Russian president Vladimir Putin welcomed Chinese leader Xi Jinping to the Kremlin on Monday, in a visit that sent a powerful message to Western leaders allied with Ukraine that their efforts to isolate Moscow have fallen short.
As he greeted Mr Xi, Mr Putin also said he welcomed his plan for “settlement of the acute crisis in Ukraine”.
Mr Xi’s visit showed off Beijing’s new diplomatic swagger and gave a political lift to Mr Putin just days after an international arrest warrant was issued for the Kremlin leader on war crimes charges related to Ukraine.
The two major powers have described Mr Xi’s three-day trip as an opportunity to deepen their “no-limits friendship”.
China looks to Russia as a source of oil and gas for its energy-hungry economy, and as a partner in standing up to what both see as US domination of global affairs.
The two countries, which are among the five permanent members of the UN Security Council, have also held joint military drills.
US officials have also picked up indications China is considering supplying Russia with weapons for its war in Ukraine but have seen no evidence they have actually done so.
They shook hands before sitting down and making brief statements at the start of their meeting, calling each other “dear friend” and exchanging compliments.
Mr Putin congratulated Mr Xi on his re-election and voiced hope for building even stronger ties.
“China has made a colossal leap ahead in its development in recent years,” Mr Putin said, adding that “it’s causing genuine interest all around the world, and we even feel a bit envious”, as Mr Xi smiled.
He welcomed China’s proposals for a political settlement in Ukraine and noted Russia is open for talks.
“We will discuss all those issues, including your initiative that we highly respect,” Mr Putin said.
“Our co-operation in the international arena undoubtedly helps strengthen the basic principles of the global order and multipolarity.”
Mr Xi said: “We hope that the strategic partnership between China and Russia will on the one hand uphold international fairness and justice, and on the other hand promote the common prosperity and development of our countries.”
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said that, over dinner on Monday, the two leaders’ discussions are likely to include a “detailed explanation” of Moscow’s actions in Ukraine.
Broader talks involving officials from both countries on a range of subjects are scheduled for Tuesday, Mr Peskov said.
For Mr Putin, Mr Xi’s presence is a prestigious, diplomatic triumph amid Western efforts to isolate Russia after its invasion of Ukraine.
In an article published in the Chinese People’s Daily newspaper, the Russian president described the Chinese leader’s visit as a “landmark event” that “reaffirms the special nature of the Russia-China partnership”.
Mr Putin also specifically said the meeting sends a message to Washington that the two countries are not prepared to accept attempts to weaken them.
“The US policy of simultaneously deterring Russia and China, as well as all those who do not bend to the American diktat, is getting ever fiercer and more aggressive,” he wrote.
Mr Xi’s trip comes after the International Criminal Court in The Hague announced on Friday that it wants to put Mr Putin on trial for the abductions of thousands of children from Ukraine.
China portrays Mr Xi’s visit as part of normal diplomatic exchanges and has offered little detail about what the trip aims to accomplish, though the nearly 13 months of war in Ukraine casts a long shadow over the talks.
At a daily briefing in Beijing on Monday, Foreign Ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin said Mr Xi’s trip is a “journey of friendship, co-operation and peace”.
On the war, he said: “China will uphold its objective and fair position on the Ukrainian crisis and play a constructive role in promoting peace talks.”
Beijing’s leap into Ukraine issues follows its recent success in brokering talks between Iran and its chief Middle Eastern rival, Saudi Arabia, which agreed to restore their diplomatic ties after years of tensions.
Following that success, Mr Xi called for China to play a bigger role in managing global affairs.
“President Xi will have an in-depth exchange of views with President Putin on bilateral relations and major international and regional issues of common concern,” Mr Wang said.
He added that China’s leader aims to “promote strategic co-ordination and practical co-operation between the two countries and inject new impetus into the development of bilateral relations”.
Although they boast of a “no-limits” partnership, Beijing has conducted a China First policy.
It has shrunk from supplying Russia’s war machine — a move that could worsen relations with Washington and turn important European trade partners against Beijing.
On the other hand, it has refused to condemn Moscow’s aggression and has censured Western sanctions against Moscow, while accusing Nato and the United States of provoking Mr Putin’s military action.
Last month, China called for a ceasefire and peace talks between Kyiv and Moscow.
Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelenskiy cautiously welcomed Beijing’s involvement, but the overture fizzled out.
The Kremlin has welcomed China’s peace plan and said Mr Putin and Mr Xi will discuss it.
Washington strongly rejected Beijing’s call for a ceasefire as the effective ratification of the Kremlin’s battlefield gains.
Kyiv officials have said they will not bend on their terms for a peace accord.
🇨🇳🇷🇺visit. The formula for the successful implementation of China’s “Peace Plan”. The first and major point is the capitulation or withdrawal of the russian occupation troops from 🇺🇦 territory in accordance with the norms of international law and the UN Charter.
— Oleksiy Danilov (@OleksiyDanilov) March 20, 2023
Oleksiy Danilov, secretary of Ukraine’s National Security and Defence Council, tweeted on Monday: “The first and main point is the capitulation or withdrawal of the Russian occupation troops from the territory of Ukraine in accordance with the norms of international law and the UN Charter.”
That means restoring “sovereignty, independence and territorial integrity”, he wrote.
The Kremlin does not recognise the authority of the International Criminal Court and has rejected its move against Mr Putin as “legally null and void”.
China, the US and Ukraine also do not recognise the ICC, but the court’s announcement tarnished Mr Putin’s international standing.
China’s Foreign Ministry called on the ICC to “respect the jurisdictional immunity” of a head of state and “avoid politicisation and double standards”.
Dmitry Medvedev, deputy head of Russia’s Security Council, said the ICC’s move will have “monstrous consequences” for international law.
“A gloomy sunset of the entire system of international relations is coming, trust is exhausted,” he wrote on his messaging app channel.
He argued that, in the past, the ICC has destroyed its credibility by failing to prosecute what he called US war crimes in Afghanistan and Iraq.
He also warned that the court in The Hague could be a target for a Russian missile strike. Mr Medvedev has made bombastic statements and claims in the past.
Russia’s Investigative Committee said on Monday that it is opening a criminal case against a prosecutor and three judges of the ICC over the arrest warrants they issued for Mr Putin and his commissioner for children’s rights, Maria Lvova-Belova.
The committee called the ICC’s prosecution “unlawful” because it is, among other things, a “criminal prosecution of a knowingly innocent person”.