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West watches Xi-Putin meetings to see what they might mean for the war in Ukraine

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

China's president, Xi Jinping, is in Moscow for the second day of a state visit with Russia's Vladimir Putin. The meetings are being closely watched in the West for how they might affect the war in Ukraine. NPR's Charles Maynes is on the line from Moscow. Good morning.

CHARLES MAYNES, BYLINE: Good morning.

FADEL: So, Charles, bring us up to speed on what's happened. And is there any clarity on what it might mean for the war in Ukraine?

MAYNES: Yeah, you know, Xi presented this trip as a mission to promote peace in Ukraine, but it's been balanced with and maybe even overshadowed by what are clearly efforts to show unity with Russia and with President Vladimir Putin in particular. You know, Russia's military campaign is struggling. The country is under Western sanctions. And now you have this international court issuing an arrest warrant for Putin for alleged war crimes. So for Putin, you know, Xi's visit comes at a critical time, and the Kremlin pulled out all the stops.

FADEL: What does that look like, when the Kremlin pulls out all the stops?

MAYNES: Well, you know, there was a military marching band to greet Xi as he arrived at the tarmac. Here's a taste.

(SOUNDBITE OF MARCHING BAND PLAYING)

MAYNES: And authorities also basically shut down Moscow so Xi's entourage could move around the city, and that snarled traffic all day. But inside the Kremlin, Putin got what he was after. You know, in front of cameras, Xi addressed him as a dear friend and complimented Putin's leadership. And Putin repaid the flattery in kind while endorsing Xi's efforts as a peacemaker in Ukraine.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT VLADIMIR PUTIN: (Non-English language spoken).

MAYNES: So here, Putin says he's carefully studied a set of Chinese proposals aimed at ending the fighting and said he was open to discussing them with Xi. And then they disappeared behind closed doors for one-on-one talks and a dinner that went nearly five hours.

FADEL: Was there any hint of a breakthrough?

MAYNES: Well, not yet, although we've learned this morning that Xi has invited Putin to visit China later this year. Meanwhile, many in the West are very skeptical of these talks, and that includes U.S. Secretary of State Blinken. Yesterday, Blinken warned that a cease-fire would de facto reward Russian aggression and allow Putin time to rebuild his army, maybe even with Chinese assistance. And Blinken also says, look, you know, if China is so committed to ending the war, why not get Russia to pull back its forces?

But that's clearly not what Putin wants. He insists that Ukraine recognize newly annexed territory seized by Moscow. And it's not entirely clear that's what President Xi wants. In fact, during yesterday's comments to the press, Xi didn't address Ukraine at all.

FADEL: OK. But why would Xi float a peace plan he doesn't intend to pursue?

MAYNES: Well, you know, China certainly wouldn't mind the prestige of being the one to negotiate a peace deal. But China also clearly endorses Putin's argument. The Ukraine conflict is part of this wider battle with the West - in fact, that same West that Xi thinks is trying to contain China. So Beijing doesn't want to see Moscow lose outright.

And there are economic considerations as well. Xi doesn't want to fundamentally upset trade relations with the West, which are core to China's economic growth. And yet he frankly doesn't mind Russia's dependence on China due to Western sanctions. It's allowed Beijing to cut bargain deals for, say, Russian oil and gas.

FADEL: So a delicate balancing act there. Charles, these talks continue today. What can we expect?

MAYNES: Yeah, in fact, today is the start of the official state visit. There's a huge Chinese delegation of over 100 people. So we'll see all sorts of ministerial meetings and what sounds like a pretty spectacular dinner in the Kremlin hall where Ivan the Terrible, the czar, used to dine back in the 16th century. And the two leaders are supposed to address the media. So beyond all the feting, we may get an answer to this kind of fundamental question - with Xi having provided a lifeline to Putin, what does Xi want - now want in exchange?

FADEL: NPR's Charles Maynes in Moscow. Thanks so much, Charles.

MAYNES: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Leila Fadel
Leila Fadel is a host of Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.
Charles Maynes