A meeting between Xi Jinping and Vladimir Putin by video conference is underway, as the war in Ukraine drags on and China grapples with an unprecedented outbreak of Covid-19, with analysts watching for signs of the Chinese leader softening his support for his Russian counterpart.
Ahead of Friday’s meeting, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said the two leaders would primarily discuss bilateral relations between their countries and exchange views on regional issues and their strategic partnership.
Moscow and Beijing have grown closer in recent years, with Xi and Putin declaring a “no-limits” partnership between the two countries just weeks before Russia invaded Ukraine in February.
China has refused to condemn the invasion, instead repeatedly blaming the conflict on NATO and the United States — and as one of Russia’s main backers it is increasingly isolated on the world stage.
But more than 10 months into the grinding war, the world looks very different — and the dynamic between the two partners has shifted accordingly, experts say.
Instead of the quick success that was hoped for, Putin’s invasion faltered on several fronts. setbacks on the battlefield, Including Lack of basic equipment. Morale is low within some parts of Russia, as many civilians face Severe winter economic crisis.
On Thursday, Russia launched what Ukrainian officials described as Massive missile strikes Since the war began in February, explosions have rocked villages and towns across Ukraine, damaging civilian infrastructure and killing at least three people.
Ukrainian officials have been warning for days that Russia is preparing to launch an all-out offensive to close out 2022 as Ukrainians try to celebrate the New Year and the Christmas holidays. Orthodox Christians of the country fall on January 7.
“China is eager to end the war,” said Yun Sun, director of the China Program at the Stimson Center, a Washington-based think tank.
“Xi will try to emphasize the importance of peace to Putin,” he added. “As Russia grows impatient with lack of progress on the battlefield, the time is ripe for peace talks in China’s view.”
China is also becoming more isolated in its stance toward Russia, said Alfred Wu, an associate professor at the National University of Singapore’s Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy.
Wu pointed to Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi as an example of Russia’s war-hardening approach.
Although India did not outright condemn Moscow’s invasion, Modi urged Putin in September that this was not the time for war and to move towards peace.
That shift means China now stands more isolated in its relationship with Russia, another reason Xi is eager to see a quick resolution, Wu said.
Xi had already shown signs of impatience when he last met Putin at a regional summit in Uzbekistan last September. At the time, Putin acknowledged that Beijing had “questions and concerns” about the invasion, implicitly acknowledging their differing views.
But experts say China’s domestic situation has also changed significantly in the past few months, which may require a different approach for Putin this time around.
The country is currently finally battling its worst Covid outbreak Abandoning its strict zero-covid policy, restrictions were eased and borders were partially reopened. The U-turn came after an unprecedented wave of nationwide protests against zero-covid — in some cases involving broader grievances against Xi and the ruling Communist Party.
“Now that the domestic issues are out of the way, Xi is in a better position to work in Russia,” Stimson told the Center’s Sun, referring to his consolidation of power in October.
He added that despite the war’s unpopularity, China and Russia were “aligned because of geopolitics”. Both countries face tensions with the West, and both leaders have often touted a shared vision for a new world order.
“Both leaders will emphasize their partnership, cooperation and strong ties. They all want to send the message that they are beyond the war in Ukraine,” Sun said. “(The war) has been a nuisance for China over the past year and has affected China’s interest in Europe. But the damage was not significant enough to make China abandon Russia.
Wu also acknowledged that the relationship is “fundamental to both countries,” pointing to China’s potential to gain from Russia’s access to oil since the Ukraine war.
However, China’s protests, the Covid outbreak and the resulting economic toll have left Xi in a more vulnerable position, which could mean less material and overt support for Russia.
“The policy tools that Xi Jinping can use to support Russia are now very limited and very restricted,” Wu said. “Politically, domestic support for G has declined dramatically. His third term didn’t really start with a rosy picture.