Xi and Putin Meet Again, Two Strongmen in a Weak Moment

When China’s top leader, Xi Jinping, and President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia declared a “no limits” partnership 10 months ago, the pair projected an aura of strength in a direct challenge to the United States and the West.

As the two leaders met again on Friday via video, they found themselves in positions of weakness, encumbered by geopolitical and economic threats to their informal authoritarian alliance. Both now have little room to maneuver, making the relationship all the more important, albeit also a lot more complicated.

Since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine began in February, Mr. Putin has been isolated and highly dependent on China to maintain a semblance of diplomatic and financial stability. His needs have intensified in recent months as the Kremlin has suffered setbacks on the battlefield in a grinding war that has killed thousands of civilians and left Russia’s economy vulnerable.

This month, Mr. Xi has seen his much-touted coronavirus pandemic strategy unravel and Covid cases explode, marring the image he wants to present to the world as the leader of a superior political system. With the current crisis, he can neither fully throw his weight behind Mr. Putin and risk sanctions, nor abandon him and risk losing a key geopolitical ally to counter the West.

They betrayed little shakiness in their situations on Friday, pointing in public statements to beefier bilateral trade and growing military cooperation. In a seeming nod to the strains, Mr. Xi acknowledged the “complicated and consistently changing international situation,” but said China was ready to improve “strategic collaboration” with Russia, according to a transcript of Mr. Xi’s remarks published by state media.

“As long as the two have the U.S. as their shared common threat, the convergence of their interests will outweigh the divergence,” said Yun Sun, the director of the China program at the Stimson Center, a Washington-based research institute.

Mr. Putin used the call on Friday to reaffirm Russia’s ties with China, calling them “a model of cooperation between major powers in the 21st century,” according to a readout by the Kremlin. He invited Mr. Xi to visit Moscow in the spring and suggested the two countries could overcome the “unfavorable external situation” together.

“We share the same views on the causes, course and logic of the ongoing transformation of the global geopolitical landscape, in the face of unprecedented pressure and provocations from the West,” Mr. Putin said.

Russia sees China as its most important partner in its existential showdown with the West. Every word of support from Mr. Xi is amplified as evidence that Mr. Putin is far from alone in taking on Europe and the United States.

A column published by Russia’s RIA Novosti state news agency on Thursday showed how the Kremlin was lauding the partnership while trying to reduce expectations for how much support China would provide. Without providing proof, the article claimed that China was working to help Russia get around sanctions. This was happening “not as quickly or simply as Russia would like,” the article said, “but what matters is the process itself.”

In a sign of Moscow’s growing reliance, China accounted for more than a quarter of Russia’s total imports in the first nine months of this year, compared with less than 15 percent in the first nine months of last year, according to Elina Ribakova, a deputy chief economist at the Institute of International Finance in Washington. Of the new car brands still sold on the Russian market, the only foreign ones — 11 of them — are Chinese, Russian state media reported this month.

With Europe scrambling to wean itself off Russian fossil fuels, China has become a critical customer. Three times this month, the Russian energy giant Gazprom announced breaking its record for single-day gas deliveries to China.

On Friday, the two leaders vowed to deepen their ties. Mr. Xi called for China and Russia to “provide each other with support for issues involving core interests,” while Mr. Putin aimed to “strengthen cooperation between Russian and Chinese forces.”

“Military and military-technical cooperation occupies a special place in our relations, in our ties,” Mr. Putin said. “It facilitates the security of our countries and supports stability in key regions.”

Because China is loath to violate sanctions, Western officials say that Russia has turned to two other friendly countries — Iran and North Korea — for emergency deals to try to address its shortfall of arms and ammunition.

But China’s partnership is important for the broader symbolism of Moscow helping to lead an anti-Western front — a key propaganda trope for Mr. Putin, who often rails against a Western “golden billion” purportedly trying to dominate and exploit the rest of the world’s population.

“The West is trying to pressure with all its strength Beijing and the head of the People’s Republic of China personally, demanding they turn away from Moscow and Putin,” the marquee weekly news show on Russian state television, “Vesti Nedeli,” declared last Sunday. “But Beijing’s position is unchanged.”

Their propaganda on Ukraine often aligns, deriding the United States for pushing Russia into war and taking aim at the more muscular posture of NATO.

“The U.S. is making all efforts to cheer Ukraine on so it can continue its conflict with Russia,” China’s state-owned Global Times wrote in a recent commentary. “Washington hopes to use the war to completely crush Moscow, including making the latter lose its moral position within the international community.”

Chinese scholars also emphasize that the majority of countries in the world have not agreed to join sanctions against Russia, and challenge the notion that Moscow is isolated beyond the West and its allies.

“The United States and the European Union do not represent the world,” said Xu Poling, a Russia expert at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences.

China’s backing comes despite the complications the invasion has created for Mr. Xi. Beijing had been building on its economic ties with Western allies, but the war has moved Europe more in line with U.S. efforts to undercut China. The invasion has also drawn more attention to China’s threats to invade the self-governing island of Taiwan. And the disruption to Europe’s economy from soaring energy prices has roiled one of China’s biggest export markets.

There are hints that Mr. Xi’s unease over the war is growing. During a meeting in Beijing last week, he expressed hope to Dmitri A. Medvedev, the close Putin ally and former Russian president, that “all parties concerned will exercise rational restraint.” Mr. Putin also alluded to Mr. Xi’s discomfort when he acknowledged the Chinese leader’s “questions” and “concerns” at a summit of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization in Uzbekistan in September, when the two leaders last met.

Western leaders have urged Mr. Xi to do more to persuade Mr. Putin to stop the war. But the Chinese leader has told European officials that they overestimate the role he can play as a mediator, according to two officials with knowledge of the discussions. The officials added that the Chinese and Russian leaders shared a strong personal relationship, with Mr. Xi saying he trusted Mr. Putin.

True as that may be, Mr. Xi can ill afford to abandon Mr. Putin or watch the Russian leader’s ambitions collapse in Ukraine, analysts say. Doing so would critically weaken a key geopolitical ally and leave China to compete with the United States on its own at a time when the Chinese leader faces mounting foreign and domestic challenges.

Chief among them is the spiraling Covid outbreak that is threatening chaos in a nation where many people have already been pushed to their limits by years of lockdowns, quarantines and economic stagnation. The crisis — unfolding every day in hospitals and funeral homes across the country — has undermined the way the ruling Chinese Communist Party has portrayed Mr. Xi’s expert handling of the pandemic, particularly in the way it boasted low death tolls compared to the West.

Mr. Xi is also being stung by rising pressure from the United States. Few things have been of greater consequence than the sweeping restrictions introduced in early October on semiconductor technology exports to China, which could set back the country’s high-tech industries by years.

“Xi remains deeply wedded to Putin’s war, because China has much to gain geopolitically from a Russian victory and potentially even more to lose from a Russian defeat,” said Craig Singleton, a senior China fellow at the nonpartisan Foundation for Defense of Democracies. “In other words, Xi and Putin’s marriage of convenience will endure, not despite Russia’s battlefield setbacks, but because of them.”

Mr. Xi may also be emboldened because he has yet to pay a prohibitive cost for his measured support of Russia. Far from being diplomatically isolated, Mr. Xi has spent the past three months re-engaging with world leaders, many of whom have longed to meet face-to-face with the leader of the world’s second-largest economy.

China has seen relations stabilize with the United States to a degree after Mr. Xi met with President Biden at the Group of 20 summit in Bali, Indonesia. The Chinese leader has also had productive meetings with European leaders, including Chancellor Olaf Scholz of Germany and President Emmanuel Macron of France. And in a move on Friday that could signal Beijing’s growing focus on its relationship with Washington, China’s ambassador to the United States, Qin Gang, was appointed the country’s new foreign minister.

“A renewed demonstration of Sino-Russian solidarity may force Western countries to begrudgingly reassess their willingness to collectively pressure China to rein in its support for Russia,” Mr. Singleton said.

Matina Stevis-Gridneff, Keith Bradsher and Ivan Nechepurenko contributed reporting. Olivia Wang contributed research.

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