Chinese President Xi Jinping’s state visit to Moscow, which started Monday and is expected to go for three days, is certain to be rich in pomp and ceremony. Yet, its content remains rather uncertain. Russian President Vladimir Putin, in most cordial terms, invited his Chinese counterpart during their video conversation on December 30. But Xi, according to the transcript, did not acknowledge the invitation at the time (Kremlin.ru, December 30).
The date of the visit was announced only last week, and the rush was likely caused by Beijing’s desire to give a new impetus to its “peace plan” for the Russo-Ukrainian war, announced by the Chinese Foreign Ministry on February 24 without much effect (Nezavisimaya gazeta, March 14). Putin may not welcome the Chinese emphasis on the principle of territorial integrity, but he is certainly not in a position to criticize the plan and finds the timing of the visit quite propitious, as it nearly coincides with the ninth anniversary of the annexation of Crimea, to which he recently paid a rather low-profile visit (Meduza, March 18). A number of serious complications, nevertheless, could cast a shadow over the Kremlin’s banquet table.
The first is the decision of the International Criminal Court (ICC) to issue an arrest warrant for Putin due to war crimes related to the illegal deportation of children from Ukraine to Russia (RBC, March 17). The Hague has collected plentiful evidence of war crimes committed in the course of Russian aggression, but it was the meeting between Putin and Maria Lvova-Belova, the Russian ombudsman for children who was also included on the warrant, last month that pushed the urgency of addressing the thousands of Ukrainian children who are being subjected to “re-education” in Russian institutions (Rossiiskaya gazeta, February 16).
Neither Russia, nor China recognizes the ICC’s authority, but “patriotic” politicians in Moscow still rushed to condemn its decision as an act of “aggression” (RIA Novosti, March 17). Most states in Latin America and many in Africa support the ICC’s work. As such, the leaders of Brazil and South Africa may find it awkward to continue dialogue with Putin, who has now been relegated to the category of the most notorious dictators and warlords (Novayagazeta.eu, March 17).
Another complication is the unfolding economic crisis in Russia, which is officially being downplayed but continues to deepen under the impact of constantly fine-tuned Western sanctions (Re:Russia, February 8).
Statistical data has become scarce and carefully doctored, but the huge deficit in the Russian federal budget for January and February 2023 is impossible to hide, and the heavy expenditures on the war are undercut by the 46-percent contraction in petro revenues, as compared with the first two months of 2022 (Forbes.ru, March 6). Putin persists with denials of any economic problems and addressed the recent meeting of Russian business elite with deliberate arrogance, knowing perfectly well that many ill-gotten fortunes suffered heavy losses because of his war (Kommersant, March 17). Xi, however, is much more attentive to economic matters and concerned about global markets. Therefore, he seeks to utilize every means of stimulating growth, including pushing down prices on oil and gas imported from Russia (Nezavisimaya gazeta, March 12).
Yet another complication is the spike in tensions between Russia and the United States caused by the intercept of a US MQ-9 Reaper surveillance drone on March 14 by two Russian Su-27 fighters over the Black Sea, some 70 miles southwest of Crimea (Izvestiya, March 18). Russia has denied any wrongdoing, with Moscow’s propagandists underscoring this fact. However, US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin’s call with Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu helped in restoring calm for resuming reconnaissance drone flights (RIA Novosti, March 15; Rosbalt.ru, March 18). Xi may be eager to exploit anti-American rhetoric, but he is careful not to provoke direct clashes—and certainly would not want to be in Moscow amid a crisis resembling the recent “spy balloon” quarrel (Russiancouncil.ru, March 6). He may be interested in bargaining for some Russian military technologies but knows that, in developing unmanned aerial vehicles, Russia lags behind Turkey, much to the chagrin of “patriotic” bloggers (TopWar.ru, March 12).
Turkey has turned out to be the source of yet another complication as President Recep Tayyip Erdogan gave the long-delayed approval for Finland to join the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) (Rossiiskaya gazeta, March 17). Xi and Putin are on the same page in condemning NATO enlargement, but if China can find some satisfaction in the delay of Sweden’s application, for Russia, Finland’s accession with its long shared land border is rather significant (Kommersant, March 17).
NATO is gaining new strength not only by accepting new members but also by consolidating its unity in support of Ukraine, and the tenth meeting in the Ramstein format marked a new increase in the supply of weapons and ammunition (Nv.ua, March 15). Poland and Slovakia committed to delivering several squadrons of Soviet-made MiG-29 fighters, which could make some difference in denying the Russian Air Force’s capacity to perform tasks in support of ground forces (Vazhnye istorii, March 17). In the Battle for Bakhmut, which has gained importance on the battlefield as the high watermark of Russia’s offensive push, Ukrainian forces rely mostly on legacy weapon systems, while the newly trained brigades are preparing a breakthrough (The Moscow Times, March 16).
A new setback for Russia’s aggression is looming, and Xi likely wanted to meet Putin before this ultimate complication. Nevertheless, the Chinese president is not going to offer a supply of lethal arms comparable with the West’s rearmament of the Ukrainian army. Posturing as a peacemaker appears to be an easy political game, but it delivers Xi into a no-win situation. He does not want Putin to be defeated but is wary of attempting to rescue the designated loser. He does not want the US-led Western coalition to prevail but remains careful not to confront it directly and not to invite punishing sanctions. And he does not want to disrupt the world order but cannot impress upon Putin the imperative to curtail the Russian president’s troublemaking.
Beijing typically excels at buying time and waiting problems out. Thus, the fast-moving war leaves it responding belatedly and procrastinating in vain. Russia is sinking into the disaster of its own making, and Xi may wonder about when a Russian leader will pay a reciprocal visit to Beijing.