Xi’s embrace of Putin hurts his chances of playing peacemaker in Ukraine

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Chinese President Xi Jinping will deliver a strong message of support for Vladimir Putin with his three-day visit to Moscow this week, even as he proposes Beijing’s proposals to mediate an end to the Russian leader’s war in Ukraine.

Xi’s trip marks his most ambitious effort yet to intervene in Europe’s bloodiest conflict since World War II, and will be followed by his first talks with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy since Putin’s invasion in February 2022. It follows China’s successful efforts to help Iran and Saudi Arabia heal years of discord.

But while Xi’s “rock-solid” support for Putin on his first trip abroad since his third term as president ensures a warm welcome in Moscow, it also makes it harder for him to sell himself as an honest broker to broker an end to the war. Both Moscow and Kyiv are equanimous about China’s vague peace proposals, which Ukraine’s allies in the US and Europe have flatly rejected.

“Both sides are in a position to give the war a chance,” said Alexander Gabuev, director of the Carnegie Russia-Eurasia Center. “Now is not the time for diplomacy.”

Ukraine is preparing an offensive with new weapons provided by its allies, while Russia embarks on a long fight, hoping to outlast Kiev and its supporters. Each side accuses the other of not being willing to talk.

Still, Xi’s Moscow visit is an opportunity to promote his image as a global “statesman” and challenge US global dominance by defying Washington’s efforts to isolate Putin, who has hosted few other leaders since the war. The trip comes as tensions between Washington and Beijing have increased.

The US on Friday again denounced China’s Ukraine plan as biased towards Russia and urged Xi to approach Zelenskyy directly.

For Putin, Xi’s arrival is an opportunity to deepen his key international relationship, with one-on-one meetings and an “informal” dinner planned.

Trade between the neighbors has surged amid unprecedented sanctions imposed on Russia by the US and its allies over the invasion. During that period, China has bought more than $65 billion in Russian energy, a major source of cash for the Kremlin, as well as vital supplies of technology and other commodities. Russia expects trade volume to grow to $200 billion this year from around $185 billion in 2022.

“Trade with China is now absolutely vital for Russia,” said Janis Kluge, an analyst on the Russian economy at the German Society for International Politics and Security in Berlin. “Economic relations have always been asymmetrical, but since the beginning of the war, the asymmetry has become a dependency.”

But while the Kremlin said the two leaders would talk about energy and the arms trade, there is no sign that any major new deals are in the works. The US has warned China not to provide deadly aid to Russia, which has also been a key arms supplier to Beijing.

Henry Huiyao Wang, founder of the Center for China and Globalization, a Beijing-based political research group, said it was in China’s interest to end the war. “After three years of Covid, China wants to revive its economy,” he said. “That is his top priority.”

But a Ukrainian diplomat in Beijing told Bloomberg News they had seen no evidence China had taken any practical steps to invite parties to talks.

China’s 12-point plan is sparsely detailed and consists largely of broader foreign policy positions that Beijing has long held. While Kyiv’s commitment to the principle of territorial integrity has been lauded as it seeks to push Russian forces back across the border, a call to freeze forces in current positions is a false start.

Even if the timing is pushed back, Xi’s move will give him an opportunity to portray China as peace-seeking while the US and its allies discuss sending more arms to Ukraine. That message is likely to resonate with much of the non-aligned world, which is reeling from the war-induced rise in global food costs.

“I doubt China believes the peace plan is viable in the short term,” said Joseph Torigian, an assistant professor at American University. “They’re probably hoping that at most the Russians will give them an endorsement of their general principles, which China could then use to claim it’s having a positive impact on the course of the war.”

–Assisted by Colum Murphy, Rebecca Choong Wilkins, Yujing Liu, Jing Li and Dan Murtaugh.

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