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Putin and Xi Celebrate Ties Unbroken by Russia’s War in Ukraine

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President Vladimir V. Putin welcomed Xi Jinping, China’s top leader, to Russia, briefly noting Beijing’s peace plan for Ukraine but stressing Moscow and Beijing’s enduring partnership.

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With a handshake and mutual compliments, China’s leader, Xi Jinping, and President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia projected unity.CreditCredit…Grigory Sysoyev/Sputnik, via Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

Published March 20, 2023Updated March 21, 2023, 1:24 a.m. ET

Standing side by side in a show of partnership unshaken by Russia’s yearlong war in Ukraine, President Vladimir V. Putin and China’s top leader, Xi Jinping, began talks in Moscow on Monday with boasts of their close ties and only understated mention of the conflict itself.

Though the war and the schisms it has exposed hung over the meeting, the public comments about it from Mr. Xi and Mr. Putin were muted, notwithstanding the cascading consequences of the past year, including Western sanctions on Russia, energy crises in Europe and devastation in Ukraine.

Instead, the leaders went to great lengths to flatter each other and project unity in a series of meticulously choreographed events. Mr. Xi is the highest-profile world leader to visit Russia since the invasion, and he arrived for the three-day visit as bloody battles continued in eastern Ukraine and only three days after the Russian leader was cited for war crimes by the International Criminal Court.

The imagery of alliance, in gestures if not a formal treaty, has stoked anxiety in the West that China might go farther than diplomacy or economics in its support for Russia — possibly with weapons for use in Mr. Putin’s war — and entrench a powerful bloc opposed to NATO and the United States.

“Dear friend, welcome to Russia,” Mr. Putin told Mr. Xi, after the Chinese leader was welcomed with a red carpet and a military band.

Mr. Putin told his guest that China was the subject of “envy” because its government had built a “very effective system for developing the economy and strengthening the state.” Mr. Xi expressed “deep gratitude” to Mr. Putin and said he was “sure that the Russian people will certainly continue firmly supporting you,” according to Xinhua.

They sat by a small fireside table, a far more intimate setting than the extremely long room where Mr. Putin held tense meetings with Western leaders before Russia invaded Ukraine.

ImageMembers of a Russian military band standing near China’s president in Moscow.

Mr. Xi during a welcoming ceremony at an airport in Moscow.Credit…Anatoliy Zhdanov/Kommersant, via Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

But behind the display of friendship was a backdrop of hardheaded geopolitics. China and Russia both oppose a global order dominated by the United States and its allies, and that appears to outweigh any objections that Mr. Xi may have about Mr. Putin’s invasion of Ukraine.

Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken on Monday criticized the visit, saying it amounts to “diplomatic cover for Russia to continue to commit” war crimes. The international court accused Mr. Putin of being responsible for the abduction and deportation of Ukrainian children, and Russian forces continue to target civilian areas.

The trip, Mr. Blinken said, “suggests that China feels no responsibility to hold the president accountable for the atrocities committed in Ukraine.”

Mr. Putin, in an article published in People’s Daily, the main newspaper of China’s ruling Communist Party, drew parallels between the threats that he claims Russia faces from the West — which, in his telling, prompted him to invade Ukraine — and Beijing’s security concerns in Asia.

He described cooperation between Russia and China as an essential counterweight to a West that is seeking to dominate not just Eastern Europe but also the Asia-Pacific region, and one that is aiming to “contain the development of our countries.”

“It is Russian-Chinese relations that today practically represent the cornerstone of regional, even global stability,” Mr. Putin wrote.

According to a Chinese summary of their meeting at the Kremlin, Mr. Xi told Mr. Putin: “The majority of countries support easing tensions, advocate peace negotiations and oppose pouring oil on the fire. Historically, conflicts must finally be settled through dialogue and negotiations.”

A motorcade for Mr. Xi driving toward the Kremlin in Moscow.Credit…Associated Press

The cautious remarks were in line with the delicate position China has adopted on the war, sympathizing with Russia’s grievances against Western influence and NATO while calling for talks to end the fighting. In keeping with that ambiguity, Mr. Xi has referred to the fighting in Ukraine as a “crisis” or “conflict,” but not as a war or invasion.

If there was any progress on the most closely watched aspect of the summit — whether Mr. Xi could coax Mr. Putin toward serious peace negotiations — there was no evidence of it at the end of the first day. Mr. Putin said only that Russia had “carefully studied” China’s peace proposals, and would treat them “with respect.”

A White House spokesman, John F. Kirby, said, “We’ll see what they come out of this meeting talking about.” Calling the Beijing-Moscow alliance a “marriage of convenience,” he said that arming Russia would run counter to Mr. Xi’s public pronouncements that China wants peace.

For Mr. Putin, Mr. Xi’s visit is also a chance to smooth over tensions tied to the killings of nine Chinese nationals at a gold mine in the Central African Republic, which Mr. Xi has condemned. There are competing claims about who was responsible, but some blame a Russian mercenary group.

Mr. Xi and Mr. Putin’s talks will continue on Tuesday, when they will be joined by broader delegations of government officials. They also plan to address the news media and hold a state banquet that Russian business leaders will attend.

The two men have met some 40 times since Mr. Xi became national leader, but while they cast the partnership as deeper than ever, the war has disrupted their relations, even as it has deepened Russian dependence on China for trade and diplomatic support.

The war has been a source of instability for Beijing, damaging Chinese ties with European countries. It has also magnified global economic and energy strains at a time when Mr. Xi wants to focus on China’s post-pandemic economic rebuilding.

A photograph released by Russian state media showing Mr. Xi and Mr. Putin after their talks at the Kremlin.Credit…Grigory Sysoyev/Sputnik, viaAssociated Press

In recent weeks, Mr. Xi has tried to reassert China’s global role after its self-imposed pandemic isolation. Beijing has cast itself as a potential peace broker, hosting talks that led to a significant agreement this month between Saudi Arabia and Iran and issuing its broadly worded 12-point framework for ending the fighting.

Ukraine’s president, Volodymyr Zelensky, has said he would welcome a chance to speak with Mr. Xi, but it is unclear whether the leaders intend to talk.

China’s foreign minister, Qin Gang, spoke by telephone last week with Ukraine’s foreign minister, Dmytro Kuleba, and urged Ukraine and Russia to negotiate. “No matter how big the difficulties and challenges, the door should not close to a political solution,” Mr. Qin told him, according to the Chinese Foreign Ministry.

But there are daunting obstacles.

Mr. Putin, in his article Monday, signaled that Russia would entertain talks only if it retained control of captured territory in Ukraine’s east and south. Ukraine’s government has ruled out ceding territory in exchange for peace.

“The first and main point is the capitulation or withdrawal of the Russian occupation troops,” Oleksiy Danilov, the head of Ukraine’s National Security and Defense Council, said in a statement on Monday.

Neither Russian nor Ukrainian forces have shown any slowdown in the fighting along the sprawling front. Hundreds of soldiers are dying or wounded daily on each side, military analysts say.

A soldier from the 28th Separate Mechanized Brigade after firing at a Russian position in the Donetsk region of eastern Ukraine, on Monday.Credit…Tyler Hicks/The New York Times

Even if China wants to play a role in ending the bloodshed, Mr. Xi is unlikely to put pressure on Mr. Putin that could jeopardize their wider partnership, many analysts say. Mr. Xi regards Beijing’s bond with Moscow as essential to offsetting American global dominance.

“Western countries led by the United States have implemented all-around containment, encirclement and suppression of China,” he declared in a speech this month.

William Klein, a former U.S. diplomat who was based in Beijing, said the visit to Moscow “is very clearly to demonstrate that China does indeed see Russia as an indispensable strategic partner.”

“Whatever China may think of the war, it sees Russia as a key to creating a counterweight to U.S. pressure,” said Mr. Klein, now a consulting partner for FGS Global. “There shouldn’t be any expectation that China will recalibrate its fundamental interests because of this war.”

Loss of firm Russian support could leave China dangerously exposed, Chinese foreign policy experts have argued, even in the wake of Mr. Putin’s invasion.

Yang Jiemian, a senior foreign policy scholar in Shanghai, wrote in an assessment last month that if “Russia is constantly weakened to the point where it cannot, will not, or dare not struggle against the United States and the West, that will ultimately leave China confronting totally unfavorable strategic circumstances.”

A home hit by a Russian strike in Kostyantynivka, Ukraine, on Saturday.Credit…Daniel Berehulak/The New York Times

Marc Santora contributed reporting from Kyiv, Ukraine, Ivan Nechepurenko from Tbilisi, Georgia, Olivia Wang from Hong Kong, and Michael Crowley and Katie Rogers from Washington.