Mar 20, 2023 - Podcasts

Russia and China's Ukraine wartime relationship

Russian President Vladimir Putin made a surprise visit to Mariupol this weekend, marking his first trip to the Ukrainian territory Russia annexed in September. And Chinese President Xi Jinping is visiting Moscow for the first time since Russia invaded Ukraine.

  • Plus, what you need to know about a possible criminal indictment against former President Trump.

Guests: Axios' Dave Lawler and Mike Allen.

Credits: Axios Today is produced by Niala Boodhoo, Alexandra Botti, Fonda Mwangi and Alex Sugiura. Music is composed by Evan Viola. You can reach us at [email protected]. You can text questions, comments and story ideas to Niala as a text or voice memo to 202-918-4893.

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NIALA: Good morning! Welcome to Axios Today!

It’s Monday, March 20th.

I’m Niala Boodhoo.

Today: what you need to know about a possible criminal indictment against former President Trump. But first, Russia, China and their Ukraine wartime relationship – that’s today’s One Big Thing.

Russia and China's Ukraine wartime relationship

NIALA: Russian President Vladimir Putin made a surprise visit to Mariupol this weekend, marking his first trip to the Ukrainian territory that Russia annexed in September. And today, Chinese President Xi Jinping is in Moscow for the first time since Russia invaded Ukraine.

Axios’ Dave Lawler is here with the big picture. Hey Dave.


NIALA: Dave Putin's visit to Mariupol came just days after the International Criminal Court issued an arrest warrant for Putin on war crimes charges. In fact, one of President Zelensky's advisors tweeted that, “the criminal always returns to the scene of the crime.” Is the timing of this trip an expression of defiance by Putin against the ICC?

DAVE: It could certainly be read that way. And look, Mariupol was the city that was perhaps most brutally bombarded and besieged by Russia last year. It fell after a very prolonged struggle, but was almost entirely destroyed in the process. And so I think that might be part of why you heard this, quite angry reaction from Ukrainian officials that Putin would go there now and essentially celebrate that it's in Russian hands and, kind of, paint a picture that it's being rebuilt as a Russian city. But of course, there are a lot of Ukrainian civilians, who are no longer living there either because they fled or because they were killed as so many were in this battle from Mariupol. So, certainly a defiant Putin. But a very grim occasion if you're looking, from the Ukrainian perspective.

NIALA: And what was behind the ICC’s ruling, what do we need to know about that?

DAVE: So this had to do with the abduction of children, by the Russians, in occupied Ukrainian territory. The court is investigating the fact that came down from the top of the Russian side. That's why this arrest warrant went out for Putin. Now, Russia is not a party to the International Criminal Court. Moscow says this ruling is null and void. They're not paying any attention to it. Of course Putin might have to be a bit more careful about how he travels around the world, going forward, because there is this arrest warrant out for him. But this is just another storyline, in a very busy week for Vladimir Putin. He has an international arrest warrant hanging over his head. He made this first visit to the occupied territories, and he's going to greet a very important visitor as well, Chinese President Xi Jinping is visiting Moscow this week.

NIALA: We need to take a break here - but in a moment, Dave Lawler is back with me to talk about what that big visit from China means for Russia - and the U.S.


What that big visit from China means for Russia

NIALA: Welcome back to Axios Today! I’m Niala Boodhoo.

I’m talking to Axios’s Dave Lawler about this pivotal week for Russia and China.

Today, President Xi Jinping begins a three day state visit to Russia. Dave, How significant is this moment between Russia and China?

DAVE: Sure. Very significant for both sides. On the one hand, Russia has been trying very hard to signal that it is not isolated, that this is sort of a Western conspiracy against it, but that it still has friends. Its most powerful friend is a neighbor, China, Xi is just off being reelected for a third term. So, this is actually quite a customary thing for a Chinese president to make the first visit of their term to Russia. These are neighbors, they're partners, they're really diplomatic allies, including over this Ukrainian issue. And so, for Xi, you know, Russia's a very important partner too. They're buying a whole lot of Russian oil. They buy a lot of weapons from Russia and they too like to signal to the United States that they have friends they're not isolated. And so it makes a lot of sense for these two to get together.

NIALA: So far in the war, China hasn't provided weapons or openly breached Western sanctions. So what role has China actually played being Russia's ally in this war?

DAVE: Yeah. So that is a really important question because China actually is trying to position itself as neutral publicly. They have even said that they could mediate, an, a solution to this war. Peace talks, but in fact that neutrality is really only skin deep. They've echoed some of the Russian arguments that this is NATO's fault, that this war started to begin with.

They are a crucial economic lifeline to Russia in terms of buying oil and supplying a lot of things that Russia otherwise couldn't get, like microchips. And so this Chinese Russian partnership has grown even more important. Particularly for Russia, they're more reliant on China than they ever have been before in the context of this war. And Xi has said that this is a relationship without limits. He's signaled clearly that he is not going to be bullied out of a partnership with Russia by the West. And so this is a signal from the Chinese side too, that this is a partnership that they take quite seriously and despite the fact that Russia is being described by people like President Biden as an international pariah, China doesn't see it that way.

NIALA: After the Russian visit, President Xi is expected to hold his first call since the invasion with Ukrainian president Vladimir Zelensky. What should we expect from that?

DAVE: So this is something that the Ukrainian side has obviously welcomed. They've wanted to be in communication with the Chinese, whether or not the Chinese are likely to side with them. They're obviously a major international player. The U.S. has actually welcomed this to a certain degree as well. The fact that Xi is gonna get on the phone with Zelensky. And Zelensky will be able to make his case to President Xi. We shouldn't expect after this, I don't think, that Xi will come out and say, you know what, Zelensky is right, this is a war of aggression by Russia. And Russia needs to pull out of Ukraine. But the fact that they will now be in communication is seen, at least from the Ukrainian perspective, as a positive.

NIALA: Dave, how has or how do we expect the U.S. to respond to all of this?

DAVE: The U.S. their biggest concern, vis-a-vis the China Russia relationship is that China will take a more active role in supporting the Russian War effort, in particular supplying weapons. The CIA came out several weeks ago and said that they believe China is considering supplying weapons to Russia, but has not decided yet to do so. So they wanna continue to convince Beijing that it would not be in their interest to lean even further into this on the Russian side.

And I'm sure that you'll, you'll hear some counter programming from the White House, while Xi is, is traveling around Moscow, and they'll wanna make their own argument about who's in the right and who's in the wrong, when it comes to this conflict and continue to make the argument that Putin needs to be isolated internationally. So, this is not a visit that they will be ecstatic to see, and I think they'll try to make their own case as well.

NIALA: Dave Lawler is the author of Axios World Newsletter. Thanks Dave.

DAVE: Thanks, Niala.

What to know about a possible criminal indictment against former President Trump

NIALA: Here in the U.S., former President Donald Trump was back in the headlines this weekend - with reports that a Grand Jury could be closer to a criminal indictment of the former President. And if that happens - it would be the first indictment of a former American president.

So let me catch you up quick here: that Manhattan grand jury could indict the former president for his alleged role in the hush money paid to adult film star Stormy Daniels before the 2016 election. She claims she had an affair with Trump - which he’s denied.

Trump posted on his website Truth Social over the weekend that he was likely to be arrested this week and called for protests. House Speaker Kevin McCarthy also announced on Saturday that he was investigating the Manhattan D.A. 's office for quote - “an outrageous abuse of power.”

I asked Axios AM author and CoFounder Mike Allen to provide us with some Monday morning situational awareness about former President Trump.

MIKE ALLEN:  Donald Trump, the ultimate creature of habit is actually switching it up as he runs for president for the third time. This campaign is organized and focused in ways that are very not Trump. Axios’ Sophia Kai reports, at this time, it's less family members and hangar on more political veterans building an actual ground operation in key states.

But here's a big one. Trump is focused on defining Ron DeSantis before the Florida governor even enters the race. He's pointing to his past support for changes to social security and Medicare. Over the weekend, Trump officials told us they've gotten a big bump among Republicans for news that he's likely to be indicted in New York.

It's a bump no one would want - but Trump's trying to make the most of it, and he's vowing that whatever happens this week, Saturday night he's going ahead with his plans for a big rally in the great state of Texas.

NIALA: That’s Axios’s Mike Allen.

One final note before we go today - I hope you can take a moment to enjoy our first day of spring! It’s still pretty cold in Washington, DC this week - but the cherry blossoms are expected to reach their peak bloom, which to me is Spring here in our nation’s capital. I’ll be taking probably way too much pictures of the blooms if you want to check out my Instagram. And please share your favorite spring pictures with me! You can email us at podcasts at axios dot com or you can text me at (202) 918-4893.

I’m Niala Boodhoo - thanks for listening - stay safe and we’ll see you back here tomorrow morning.

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