Updated Sep 15, 2022 - World

Xi and Putin hold first meeting since Ukraine invasion began

Russian President Vladimir Putin (L) and Chinese President Xi Jinping (R) meet in Beijing, China on February 4.

Russian President Vladimir Putin and Chinese President Xi Jinping in Beijing in February. Photo: Kremlin Press Office/Handout/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

China's President Xi Jinping met with Russia's leader Vladimir Putin in Samarkand, Uzbekistan, on the sidelines of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) summit Thursday.

Why it matters: Their first in-person encounter since Russian forces launched their Feb. 24 invasion of Ukraine marks a show of diplomatic support for the Russian president after Ukrainian troops forced his forces to retreat from much of Ukraine's northeast, even as Putin acknowledged that Beijing may have "questions and concerns" regarding the war.

  • Xi is aiming to bolster his standing as a geopolitical statesman in his first trip outside China since early in the COVID-19 pandemic before October's Communist Party leaders' meeting, when he's expected to secure a third term in office.

What they're saying: “We highly appreciate the balanced position of our Chinese friends in connection with the Ukrainian crisis,” Putin said in his opening remarks at the meeting, the New York Times reported.

  • “We understand your questions and concerns in this regard. During today’s meeting, of course, we will explain in detail our position on this issue, although we have spoken about this before," he added.
  • Putin also referred to Xi as a “dear and longtime friend," adding that Russia supports the One China principle and condemns the U.S.' "provocations" in Taiwan, per the Washington Post.
  • Xi did not comment on Ukraine or the perceived threat from NATO in his remarks at the meeting.
  • However, China released a statement after the meeting noting that it was "ready to work with Russia in extending strong support to each other on issues concerning their respective core interests," per the Times.

Worth noting: The Kremlin claimed in a statement ahead of Putin's trip to Samarkand that a senior official from the ruling Chinese Communist Party said during a visit to Russia last week that Beijing "understands and supports Russia," in particular "on the situation in Ukraine."

  • The state-run Xinhua News Agency said Li Zhanshu, the third-ranking member of the CCP, met with Putin, but it did not mention comments about Ukraine. It said Li pledged to "continue to work with Russia to firmly support each other on issues concerning each other's core interests and major concerns."

The big picture: The SCO is a political, economic and security organization designed to counter U.S. influence, which Beijing and Moscow founded in 2001.

  • It comprises leaders from India and Central Asia, including Kazakhstan, which was Xi's first stop on his three-day trip to Central Asia. Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi attended the summit as well.
  • Iran announced earlier this week it would join the SCO, underscoring the growing alignment between the U.S.'s top adversaries.

Flashback: Xi and Putin last met in early February in Beijing, where they jointly announced a "no limits" partnership and the arrival of a "new era" of global politics — just weeks before Putin's invasion of Ukraine.

  • The Chinese leader backed the Russian president in warning against Western "interference" and a NATO expansion — which Putin later blamed in his attempts to try and justifying his forces' unprovoked invasion of Ukraine.

Between the lines: Both Putin and Xi are now in more precarious situations than they were in February. The Russian economy is increasingly isolated by a tough Western-led sanctions regime, and the Russian army has recently suffered major setbacks in Ukraine after a successful counteroffensive by the Ukrainian military.

  • Meanwhile, Xi's domestic zero-COVID policy has slowed the economy, undermined Chinese people's faith in their government, and damaged Beijing's global reputation for its domestic handling of the COVID outbreak.

Editor's note: This story has been updated with additional details.

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