Mar 21, 2023 - World

Xi and Putin stick to same Ukraine positions after summit

Xi and Putin at Tuesday's signing ceremony. Photo: Contributor/Getty Images

Chinese President Xi Jinping offered Russian President Vladimir Putin a significant show of solidarity by visiting Moscow this week, but offered no indications he's prepared to step up Chinese support for Putin's war in Ukraine.

Driving the news: In a joint appearance after several hours of talks on Tuesday, Xi described China's approach to Ukraine as "unbiased" and "impartial." Putin praised the ceasefire plan Xi proposed last month but said Ukraine and the West weren't "ready" for peace talks.

  • China's plan doesn't call for Russia to leave the territories of Ukraine it annexed last fall. Secretary of State Tony Blinken argued Monday that a ceasefire on such terms "would effectively be supporting the ratification of Russian conquest."
  • Despite Xi's claim of neutrality, Chinese officials and state media have echoed Russia's claims that NATO countries provoked or inflamed the conflict. A joint statement the leaders signed Tuesday condemned "unilateral sanctions" and "moves that lead to tensions and the protraction of fighting."

Yes, but: Xi hasn't explicitly endorsed the invasion, openly breached sanctions or supplied weapons to Russia. He offered no indications on Tuesday that China's positions on those issues had changed.

  • Xi seems intent on projecting China as a responsible actor and plausible mediator at a time when the other members of the UN Security Council are either at war (Russia) or arming Ukraine (France, U.K., U.S.), says Alexander Gabuev of the Carnegie Endowment.
  • Xi is expected to hold a call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky some time after he returns from Moscow on Wednesday.

Xi and Putin also signed a series of joint statements and memorandums of understanding about cooperation on trade and other issues on Tuesday. Those didn't include a final deal on a pipeline to export Russian gas to China.

  • Some analysts contended the summit underscored the increasingly lopsided nature of the relationship, with Putin praising Xi effusively and pledging favorable trade terms and Xi offering little beyond the visit itself (though he did call Putin a "dear friend" and endorse his re-election in 2024).
  • Still, it's unclear what Xi and Putin may have decided behind closed doors. Even if something more substantive was agreed, Xi might not want to make any announcements that distract from his peace plan, Gabuev notes.

The big picture: While Xi and Putin were meeting in Moscow, Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida was making a surprise visit to Ukraine. He visited Bucha and expressed "great anger at the atrocity" committed there by Russian troops. He also met with President Volodymyr Zelensky.

  • Zelensky got another boost this week when 18 European countries announced a joint agreement to procure much-needed artillery shells for Ukraine.
  • Ukraine is expected to undertake a counteroffensive this spring to try to win back some of the territory currently occupied by Russia.
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