MOSCOW—Chinese leader Xi Jinping and Russian President Vladimir Putin met Tuesday in Moscow, in a summit closely watched by Western countries concerned about the deepening economic and political relations between Moscow and Beijing.
Mr. Xi came into the trip—the 40th meeting between the two leaders—seeking to cast himself as a potential peacemaker in the Ukraine war, even as Mr. Putin demonstrates his determination to carry on the fighting.
On Monday, the first day of Mr. Xi’s three-day visit, the two leaders focused on something they both could agree on, despite the pressure of Russia’s war in Ukraine.
“The bilateral relationship has grown more mature and resilient,” Mr. Xi said in brief comments before one-on-one talks Monday. “It is brimming with new dynamism and vitality.”
Mr. Xi’s high-profile visit to Moscow is being closely watched by Western powers worried that a stronger Russia-China axis could stir greater antagonism with the U.S. and its allies. Messrs. Xi and Putin have denounced what they describe as a U.S.-led geopolitical order and have garnered support, particularly in the developing world, for their vision of a multipolar world.
Western leaders are concerned that vision could open up greater East-West tensions. Indeed, Mr. Xi’s three-day, red-carpet visit to Moscow—including a state dinner and a four-and-a half-hour meeting with Mr. Putin on Monday—stands in stark contrast to rising friction between Washington and Beijing.
China has provided an economic lifeline to Russia, buying oil and natural gas that has helped Mr. Putin endure the toll of Western sanctions. It has also sold Russia microchips and other technology that can be used for military purposes, but so far doesn’t appear to have provided lethal weapons, American and Ukrainian officials say.
China and Russia are expected Tuesday to sign a joint declaration on economic cooperation worth tens of billions of dollars, deepening trade in energy, agriculture and other fields. Trade between the two countries rose to $189 billion last year. Mr. Putin said before the visit he believes it will exceed $200 billion as early as this year.
During the visit, Mr. Xi invited both Mr. Putin and Russian Prime Minister Mikhail Mishustin to China this year. The Kremlin didn’t comment on whether Mr. Putin would accept the Chinese leader’s invitation. Mr. Mishustin accepted the invitation, according to Russia’s state news agency, TASS, citing the prime minister’s press secretary.
During televised opening remarks, the Chinese leader said he had chosen Russia as his first foreign trip at the start of his third term as head of state because of his country’s strategic partnership with Russia. “Over the years, our relationship has been tested for strength,” Mr. Xi said through a translator.
Mr. Putin will host a state dinner for Mr. Xi in the evening. The heads of the largest Russian companies have been invited to attend the dinner, Russian presidential aide Yury Ushakov told reporters on Friday.
At the opening ceremony for Tuesday’s meeting, Messrs Putin and Xi strode toward each other along long red carpets inside St. George Hall, the largest of the staterooms inside the Kremlin. Mr. Xi was flanked by an honor guard as he made his way into the hall.
Far from the ornate halls of the Kremlin, Russian forces have for months been sending waves of soldiers to certain death in Moscow’s effort to capture the small Ukrainian city of Bakhmut. The fighting—likened by some to attrition warfare of the last century—has left at least 30,000 of Russian troops wounded or dead, according to the U.K. Ministry of Defense. Ukrainian losses have also been very high on the Bakhmut front line.
The war unleashed last year by Mr. Putin has killed tens of thousands on both sides and displaced millions, becoming the largest land war in Europe since the allies defeated Hitler’s armies in 1945. The conflict has rippled globally, altering energy markets, geopolitical relations and global economics.
Mr. Ushakov said discussions between Messrs. Putin and Xi will focus on energy and military-technical cooperation between Russia and China, and would also touch upon the conflict in Ukraine.
Striking a contrast with Mr. Xi’s visit to Moscow, Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida visited Kyiv on Tuesday, becoming the final leader of the Group of Seven industrialized nations to meet Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky in the country’s capital. Japan’s foreign ministry said Mr. Kishida would “resolutely reject Russia’s aggression against Ukraine” at the meeting.
Analysts say Mr. Putin could promote the summit as proof that Moscow still has powerful friends despite Western sanctions on Russia. Mr. Xi, meanwhile, could hold China up as a possible mediator in the conflict, a stance that could garner support among countries that have sought to remain neutral on the war.
Mr. Xi arrived in Moscow on Monday, becoming the first world leader to meet with Mr. Putin after the International Criminal Court issued an arrest warrant for him over alleged war crimes in Ukraine.
China, like Russia and the U.S., isn’t a member of the international tribunal, which is based in The Hague, Netherlands. Wang Wenbin, a Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman, said Monday that the court needed to “respect the jurisdictional immunity” of a head of state and not engage in “double standards.”
U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken described Mr. Xi’s visit Monday as a sign of support for Mr. Putin in the face of the war-crimes accusations.
“That President Xi is traveling to Russia days after the International Criminal Court issued an arrest warrant for President Putin suggests that China feels no responsibility to hold the Kremlin accountable for the atrocities committed in Ukraine, and instead of even condemning them, it would rather provide diplomatic cover for Russia to continue to commit those very crimes,” Mr. Blinken said.
Mr. Xi made no mention of the case on Monday, instead recalling memories of his first visit to Moscow as leader 10 years ago and apparently endorsing Mr. Putin in next year’s Russian presidential elections, saying he was “confident that the Russian people will continue to give firm support to President Putin.”
Mr. Xi’s visit is “a huge demonstration of Russian-Chinese friendship, giving legitimacy to Putin,” said Jakub Jakobowski, a Warsaw-based China researcher and deputy director of the Centre for Eastern Studies, a Polish government-funded think tank. “Despite this great strategic blunder that Putin made last year, he is still an important asset that China doesn’t want to lose.”
Mr. Jakobowski added, however, that another purpose of the trip was likely for Mr. Xi to “have more control over where the relationship is going.”
The two men share close personal ties, with Mr. Xi describing Mr. Putin as his “best friend and colleague” on his last trip to Moscow in 2019. Over the course of 40 in-person meetings since Mr. Xi became China’s top leader in 2012, the two men have celebrated birthdays with each other over cake and drinks.
Shortly before Russia invaded Ukraine last year, Messrs. Xi and Putin met in Beijing and declared their countries had a “no limits” friendship, language that China has largely avoided in recent months.
China has presented itself as a potential peacemaker in Ukraine, seeking to build on a deal it helped broker earlier this month to restore formal ties between Iran and Saudi Arabia. Mr. Xi is expected to call Mr. Zelensky for the first time since the start of the war after his trip to Moscow, The Wall Street Journal has reported.
The call with Mr. Zelensky shows that “China doesn’t want to be seen as a country that follows everything that Putin is doing,” said Temur Umarov, a fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, based in Kyrgyzstan.
Even so, the 12-point position paper China released on the Ukraine war last month largely left the knottiest problems unaddressed and stuck to earlier Chinese positions, including arguments seen as supporting Russia—for instance, avoiding unilateral sanctions or military blocs to achieve security goals.
Mr. Putin cited China’s peace effort in his opening comments with Mr. Xi, adding that China respected “indivisible security” for all countries. That phrase, which dates to the Cold War, refers to the idea that no country’s security efforts should threaten another’s. Mr. Putin made a similar criticism of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization’s presence in Eastern Europe to justify his invasion of Ukraine.
The U.S. has largely dismissed China’s efforts at mediation, saying that China has taken Russia’s side in the war. European diplomats have also questioned whether Beijing’s ties with Moscow undermine its ability to be a neutral arbiter. But analysts have said China’s effort might resonate beyond the West, in countries where support for Ukraine is more mixed.