Russian President Vladimir Putin and Chinese President Xi Jinping are gearing up to meet each other in Uzbekistan in what will be their first face-to-face meeting since Putin invaded Ukraine in February.
The two will meet on the sidelines of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), the Russian ambassador to China, Andrey Denisov, told reporters Wednesday, according to TASS. India, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Pakistan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan also comprise the SCO.
“This summit promises to be interesting, because it will be the first full-fledged summit since the pandemic,” Denisov said. “I do not want to say that online summits are not full-fledged, but still, direct communication between leaders is a different quality of discussion.”
Xi and Putin did in fact meet on the margins of the Beijing Winter Olympics this February, less than three weeks before the invasion of Ukraine, affirming a union they called a “no limits” partnership, meant to represent their shared vision for the globe and agreeing to work together in opposition to “further enlargement of NATO.”
But this week’s meeting could mark an uncomfortable inflection point in the relationship between the two powers, given the failure of Putin’s Ukraine invasion to achieve its basic strategic aims.
In the early days of the war Xi was unsettled by the way Putin had carried out the invasion, according to a CIA analysis delivered to lawmakers on Capitol Hill, and since, Xi hasn’t outright endorsed the war in Ukraine. But Beijing has pointed out that China believes the United States is the “main instigator” of the war, echoing Kremlin talking points. Their summit could be a signal that although there might be some mistrust in the relationship, the two leaders are interested in deepening their relationship. Especially as the North Atlantic Treaty Organization emerges after Russia’s invasion more united than ever, Xi and Putin have even more reason to enhance their bond.
More than six months into Russia’s war in Ukraine, Putin is feeling the squeeze of sanctions and isolation. In addition to the sanctions, Russia has in recent days halted Nord Stream 1 gas pipeline flows to Europe and, in an attempt to pressure Europe to bend to Putin’s will, has said that the gas exports can return if the west eases up its sanctions on Moscow. U.S. Secretary of State Tony Blinken urged European nations to not bend to Russia’s “bullying.” And European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen has indicated Europe will be bearing down, investing in renewable energies and increasing LNG imports from other countries, even under threat of a tough winter ahead, all in the name of throttling Russian revenues used to fund the war in Ukraine.
In China, though, Russia has a key partner for energy exports. Just this week, Russia announced it would be transitioning its gas shipments to China so they are paid for in rubles and yuan rather than U.S. dollars as part of an effort to reduce Moscow’s reliance on western and U.S. currencies. This year, China has increased its imports of Russian energy resources, and has boosted its purchases of crude, oil products, gas, and coal from Russia to $35 billion since the beginning of the war, compared to $20 billion last year.
Meanwhile in Ukraine, the Russian army has been faltering. Ukrainian forces have been rolling out a counteroffensive in the south of Ukraine in an attempt to seize back Kherson, which Russia captured in the first few days of the war. Ukraine has already been racking up the wins: Taking back two villages in Kherson oblast and, just in recent hours, advancing 50 kilometers into Russian lines in the Kharkiv region, taking back more than 20 villages, according to a Ukrainian general. President Volodymyr Zelensky said Thursday Ukrainian forces have seized over 1,000 square kilometers since the beginning of September, too.
Putin’s forces are not doing well, even according to top Russian brass. Russian military operations are experiencing a slowdown, according to Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu. Russians’ supply lines are not doing well in the counteroffensive, the U.S. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin said Thursday.
“The Ukrainians have inflicted significant damage to the Russians' supply lines and ammunition supply points and command-and-control nodes,” Austin told reporters Thursday.
And the Ukrainians are not willing to back down on defense yet. Ukrainian military leadership predicted this week that unless there is a dramatic shift in aid to Ukraine to beat back the Russians faster, the war will drag on well into next year. The only path forward for Ukraine must include multiple counterstrikes against Russia, General Valery Zaluzhnyi, the commander-in-chief of the armed forces of Ukraine, and Lieutenant General Mykhailo Zabrodskyi, first deputy chairman of the National Security, Defense, and Intelligence Committee of the Verkhovna Rada, said in an op-ed published this week.
The meeting with Xi would not be the first time Russia has leaned on governments sympathetic to Putin’s cause as Russia’s war effort has flagged. This week, two U.S. officials told The Daily Beast that Russia has begun leaning on North Korea for shipments of artillery shells and rockets in an attempt to bolster its military supplies in Ukraine.
But in this case, it’s not just Russia making its case to China. Xi’s vision of the world aligns well with Putin’s—one in which democracy threatens their ascent to power. And the meeting should be significant for Xi, as well, David Shullman, the former Deputy National Intelligence Officer for East Asia on the National Intelligence Council, told The Daily Beast.
“The U.S.-China relationship is becoming more fraught seemingly by the week,” Shullman said. “It’s not a one-sided thing where Russia only needs China because Russia’s facing international pressure and U.S. pressure over Ukraine. From China’s perspective—I’m not saying Russia plays a key role in the Taiwan Strait and crisis in a military sense—but having that partnership and having that relationship with Putin is important.”
Tensions between the United States and China have ratcheted up in recent weeks after House Speaker Nancy Pelosi visited Taiwan—which China says it lays claim to. Xi is likely eyeing which partners it can rely on should those tensions come to a head one day. Having watched the United States rally a harsh western response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Xi is likely reframing his thoughts about Taiwan and interested in bolstering Beijing’s relationship with Moscow, Shullman said.
“There is a sense now in China… that China needs to think even more deeply about how to avoid vulnerability to what the United States could do in the economic domain in the event of a Taiwan Strait crisis [and] having as many partners as possible to push back on that.”