Putin and Xi might have a bromance but it’s clear who holds the power

Russian President Vladimir Putin speaks with China President Xi Jinping in December 2022  (AP)
Russian President Vladimir Putin speaks with China President Xi Jinping in December 2022 (AP)

Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping have met around 40 times since China’s leader assumed the presidency in 2012. In many ways, the camaraderie between the pair has come to define the diplomatic relations between Moscow and Beijing across the last decade.

Xi made Moscow his first overseas visit as president in 2013 and this latest visit comes next week in the wake of him being handed an unprecedented third term as president. During that time, the greetings between Xi and Putin have evolved from “dear president” to “dear friend” and later to “my old friend”. Last year, just a few weeks before Moscow’s forces invaded Ukraine the leaders met and announced a “no limits” partnership between their two nations.

Historically, relations between China and Russia have been fraught with distrust and confrontation, particularly at the height of their Cold War schism in the late 1960s, but Putin and Xi have changed the dynamic. On his last visit to Moscow, in 2019, Xi spoke of his “deep personal friendship” with his Russian counterpart. “In the past six years, we have met nearly 30 times. Russia is the country that I have visited the most times, and President Putin is my best friend and colleague,” Xi said. Both leaders share an objective of altering the world order, and they will continue to pursue that.

However, the invasion of Ukraine in February 2022 has thrown the nature of their relationship into sharp relief and it is clear that Xi and Beijing hold the upper hand. Trade between the two nations has been steadily growing for years, but in 2022 it reached a record 1.28 trillion yuan (£153bn), according to Chinese data. That marked an increase of around 30 per cent from 2021, driven in part by Chinese companies snapping up discounted oil and coal, even as other governments moved to shun Russian fuel, as part of an extensive sanctions regime by Western nations that sought to punish Moscow for its war.

Putin has sought to portray Western support for Ukraine as an existential threat to Russia, accusing Nato members of getting directly involved in conflict by supplying weapons and other support to Ukraine. It has generally suited Xi to back that suggestion, at least in terms of what Beijing sees as the disproportionate influence of the West on the world. Beijing has also not condemned the invasion. At a time when both China and Russia are facing frostier relations with the US – including trade (in Beijing’s case) and security, it makes sense for China not to make the most of its relationship with Russia.

But while Putin has been backed into a corner by his invasion – he has to hit out at the West, leaving his nation increasingly isolated on the world stage – it is clear that China has other options and wants to use them. In October, Putin said that relations with China were at an “unprecedented level” and that Xi was his “close friend”, with the president seeming to sense that Beijing might be feeling more uncomfortable with the situation in Ukraine. In truth, Xi – who has made himself the most dominant leader China has had since Mao Zedong – clearly has more global ambitions. This month, Beijing has brokered a detente between long-time Middle East rivals Iran and Saudi Arabia. While last month, it issued a peace plan for Ukraine. The proposal is vague but highlights that China is looking to craft a role as a global mediator.

As for this latest meeting between Putin and Xi in Moscow, A Russian official said the pair would discuss the conflict in Ukraine as well as “military-technical cooperation”. The Kremlin said “important” bilateral documents would be signed, without elaborating. Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson Wang Wenbin said the visit by Xi would strengthen economic partnerships and promote “peace”. China has said it will uphold “an objective and fair position” on the war in Ukraine and “play a constructive role in promoting talks for peace”

The goal for Putin is clear: he needs Xi fully onside. The fact that the pair will have an informal lunch on Monday, before more formal talks on Tuesday, shows that the Russian president wants to make clear just how close the nations are. For Xi, he appears happy to deal with Russia as long as it suits his nation’s interests. More trade will always be useful, while increased military cooperation would also have its advantages. Moscow could enhance China’s naval capabilities by giving its fleet access to Russian ports in the Far East and by sharing technology. There are also reports Xi will speak with Ukraine’s Volodymyr Zelensky – their first contact since Russia's invasion – in the wake of his trip.

The US has expressed “deep concern” that China might try to position itself as a peacemaker by promoting a ceasefire. But any cessation at this point would not bring a just and lasting peace, White House national security spokesperson John Kirby said on Friday. The US has also suggested that China is considering sending weapons to Russia – an accusation China has sought to dismiss.

Against that backdrop, don’t expect the Putin-Xi bromance to come to an end anytime soon – but it is clear who now holds the power.