Vladimir Putin has welcomed his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping to Moscow, just days after a warrant was issued for the Russian president’s arrest over alleged war crimes in Ukraine.
The two leaders, who called each other “dear friend” and exchanged compliments during the meeting at the Kremlin, were locked in talks for more than four hours on Monday.
The discussions are part of a three-day trip, described by both countries as an opportunity to deepen their “no limits friendship”.
However, the US criticised the visit, which came after the International Criminal Court’s arrest warrant on Friday which accused Mr Putin of being responsible for abducting Ukrainian children – something Moscow denies.
Washington said the timing of the visit showed Beijing was providing Moscow with “diplomatic cover” to commit further crimes.
But in Moscow, Mr Putin said Mr Xi’s presence was a prestigious, diplomatic triumph amid Western efforts to isolate Russia after its invasion of Ukraine.
In an article published in the Chinese People’s Daily newspaper ahead of the visit, Mr Putin took aim at the US, saying the two nations were not prepared to accept attempts to weaken them.
“The US policy of simultaneously deterring Russia and China, as well as all those who do not bend to the American diktat, is getting ever fiercer and more aggressive,” he wrote.
Meanwhile Beijing, which insists the meeting is part of normal diplomatic exchanges between the two countries, described the visit as a “journey of friendship, co-operation and peace”.
But while the pair both talked up their “strategic partnership”, China maintained its public neutrality on Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, instead positioning itself as a peacemaker.
“China will uphold its objective and fair position on the Ukrainian crisis and play a constructive role in promoting peace talks,” Foreign Ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin said.
The West has claimed China was considering supplying Russia’s war machine – a move that could worsen relations with Washington and turn important European trade partners against Mr Xi’s administration.
But Beijing has now seemingly gone cold on the idea. However, it has refused to condemn Moscow’s aggression and has strongly criticised Western sanctions against Moscow.
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken, whose planned trip to Beijing earlier this year was scrapped at the last minute following a row over alleged Chinese spy balloons, slammed the visit, saying the ICC warrant should make Mr Putin a pariah.
“That President Xi is travelling to Russia days after the International Criminal Court issued an arrest warrant for President Putin suggests that China feels no responsibility to hold the Kremlin accountable for the atrocities committed in Ukraine,” America’s top diplomat said.
“Instead of even condemning them it would rather provide diplomatic cover for Russia to continue to commit those grave crimes.”
Mr Putin has not commented publicly on the ICC’s arrest warrant, but his spokesman called it “null and void” on Friday.
Russia – as well as the US and China – does not recognise the jurisdiction of the court, which is based in The Hague.
It also does not extradite its citizens to face the court’s justice, meaning Mr Putin is unlikely to ever face trial there.
Ukraine conflict keeps President Xi Jinping in awkward position but China still has Russia over a barrel
It was not meant to turn out this way for Xi Jinping. We still have no idea how much warning Vladimir Putin gave him about his ill-fated invasion of Ukraine, but once under way the Chinese leader would have been hoping for a quick and decisive outcome in Russia’s favour.
That would have boded well for Mr Xi’s own plans for acquiring or reacquiring, in his mind, a chunk of neighbouring territory of his own, Taiwan. Instead, the conflict drags on and keeps Mr Xi in the awkward position of trying to appear above the fray while doing all he can to ensure Russia still does not lose, bar, for now, supplying weapons.
That is not to say China has nothing to gain from this war, quite the opposite. It now has Russia over a barrel, quite literally. Unable to sell oil and gas elsewhere, Russia is doing so to China on Beijing’s terms, a guaranteed source of cheap energy. It has military benefits, too.
China’s tacticians are watching the war closely and learning for the future. Its reverse engineers are also acquiring pieces of Western defence tech to copy and improve upon, just as their counterparts are doing in Iran.
So when Mr Xi meets Mr Putin behind the smiles and ceremony, the relationship between Chinese and Russian leaders is transactional, one of mutual necessity but far more so for Mr Putin than Mr Xi. Russia needs any friend it can get. Mr Putin is even more of an international pariah now he is a fugitive from justice, wanted by the International Criminal Court.
He needs markets for his country’s energy, alternative sources of imports and accomplices in his efforts to circumvent Western sanctions. Both countries also aspire to build an alternative to what they see as a world order skewed to benefit democracy and freedom, not authoritarian regimes like themselves.
There will be a lot of rhetoric about close friendship and partnership, and criticism of Western hegemony and bullying. There may be a limit to China’s friendship. In a summit in September, Mr Putin admitted Mr Xi had “questions and concerns” about his war in Ukraine.
The use of tactical nuclear weapons would be a red line most likely for Beijing. Mr Xi will continue to play the role of global statesman pushing his 12-point peace plan to end the conflict.
He does not want this war ended on the West’s terms. His preference would be a Russian victory, but in the absence of that unlikely outcome, he will settle for a frozen conflict and continue to reap the dividends of war.