China’s leader, Xi Jinping, is set to arrive in Moscow on Monday for a summit with President Vladimir V. Putin that will test how far Mr. Xi is willing to go to act as a potential peace broker in the war in Ukraine.
The Chinese government has cast Mr. Xi’s three-day state visit to Russia as a “trip for peace,” seeking to burnish his image as a global statesman after Beijing hosted talks this month that led to a significant agreement between Saudi Arabia and Iran.
But even Chinese state media reports have played down the prospects of a breakthrough emerging from Mr. Xi’s talks with Mr. Putin and his expected phone call with Ukraine’s president, Volodymyr Zelensky. After a year of bitter fighting in Ukraine, the gulf between Moscow and Kyiv is much wider than the one between Riyadh and Tehran, some reports noted.
Last month, China issued a broad 12-point framework for trying to end fighting in Ukraine. Chinese officials have described that effort as part of what Mr. Xi has called his “Global Security Initiative,” which challenges the United States’ dominance in shaping how the world responds to solving international crises. But neither China’s 12-point plan nor its security initiative offer specific answers to the war between Ukraine and Russia, and Western leaders have generally been skeptical about China’s rhetoric.
Above all, Mr. Xi appears unlikely to risk taking initiatives over Ukraine that could strain China’s all-important relationship with Russia. While Chinese leaders have sought to keep a distance from Mr. Putin’s invasion — which they call a “conflict” or “crisis” — they have also stressed that Russia remains an invaluable partner.
An article by Mr. Xi published in the official Russian government newspaper on Monday underscored those priorities. It was largely devoted to praising relations between China and Russia, devoting just one paragraph low in the article to the war in Ukraine.
“Complicated issues do not have simple solutions,” Mr. Xi wrote of efforts to end the war. He said that he was confident that “dialogue and consultations that are equal, reasonable and pragmatic can surely find a reasonable way forward for resolving the crisis.”
Mr. Xi was much more effusive about relations with Russia, and with Mr. Putin personally.
“In the past 10 years, I have visited Russia eight times, each time setting out with excitement and coming back with rich results, opening a new chapter in Chinese-Russian relations with President Putin,” he wrote. “Chinese-Russian friendship has long endured and must be cherished even more.”
The talks may be the most closely watched of the 40 meetings — in person or by video link — that the two have held since Mr. Xi became China’s leader a decade ago.
By hosting Mr. Xi, in what will be the most high-profile visit by any world leader to Russia since before the pandemic, Mr. Putin will try to signal to the world that his country is far from isolated, despite an invasion that has displaced millions, killed or injured hundreds of thousands and led the International Criminal Court to issue a warrant for his arrest.
Mr. Putin is trying to seize the momentum in Ukraine after a winter of small, slow and bloody frontline advances as the war drags into its 14th month. This weekend, hours after the arrest warrant was issued, Mr. Putin traveled to the Ukrainian port city of Mariupol, which Russia captured and largely destroyed last year.
Mr. Putin, in an article published Monday in People’s Daily, the Chinese Communist Party’s main newspaper, referred to Mr. Xi as his “good, old friend” — they first met in 2010 — and repeated his oft-made case that China and Russia are both suffering from the West’s attempts to hold on to “dominance that is slipping away.” He did not refer to China as a military ally, but said that the two countries shared strategic interests, most of all in countering the United States.
Mr. Putin asserted that Washington has its sights set not just on Eastern Europe — where he blames the United States and the expansion of NATO for bringing about the war in Ukraine — but also on the Asia-Pacific region, saying that it aims to “contain the development of our countries.” He described cooperation between Russia and China as an essential counterweight.
“It is Russian-Chinese relations that today practically represent the cornerstone of regional, even global stability,” Mr. Putin wrote.
He also telegraphed Russia’s response to Mr. Xi’s efforts to end the war in Ukraine at a time when both Moscow and Kyiv appear to be more focused on achieving battlefield gains than on considering peace talks. Russia is open to a “political-diplomatic resolution” of the war, he wrote, but Ukraine and the West are uninterested in negotiations that would take “into account the prevailing geopolitical realities.”
The apparent message: Russia will only entertain talks that leave it in control of the swath of Ukraine’s east and south that it has already captured. Ukraine’s government, however, has ruled out ceding territory in exchange for peace.