Xi Jinping and Vladimir Putin emerged from two days of talks on Tuesday with warm words of friendship between China and Russia and joint criticism of the West, but no sign of a diplomatic breakthrough over Ukraine.
Xi’s visit to Moscow – long touted by the Kremlin as a show of support from its most powerful friend – featured plenty of demonstrative bonhomie. The two leaders referred to each other as dear friends, promised economic cooperation and described their countries’ relations as the best they have ever been.
A joint statement included familiar accusations against the West – that Washington was undermining global stability and NATO barging into the Asia-Pacific region.
On Ukraine, Putin praised Xi for a peace plan he proposed last month, and blamed Kyiv and the West for rejecting it.
“We believe that many of the provisions of the peace plan put forward by China are consonant with Russian approaches and can be taken as the basis for a peaceful settlement when they are ready for that in the West and in Kyiv. However, so far we see no such readiness from their side,” Putin said.
But Xi barely mentioned the conflict at all, saying that China had an “impartial position” on it.
Responding to the meeting, the White House said China’s position was not impartial, and urged Beijing to pressure Russia to withdraw from Ukraine’s sovereign territory to end the war.
The summit, Putin’s biggest display of diplomacy since he ordered his invasion of Ukraine a year ago, was partly upstaged in Kyiv, where Japan’s Prime Minister Fumio Kishida made an unannounced visit and met President Volodymyr Zelenskiy.
The latest world leader to make the gruelling overland journey to show solidarity with Ukraine, Kishida toured Bucha on the capital’s outskirts, left littered with dead last year by fleeing Russian troops. He lay a wreath by a church before observing a moment of silence and bowing.
“The world was astonished to see innocent civilians in Bucha killed one year ago. I really feel great anger at the atrocity upon visiting that very place here,” Kishida said.
Putin and Xi signed a “no limits” partnership agreement last year just weeks before Russia invaded Ukraine. Beijing has since declined to blame Moscow for the war and condemned Western sanctions on Russia, even as China has profited by securing discounts for oil and gas Russia no longer sells to Europe.
The West has largely dismissed Xi’s peace plan for Ukraine as at best too vague to make a difference, and at worst a ploy to buy time for Putin to rebuild his forces.
But Kyiv, perhaps hoping to keep China neutral, has been more circumspect, and cautiously welcoming the plan when China unveiled it last month.
At his news conference with Kishida, Zelenskiy said Kyiv had invited China to sign on to Ukraine’s own proposed peace plan but had received no reply. Zelenskiy has repeatedly called on Xi to speak to him.
Kyiv says there can be no peace talks with Russia unless it withdraws its troops. Moscow says Kyiv must accept territorial “realities” – a reference to its claim to have annexed nearly a fifth of Ukraine.
White House national security spokesperson John Kirby said a ceasefire right now would freeze battle lines where they are – meaning Ukraine effectively ceding parts of its territory to the Russian invasion.
Washington has said over the past month that it is worried that Beijing could arm Russia, which China denies.
On the ground, bursts of incoming and outgoing artillery fire could be heard in the town of Chasiv Yar just west of Bakhmut, a small eastern city that has been the focus of intense fighting for months.
Between apartment blocks in Chasiv Yar, mainly elderly residents queued for water and food delivered by a team from the State Emergency Service.
Oleksii Stepanov said he had been in Bakhmut until five days ago but was evacuated when his house was destroyed by a missile.
“We were in the kitchen and the missile came through the roof. The kitchen was all that was left standing,” said the 54-year-old.
Moscow has launched a massive winter offensive using hundreds of thousands of freshly called-up reservists and convicts recruited as mercenaries from jail.
Despite the bloodiest fighting of the war, which both sides describe as a meat grinder, the front line has barely moved for four months except in Bakhmut where Russian forces made gains in January and February. Kyiv decided this month not to pull its forces out of the city.