping is president of China, by some measures the world’s largest economy and the second great power alongside the USA.

Vladimir Putin is president of Russia, which for the last year has been trying – and failing – to conquer Ukraine by force. 

For much of the 20th century, China and Russia were fierce rivals.

They even came to the brink of war.

But after the fall of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s, the two countries became friendlier.

At the turn of the millennium, they signed the Treaty of Good-Neighbourliness and Friendly Cooperation, a strategic treaty that marked their growing alliance.

And when Xi Jinping met Vladimir Putin on his first foreign visit as China’s president in 2013, he said they, quote, “always treat each other with an open soul”.

A year later, Russia annexed Crimea… and a Chinese government spokesperson said the country understood the challenges Russia faced.

From there Xi and Putin’s relationship went from strength to strength.

They even celebrated birthdays together.

“Putin chose to make Xi’s day special in his own trademark style. The leader was ready with a special treat: some ice cream flown in all the way from Russia.”


Their countries grew closer too.

In 2019, China and Russia announced a five-point strategic partnership based on, quote, “win-win cooperation”.

And in February 2022, they met at the Beijing Winter Olympics.

“President Putin of Russia was the star guest, meeting President Xi Jinping before the official opening.”

BBC News

They signed a limitless partnership with, quote, “no forbidden areas of cooperation”.

A few weeks later, Russia invaded Ukraine.

Since the invasion, Xi Jinping has performed a delicate balancing act.

China has continued to trade with Russia, and implied that Nato was at fault for the war rather than Vladimir Putin.

But late last year, President Xi had a warning for the Russian president.

“China’s Xi Jinping met with Germany’s chancellor Olaf Scholz today in Beijing and he used the occasion to send a message to Vladimir Putin. Xi told Scholz he opposes the use of nuclear force in Europe. Those were his most direct remarks yet on the need to keep Russia’s war in Ukraine from escalating.”

Bloomberg Quicktake

On 20 February of this year, the US said that China might provide weapons to Moscow.

“Some further information that we are sharing today and that I think will be out there soon indicates that they are strongly considering providing lethal assistance to Russia.”

Anthony Blinken, US Secretary of State

But soon after, China called for a political settlement to end the war, making no mention of its limitless partnership with Russia.

So what happened on President Xi’s recent visit to Russia, and what does it tell us about what President Xi wants from the war?

“The Chinese president’s gigantic plane touches down in Moscow, where he’s met, slightly strangely, by one of Russia’s deputy prime ministers. Not the most senior government figure for such a key diplomatic moment.”

Sky News

During President Xi’s three day visit to Russia, Vladimir Putin was in full flattery mode. 

President Xi’s motorcade drove to Moscow past billboards that read: “A warm welcome to Russia for the leader of China.”

He was welcomed to the Kremlin with a military band.

[Fanfare greeting President Xi in Kremlin]

He stayed in a hotel featuring a replica of Beijing’s Forbidden City. And he had a sumptuous dinner with Vladimir Putin, featuring quail blinis, venison with cherry sauce and pavlova.

But there was also business to attend to.

China and Russia agreed to work towards a more just world order and expressed concerns about Nato. President Xi said the two countries were deepening their strategic partnership.

But still, there was no outright support of Russia’s war in Ukraine.

Nor was there any progress made on the 12-point peace plan proposed by China. The proposals reiterate that nuclear weapons shouldn’t be used, but many Western leaders think the overall plan lacks the specificity to be taken seriously.

The trip – showy but somewhat superficial – goes some way to explaining China’s aims for the war in Ukraine.

China would like to see the West become weaker. 

And because Russia has become so reliant on China, it wants to use the war as a moment to extract concessions from the Kremlin. Whether that’s cut price energy or a promise for support if China invaded Taiwan.

But China also wants the war to end as soon as possible, foreseeing the political and economic dangers of a lengthy conflict. 

And offering full throated support for the invasion would risk economic sanctions – and alienating major trading partners, like the EU.

So what are the main takeaways from the visit?

Russia has deepened its dependence on China. 

And China has given the impression – especially to the Global South, where it wants to become more influential – that it can play a role as a peace broker, with President Xi as a statesman.

This visit was designed for China to show that, in the great power struggle of the 21st century, it is a worthy adversary to the USA.

The trip may not hasten the end of the war, but by and large President Xi Jinping has got exactly what he wants.

This episode was written and mixed by Xavier Greenwood.