Putin and Xi are meeting amid mounting crises for both leaders

Hong Kong

Russian President Vladimir Putin told his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping in a virtual meeting on Friday that their partnership is more important than ever in the face of “unprecedented pressure” from the West as Moscow’s incursion into Ukraine leaves it increasingly isolated on the world stage.

As Putin’s war in Ukraine rages and Xi grapples with an unprecedented Covid outbreak, a conversation between the two leaders on Friday underscored their mutual trust amid mounting crises at home.

In opening remarks broadcast on Russian state television, Putin said the stabilizing force of Russian-Chinese relations was becoming even more critical amid rising geopolitical tensions.

The Russian leader described relations between the two nations as “the best in history”, saying they can “withstand all tests” and invited Xi to visit Moscow in the spring of 2023.

“We share the same views on the causes, course and logic of the ongoing transformation of the global geopolitical landscape,” Putin said.

“In the face of unprecedented pressure and provocations from the West, we defend our principled positions and defend not only our own interests, but also all those who stand for a truly democratic system and the right of countries to freely determine their own destiny.

Putin added that the two countries would increase cooperation between their armed forces and pointed to growth in trade despite “unfavorable market conditions”, alluding to the waves of economic sanctions Russia has faced since its invasion of Ukraine.

Xi echoed Putin’s message of unity, saying the two countries should “strengthen strategic coordination” and “bring more stability to the world,” according to Chinese state media Xinhua.

China is “willing to work” with Russia to “stand against hegemony and power politics,” to oppose unilateralism, protectionism and “bullying,” as well as safeguard sovereignty, security, international equality and justice, Xi said , Chinese state media reported.

Xi also said China was ready to resume normal cross-border travel with Russia and other countries “in an organized manner,” Xinhua reported.

Moscow and Beijing have grown closer in recent years, with Xi and Putin declaring the two countries had a “boundless” partnership weeks before Russia invaded Ukraine in February. Analysts on Friday were watching for any signs that the Chinese leader’s support for his Russian counterpart has softened.

China has repeatedly refused to condemn the aggression, instead repeatedly blaming NATO and the United States for the conflict — and remains one of Russia’s main remaining backers as outrage over the invasion builds, leaving Russia increasingly alone.

But more than 10 months into the bitter war, the world looks much different – and the dynamic between the two partners has changed accordingly, experts say.

Instead of an expected quick victory, Putin’s invasion was delayed by numerous battlefield failures, inclusive lack of basic equipment. Many Russians are faced with economic hardship in a bitter winter.

On Thursday, Russia launched what Ukrainian officials described as one of the the largest missile strikes since the war began in February with explosions rocking villages and towns in Ukraine, damaging civilian infrastructure and killing at least three people.

Ukrainian officials have warned for days that Russia is preparing to launch an all-out attack on the power grid to close out 2022, plunging the country into darkness as Ukrainians try to meet the New Year holidays.

“China is anxious for (the war) to end,” said Yun Sun, director of the China Program at the Washington-based think tank Stimson Center.

“Xi will try to emphasize the importance of peace for Putin,” she added. “As Russia grows impatient with the lack of progress on the battlefield, the time is ripe for peace talks in China’s eyes.”

China is also becoming increasingly isolated in its stance vis-à-vis Russia, said Alfred Wu, an associate professor at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy at the National University of Singapore.

Wu pointed to Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi as an example of Russia’s hardening attitude to the war.

Although India did not directly condemn Moscow’s incursion, Modi told Putin in September that now was not the time for war and urged him to move toward peace. That change is another reason Xi may be eager to see a quick resolution, Wu said.

Xi already showed signs of impatience when he last met Putin in September at a regional summit in Uzbekistan. At the time, Putin acknowledged that Beijing had “questions and concerns” about the invasion, which appeared to be a veiled acknowledgment of their differing views.

But experts say China’s domestic situation has also changed significantly in the months since, which may require a different approach to Putin this time around.

The country is currently battling its worst outbreak of Covid since finally abandoning its strict zero-Covid policy, with loose constraints and partially open borders. The reversal came after an unprecedented wave of protests across the country in opposition to Zero Covid – in some cases expanding to include broader grievances against Xi and the ruling Communist Party.

IN center of this crisis is Si – who entered norm-breaking third term in October, with a firm grip on power and a narrow circle of loyal supporters.

“Now that the domestic problems are out of the way, Xi is in a better position to work on Russia,” said the Stimson Center’s Sun, referring to his consolidation of power in October.

She added that despite the unpopularity of the war, China and Russia “are aligned because of geopolitics.” Both countries face tensions with the West, and both leaders often tout a shared vision of a new world order.

“The two leaders will emphasize their partnership, cooperation and strong ties. They will want to send the message that they are all above the war in Ukraine,” Sun said. “(The war) has been an inconvenience for China in the past year and has affected China’s interest in Europe. But the damage is not so significant that China will abandon Russia.

Wu also acknowledged that the relationship is “fundamental to both countries,” pointing to China’s ability to profit from the war in Ukraine because of its access to Russian oil.

However, he added, the protests in China, the Covid outbreak and the resulting economic damage have put Xi in a more vulnerable position, which could mean less material and overt support for Russia. Now, more than ever, China is in no position to risk sanctions.

“The political tools that Xi Jinping can use to support Russia are now quite limited, they are quite limited,” Wu said. “Politically, domestic support for Xi has declined dramatically. His third term doesn’t really start on a rosy picture.

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