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Chinese President Xi Jinping, also general secretary of the Communist Party of China Central Committee and chairman of the Central Military Commission, delivers a speech at the closing meeting of the first session of the 14th National People's Congress NPC at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, capital of China, March 13, 2023. (Photo by Yan Yan/Xinhua via Getty Images)

Putin welcomes Xi to Moscow for Chinese leader’s first visit since Russia invaded Ukraine

March 20, 2023

    (CNN) — Xi Jinping has met with Vladimir Putin at the start of a three-day visit to Russia — his first since Moscow launched its unprovoked invasion of Ukraine last year — as the Chinese leader seeks to portray himself as a peacebroker despite deep skepticism in Kyiv and the West.

Putin welcomed Xi at the Kremlin on Monday, just days after the International Criminal Court in the Hague accused the Russian president of committing war crimes in Ukraine and issued a warrant for his arrest.

Ukraine is expected to be a key point of discussion during Xi’s visit, which will be closely watched for any potential impact on an entrenched conflict that has killed tens of thousands and triggered a mass humanitarian crisis.

“In the last few years, China has made a colossal leap forward,” Putin told Xi, sitting side by side with him at the Kremlin on Monday afternoon. “In the whole world, this evokes interest, and unfortunately even envy.”

China has billed the trip a “journey of friendship, cooperation and peace,” amid a push from Beijing to frame itself as a key proponent for the resolution of the conflict. But Xi’s trip is likely to be seen in some Western capitals as a ringing endorsement of the Russian leader in the face of broad international condemnation of his war.

Putin once again claimed to Xi that he is “always open to the negotiation process” during a publicized portion of Monday’s meeting, despite his repeated refusal to engage with Kyiv on a withdrawal from Ukrainian land.

“We studied closely your proposals on the settlement on the acute crisis in Ukraine,” Putin told Xi.

“Of course, we will have an opportunity to discuss this issue. We know that you are based on the principles of justice and commitment to the fundamental points of international law,” Putin said. “We will certainly discuss all these issues, including your initiative.”

Western leaders have expressed skepticism about China’s potential role as a peacemaker and its claimed neutrality. The United States and its allies have instead since last month warned that China is considering sending lethal aid to Russia for its war effort, which Beijing has denied.

Kyiv is also expected to be closely watching the proceedings, and reiterated on Monday that any plan for peace must start with a Russian exit from its territory.

“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 CNN Monday.

“Restoring territorial integrity of Ukraine should be at the core of every diplomatic effort,” he said. “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 UN Charter, and the latest UNGA resolution on this matter.”

On the table

Xi’s visit comes days after the ICC essentially made Putin a wanted man in the 123 countries that recognize the court, deepening the Russian leader’s isolation from the West as he continues a bloody and costly war in Ukraine.

The Chinese leader was expected to meet with Putin later on Monday afternoon local time. He was greeted on his arrival at Vnukovo airport near Moscow by Dmitry Chernyshenko, one of Russia’s 10 deputy prime ministers, and a Russian military band, but Putin himself was not present for the meet-and-greet.

Russian media later showed Xi’s motorcade driving through the city ahead of three days of meetings, in which he is expected to tout a supposed framework to end the conflict that has earned a lukewarm reception from the West.

China has recently sought to revamp its image, positing itself as a proponent of peace and defending its relationship with Russia as good for global stability. Last month, Beijing released a vaguely worded position paper on the “political solution” to the conflict in Ukraine.

On Friday following the announcement of Xi’s Moscow trip, the White House expressed concerns about potential proposals from China that would be “one-sided and reflect only the Russian perspective.”

For example, a proposal for a ceasefire — which China has repeatedly called for — would merely provide a way for Russia to regroup before launching a reprisal, said John Kirby, spokesman for the National Security Council.

The visit is expected to provide a platform for the two countries to further deepen their close strategic alignment, which spans diplomatic coordination, joint military training and robust trade.

In a statement released after Xi landed on Monday, the Chinese leader said: “In the face of a turbulent and changing world, China is willing to continue to work with Russia to firmly safeguard the international order.”

Putin and Xi both touted the “new impetus” their meeting would bring to their bilateral relationship in separate letters published in each other’s national state-run media outlets ahead of the visit.

Both also used the letters to decry “hegemony” — an allusion to their shared aim of pushing back against what they see as a US-led world order.

Xi will need to tread carefully during his visit to Moscow. At stake for the Chinese leader is whether he can both bolster ties with a partner China sees as crucial to countering that perceived US dominance, while not alienating a Europe that has become increasingly wary of the China-Russia rapport.

Putin launched his invasion days after he and Xi declared a “no limits” partnership last February.

Since that time China has claimed neutrality, but backed Kremlin rhetoric blaming NATO for the conflict, refused to condemn the invasion, and continued to support Moscow financially by significantly increasing purchases of Russian fuel.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky has in the past publicly expressed an interest in speaking with Xi about the conflict, though communication between the two countries has not reached higher than Ukraine’s ministerial level since the war began.

Ukrainian, Chinese and US officials all declined last week to confirm a potential virtual meeting between Zelensky and Xi, following a Wall Street Journal report that the two were planning to speak for the first time after Xi’s then-potential Moscow trip.

Close rapport

In contrast, this week’s state visit marks the 40th meeting between Putin and Xi since the Chinese leader came to power in 2012.

The personal chemistry between the two authoritarian leaders is widely seen as a key driver of tightening ties between the countries in recent years — and will also be closely scrutinized during the visit.

Past meetings between the leaders have put that rapport on full display, with photo-ops including Putin presenting Xi with ice cream on his 66th birthday during a 2019 meeting in Tajikistan, and the two cooking Russian pancakes together on the sidelines of a forum in Vladivostok in 2018.

The two last met in person in September during a Shanghai Cooperation Organization summit, part of Xi’s first overseas trip following nearly three years without travel during the pandemic.

Putin, who referred to Xi as his “good old friend” in his letter published in Chinese state media Monday, is expected to play up the meeting domestically as proof that Russia is not isolated on the world’s stage.

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