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For Russia and China, ties with the West are strained


Russia's president, Vladimir Putin, and China's president, Xi Jinping, have wrapped up two days of discussions in Moscow. This is their second meeting since Russia invaded Ukraine last year. Well, the two leaders vowed to conduct even more trade to deepen other ties to work together more closely. The backdrop to all of this is ties with the U.S., with the West in general remain strained for both countries. To discuss this, I'm joined by two of our correspondents - John Ruwitch, who covers China for NPR, and Charles Maynes, based in Moscow. Welcome you two.

JOHN RUWITCH, BYLINE: Good afternoon.


KELLY: So this was a summit between China and Russia, but I gather the elephant in the room was Ukraine and the war there and that China had arrived having put forth a set of principles for potentially trying to end the war. Did that go anywhere, John?

RUWITCH: Yeah, China's been styling itself as sort of a peacemaker, or at least a party that could help resolve, help solve the Ukraine crisis. It put forward this 12-point position paper, which were broad principles. There's also talk of Xi Jinping having a discussion with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy after this Moscow visit. You know, Putin and Xi Jinping had seven hours of talks over two days. They made statements at the end. And it has to be said that Xi's remarks on Ukraine were very bland. He repeated that China wants peace. He said he's looking forward to more discussions on the matter. They basically had nothing to announce.

MAYNES: Yeah, no, Putin came in acknowledging the Chinese plan, telling Xi in front of cameras that he had studied the Chinese proposals. He respected the ideas and was eager to discuss them. And yet it seemed like these talks ended with this peace initiative as vague and undefined as when they began.



MAYNES: In a statement to the press, Putin said provisions of the Chinese peace plan could be taken as a basis for settling the conflict in Ukraine, whenever the West and Kyiv were ready for it. But Putin added that Russia hadn't seen any evidence they were. So there's not a lot there, and perhaps it's not even surprising. Russia had made it clear it wants Ukraine to accept what Moscow calls the new geopolitical reality of its annexation of Ukrainian lands. Ukraine and its Western allies see the progress Ukrainian forces have made liberating territory from Russia and say, why stop now? And there's a sense that Xi might have been able to force Putin to accept some sort of cease-fire or peace deal. But that clearly just wasn't the case.

KELLY: OK, so sounds like very little progress on Ukraine, alas. Charles, did they agree on anything - any major headlines here?

MAYNES: Yeah. You know, fundamentally, this seemed to be about showing that China and Russia were united in grievance. They both feel the West is trying to hold them down, and they're making common cause of it. The two sides signed this massive joint statement aimed at deepening the Russian-Chinese relationship for a, quote, "new era" while insisting it wasn't a military political bloc. In a dig at NATO, they said that that idea was an outmoded concept from the Cold War. And yet there were also a lot of agreements focusing on the economy, with Russia offering to provide, for example, gas, oil and energy for China's economy. Also important to note what wasn't in the mix - no public mention, anyway, of Chinese arms sales to Russia, although a Putin adviser said it was discussed, without elaborating.

KELLY: That's interesting. So Russia promising energy investments in China. We're not hearing Chinese arms sales to Russia. John Ruwitch, this sounds like a pretty good deal from China's perspective.

RUWITCH: Yes, it does. You know, more oil and gas from Russia is a good thing. The price is low now, given the way the Ukraine war has changed the market for Russian energy. There was a pledge to deepen coordination and resilience of production and supply chains. That's something China's focused on. It's good for China. It helps diversify away from the West. Maria Repnikova is an expert in Chinese and Russian politics at Georgia State University, and she says China did well.

MARIA REPNIKOVA: Well, I think Xi got more out of it than Putin. Basically, China getting a better economic deal out of Russia at this point because Russia has so few allies left.

RUWITCH: More broadly, you know, as Charles points out, this meeting signaled pretty strongly that they're on the same page with regard to the West and that they've got each other's back.

KELLY: But I wonder, is the trade-off, that they've got each other's back, but with every inch that China sidles closer to Russia, does that move it towards worse relations with the West?

RUWITCH: It probably does. If there had been progress toward bringing the war in Ukraine to an end, that might have been a saving grace. It might have made the trip more palatable to many in the West. You know, Putin was just accused of war crimes, and there was an arrest warrant issued for him by the International Criminal Court. U.S. Secretary of State Blinken just yesterday said Xi Jinping's visit was effectively giving diplomatic cover to the Russian leader for that. And the U.S., of course, still suspects China is considering providing lethal assistance to Russia in the war in Ukraine, which is a proverbial red line, right? China doesn't seem to care at this point. You know, Xi Jinping has said that the West, led by the U.S., is bent on encircling and suppressing China. And Beijing suspects the same is happening with Ukraine, that they're using the war to weaken Putin, which would be bad for China from Xi's perspective.

KELLY: Charles, what about from Putin's point of view? It strikes me that Putin doesn't have very many powerful friends right now in the world. How much does he need President Xi? How much does Russia need China?

MAYNES: Badly. And in that regard, this was a win for Putin the moment Xi stepped off the plane. Here's Putin isolated with a warrant out for his arrest. And yet within a few days, he's sitting with Xi, who calls him a dear friend and compliments his leadership of Russia. But make no mistake, you know, Putin is the junior partner in the relationship. Russia is under Western sanctions. It desperately needs Chinese investment and trade to keep its economy afloat. And in fact, Putin was at times a bit over the top in his flattery of Xi, telling him, for example, he was a little envious of China's economic success. And that kind of gets to a criticism you hear here in Moscow, that in binding Russia's future so closely to China, Putin is in danger of losing control of Russia's own destiny.

KELLY: Stakes are so high here. John Ruwitch, you get the last word. What about President Xi? Now in his third term as the leader of China, what did we learn about him on this visit?

RUWITCH: Xi is stronger than ever, right? And he remains defiant. I think that was a message from this visit. You know, many believe that there had been signs a few months ago, perhaps a softer tone out of Beijing or some flexibility in China's approach to the West, maybe a willingness to cool the temperature - right? - to get China's economy back on track. But with the spy balloon incident and now this trip to Moscow, it does seem that that has evaporated.

KELLY: That is NPR's John Ruwitch and Charles Maynes. Thanks to you both.

MAYNES: You're welcome.

RUWITCH: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

John Ruwitch is a correspondent with NPR's international desk. He covers Chinese affairs.