Russian President Vladimir Putin told Chinese leader Xi Jinping on Thursday that Moscow “understands” Beijing’s concerns regarding the war in Ukraine in their first face-to-face meeting since the invasion, as the two countries test the boundaries of their friendship disrupted by Russia’s setbacks in the invasion.
“We highly value the balanced position of our Chinese friends regarding the Ukrainian crisis, we understand your questions and concerns on this matter, and during today’s meeting we will of course clarify all of these in detail,” Putin said in his opening remarks in Uzbekistan, kicking off a meeting with Xi, whom he addressed as his “dear and longtime friend.”
The Russian leader added that Russia is committed to the one-China principle and “condemned the provocations” of the United States in Taiwan.
When the two leaders met in February to declare the beginning of their “no limits” partnership, they were also signaling the start of a new alignment of two of the world’s most powerful authoritarian states.
Since then, Russia’s war against Ukraine has gone worse for Moscow than anyone expected, with Russia facing repeated humiliating military setbacks, while Putin has been largely shunned by Western leaders and the Russian economy has been hammered by unprecedented sanctions.
Their first face-to-face meeting since the war began — held on the sidelines of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization summit in Samarkand — comes at a fragile time for both leaders, testing how boundless that friendship really is.
Russian forces have suffered stunning losses on the battlefield in Ukraine. Beijing, meanwhile, finds itself increasingly at odds with Western countries over Taiwan and human rights abuses in Xinjiang.
For Putin, the meeting sends a crucial message that he remains a global player, with friends who share his authoritarian views and determination to create a new world order in which the United States no longer dominates.
For Xi, his first trip abroad in almost three years marks his diplomatic reemergence before a party congress in October when he expects to secure a precedent-breaking third term.
“It’s of course a demonstration of mutual support and solidarity, a message primarily for the U.S. and the West,” said Yun Sun, director of the China program at the Stimson Center.
Yet Xi is unlikely to offer Putin more concrete support. Doing so could risk Western blowback that would exacerbate a growing list of domestic challenges, including a slowing Chinese economy, property crisis and public discontent with strict “zero covid” policies.
China has maintained a delicate balance on Russia’s war against Ukraine, calling for peace while endorsing Russian complaints that NATO was to blame because of the alliance’s expansion. Beijing has tried to lend moral support to Putin without outright backing the invasion or sending financial or military assistance that would incur secondary sanctions.
Having pledged to maintain normal trade relations with Moscow, China has continued to export goods to Russia as well as import Russian oil and gas. Bilateral trade grew 31 percent for the first eight months of 2022, according to Chinese customs data.
“Concrete support for the war in Ukraine is unlikely,” said Sun. “Military support and assistance are not in the cards. China doesn’t need to support Russia in the war; it only does not oppose it.”
China is likely to continue its approach, which some analysts have termed the “Beijing straddle,” of diplomatic support for Russia in a partnership aimed at countering a Washington-led international order while also complying with Western sanctions.
In recent days, however, China has signaled stronger support of Russia. Li Zhanshu, China’s third-most-senior leader, visited Moscow last week and emphasized that Beijing has lent “support with coordinated action” to Russia as it responded to security threats “on its doorstep.”
A Russian readout of the meeting said that Li expressed support for the war, but the Chinese version was more tempered in saying that Li said China “understands and fully supports” Russia’s security interests.
Despite China’s efforts to strike a balance, Xi’s meeting with Putin will invite more questions about China’s position in the conflict.
“The trip fits with Mr. Xi’s strategic vision of close ties with Moscow, but the meeting with Russia’s leader may make it harder for Xi to claim he is not somehow enabling Russia’s aggression,” said Joseph Torigian, an assistant professor focusing on Russia and China at American University.
Going into the talks, the Kremlin described Russian-Chinese ties as being “at an unprecedented high level,” saying it “attaches great importance to China’s balanced approach to the Ukrainian crisis.”
The Kremlin claims that Moscow and Beijing’s partnership ensures “global and regional stability,” although Russia’s war on Ukraine has destabilized the region, creating particular uncertainties in Central Asia.
“The countries jointly stand for the formation of a just, democratic and multipolar world order based on international law and the central role of the United Nations,” a Kremlin statement said.
In Uzbekistan, Xi faces the added awkwardness of maintaining neutrality while attending a summit with Central Asian countries, most of which oppose the war and worry about possible Russian incursion into their territories.
Before flying to Samarkand, Xi visited Kazakhstan where he met President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev in a symbolically important first stop, where he appeared to send a subtle message about the Ukraine war, vowing to strongly support Kazakhstan’s efforts to protect its independence, sovereignty and territorial integrity, “no matter how the international situation changes.”
Russia has shown irritation at Kazakhstan’s refusal to endorse the war or to recognize the independence of two Russian proxy “republics” in eastern Ukraine.
Like Ukraine, Kazakhstan has a sizable Russian-speaking component, some 18 percent of the population, concentrated in the north of the country. With Moscow’s often-stated historical mission to “protect” Russian speakers around the world — one of the reasons it gave for the Ukrainian invasion — they are a viewed as a source of insecurity.
Xi’s travels to Central Asia are part of long-term efforts to establish better trade routes and connectivity through the region, an increasingly urgent task as China faces the possibility of conflict in the Taiwan Strait and the South China Sea that could hinder access to maritime shipping lanes.
In protest of a visit to Taiwan by U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, China in August launched large-scale military exercises simulating a blockade of Taiwan’s main island, triggering what has become known as the Fourth Taiwan Strait Crisis.
“This makes this trip quite important because Xi is basically there with a mission to convince Central Asian leaders that having a strong relationship with China is still important [and to] please consider our goals and what we can give you,” said Niva Yau, senior researcher at the OSCE Academy, a foreign policy think tank in Kyrgyzstan.
In Central Asia, where countries for years have had to navigate between two giant powers locked in quiet competition, a diminished Putin could give Beijing a chance to expand its footprint.
“The saying is China has the deep pockets and Russia has the guns,” said Theresa Fallon, director of the Center for Russia Europe Asia Studies in Brussels. “The question now is, as Russia’s military footprint possibly recedes in the region, will China’s grow?”