The Future According to Xi and Putin

A ChinaFile Conversation

On May 16 and 17, Russian President Vladimir Putin made a state visit to China, where he met with Chinese leader Xi Jinping.

On the opening day of the 2022 Winter Olympics, just 20 days before the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the two leaders had met in Beijing and declared a “no limits” partnership. On March 22, 2023, at the end of a state visit to Russia, as Xi left the Kremlin he told Putin, “There are changes—the likes of which we haven’t seen for 100 years—and we are the ones driving these changes together.” The remarks were filmed and broadcast around the world.

China has not condemned the Russian invasion of Ukraine, and China’s rhetorical and economic support for Russia has been rock solid. Bilateral trade rose 26.3 percent between 2022 and 2023, hitting a record $240.1 billion, with China buying enormous qualities of Russian fossil fuels, and selling products and commodities that Russia needs.

Putin came to Beijing this month with an entourage of senior officials, including the new Defense Minister Andrei Belousov and the man he replaced, Sergei Shoigu, as well as a host of other officials who have a long history of working with Chinese counterparts.

In 2023, Beijing issued a 12-point “Position on the Political Settlement of the Ukraine Crisis” that state media called a “peace proposal.” Before this month’s trip, China’s official Xinhua News Agency quoted Putin as saying, “We are open to a dialogue on Ukraine, but such negotiations must take into account the interests of all countries involved in the conflict, including ours.”

The Kremlin released a statement about the visit saying that the “leaders of Russia and China will have an extensive discussion of the entire scope of issues pertaining to the Russia-China overarching partnership and strategic cooperation,” and that they “will outline priorities for further practical cooperation between the two states and have an in-depth exchange of opinions on the most pressing international and regional issues.”

Xi has stood closely by Putin’s side since their announcement of the “no limits” partnership, and this does not look likely to change. But what has been the outcome of Putin’s trip? Did the two leaders make a serious attempt to negotiate on Ukraine, or were the optics of bilateral friendship the main aim? How should we expect the two countries’ trade relationship to change after this visit? What else came out of this trip?

The Editors


Vladimir Putin’s trip to China concluded with high symbolism but limited transformation in the relationship. Choosing China as the first foreign visit after the inauguration already signaled to domestic and international audiences the enduring importance of the China-Russia partnership. Russian media reported in detail about the red carpet and festive treatment of Russia’s leader, comparing it to China’s more subdued reception toward European leaders. Xi Jinping even graced Putin with a farewell hug—an unusual gesture, enthusiastically discussed on social media.

The joint statement published by the Kremlin is loaded with gripping declarations, yet limited on specifics. It reads as a long but relatively general, aspirational account of shared values and visions, as well as areas for further bilateral collaboration. The two sides, predictably, use this platform to extol multipolarity and critique U.S. hegemony. Their appeal towards a more equitable world order may be met with cynicism in the West but it could still resonate in the Global South, where many developing countries perceive the United States as duplicitous.

The promotion of shared geopolitical narratives was further solidified in new agreements about cooperation between Russian and Chinese media. During the latest visit, Russia Today and Xinhua News Agency signed a memorandum to hold an expert forum representing BRICS countries. The Russian News Agency TASS and Xinhua also signed an agreement to share information. This collaboration in the media and communications realm is not new. It builds on the past 20 years of growing media partnerships, forums, and increasingly positive mutual media coverage. I have written about this in detail in a recent publication for the Wilson Center.

Beyond the symbolic realm, the two nations professed to expand collaboration across a range of economic, geopolitical, educational, and military spheres, without providing too much detail. The big pronouncements also obfuscate the core missing items from the meeting. The Power of Siberia 2 gas pipeline deal, long anticipated on the Russian side, was not signed. When asked about this at a Russian press conference, Putin responded in broad strokes about the interest on both sides to expand this partnership and the importance of Russia for China’s energy needs. He ignored the question on timelines for the construction of the pipeline.

Negotiation over Russia’s war in Ukraine has also witnessed little progress. As in the past, Putin praised China’s efforts at peaceful solutions to the conflict and blamed Ukraine for abandoning peace negotiations. Putin publicly acknowledges China’s initiative as a peacemaker, but in practice continues to wage the war in Ukraine.

Even without these breakthroughs, however, Putin’s visit to China holds a lot of significance. It reaffirms, at least publicly, the growing affinities between the two leaders and their determination to continue to challenge the Western-led order. Resisting the efforts by the United States to drift China and Russia apart, Putin and Xi declared that the show would go on.

Xi Jinping’s hosting of Vladimir Putin’s May 16-17 visit was a diplomatic spectacle. It signaled that Xi’s “strategic straddle”—his conviction that he can balance relations with the United States, Europe, and Russia—has moved into high gear. Xi gave Putin some of what he needed but not all that he wanted. Beijing’s ties with Washington remain stable but structurally fraught. Europe is divided both with Washington and with itself about how precisely to confront China over Russia. China is threading the seams of today’s geopolitics, and Putin’s visit was the latest evidence of this.

The visit was a bookend, not the beginning, of a Chinese diplomatic gambit. It began with Xi’s hosting the leaders of both the Netherlands and Germany in Beijing. China effectively framed those visits as “bilateral” not European affairs, and Xi focused on “common economic interests” (i.e., their reliance on China). Ukraine barely featured. Following that, Xi’s Beijing meetings with U.S. Secretaries of Treasury and State validated his leadership at home. Both cabinet officials complained about China’s military aid to Russia, but the U.S. has not implemented new financial sanctions. Beijing is well prepared for this, anyway. Next, Xi visited Europe (France, Serbia, and Hungary) in early May and used the trip to highlight China’s economic largesse and to encourage divisions within both NATO and the European Union. Hosting Putin completed this sequence, and it validated Xi’s entire strategy.

Putin’s sojourn was long on symbolism and short on material gains. Xi’s embrace helped him appear less isolated after his sham election. The visit provided a high profile opportunity for both leaders to criticize the United States and to reject Western liberal rules and norms, while offering their authoritarian alternatives. There was much talk of deepening cultural ties, another symbolic gift from China to Russia. The meeting itself was largely the message.

Of course, Putin wanted more. He brought a big delegation of Russian finance and defense experts to circumvent sanctions and expand military industrial cooperation. He capped off the trip with a visit to one of China’s top defense S&T universities. Yet, no major new deals were announced, civilian or military. But they did release a lengthy joint statement, underscoring their common visions and values. The Chinese are masters of using ceremony and symbolism to substitute for material progress. Notably, Xi again failed to approve the Power of Siberia 2 gas project, which Putin has been pushing for years. China wants to avoid dependence on Russia for natural gas, implying there are indeed some limits.

While Xi may not have given Putin much, according to official communications about the visit he also didn’t raise sensitive issues. He didn’t pressure Russia on Ukraine. Indeed, he linked Chinese support on Ukraine to Russian support for Taiwan. Publicly, Xi did not mention Putin’s recent dalliances with North Korea, which concern Chinese policymakers. Finally, to the chagrin of Western policymakers, there was no hint of a discussion of nuclear weapons, including their usage in Ukraine.

Thus, the “no limits relationship” is as real and pernicious as ever. Chinese assistance to reconstituting both the civilian economy and the defense industrial base may ultimately reshape European security. Russia is rapidly becoming not just dependent on China but reorienting its society and culture around its ties to China. Xi’s “strategic straddle” is not just working well, but Xi may be perfecting it. This raises the question of whether the West is going to let China get away with perhaps the great geopolitical crime of the 21st century.

The visit had two main foci: bilateral cooperation, and Russia’s chiming in on the Chinese vision for a global order—the “multipolar world.”

In terms of bilateral cooperation, promises were made and documents signed. These covered economic relations, cultural links (Putin spent the second day of his trip in Harbin), media (Xinhua partnered up with several Russian media agencies), and softening the border by establishing a cross-border reserve for big cats and jointly developing Bolshoy Ussuriysky Island (Heixiazi Dao).

The last point is particularly curious, as there was public outrage in Russia last year over official People’s Republic of China maps’ demarcation of the island as fully Chinese despite a 2008 agreement to divide the disputed island between the two countries.

In terms of the vision for a global order, Putin provided a full endorsement of China’s global and regional initiatives. He argued that the BRICS consortium is “attractive” to countries in the “Global South” and “Global East” because it makes “their voices heard and valued.” Clearly, Western concerns over the real fight being for the hearts and minds of the Global South are being heard in Russia and China.

Ukraine was a topic for conversation, but not really for negotiation between Xi and Putin. Both sides are framing Russia’s attack on Ukraine in terms of promoting a multipolar world order and pushing back against U.S. hegemony. The joint statement argues for “removing the root causes” of the war—which, according to the Russian and Chinese positions previously expressed, is NATO’s eastward expansion. Both parties called for “adhering to the principle of indivisibility of security, taking into account the legitimate security interests and concerns of all countries”—a pro-Russian statement if there ever was one. Against that backdrop, the Russian side probably gave optimistic accounts of its military advances, hinting that just a little more help can go a long way.

Whether or not Beijing will find such help to be in its interest remains to be seen.

The Xi-Putin meeting elicited a strong negative reaction in Ukraine, even causing a sense of panic. The meeting included discussion of military cooperation between Russia and China, which the U.S. is “profoundly concerned” about, and which has exacerbated the already negative perception of China in Ukraine.

Furthermore, many in Ukraine believe that China is establishing a dominant-subordinate relationship with Russia, leveraging this situation to penetrate various sectors of the Russian economy. The presence of Russian bank representatives in Putin’s Beijing delegation indeed underscores Russia’s efforts to develop an alternative financial system that circumvents the dollar. This development is particularly concerning for Ukraine, as it suggests the increasing support from amoral Chinese businesses for the Russian war effort, without the fear of facing sanctions.

The worst imaginable outcome of the Russian invasion of Ukraine is the potential use of nuclear weapons, which Putin has signaled. This is a global threat that could provoke a third world war. Ukraine has repeatedly requested China to provide a nuclear security guarantee, a plea that has been consistently ignored. As the situation approaches a critical juncture, the question looms: Did Xi Jinping leverage his meeting with Putin in Beijing on May 16 to prevent a catastrophic outcome? We may never know the details of their private discussions, but such efforts would contribute significantly to building a community with a shared future for mankind.