Xi Jinping invites Vladimir Putin on state visit to China

Xi Jinping has invited Vladimir Putin to visit China this year, a big gesture of support after the International Criminal Court issued an arrest warrant accusing the Russian president of war crimes last week.

The Chinese leader told Russian prime minister Mikhail Mishustin during his state visit to Moscow that he had asked Putin to come to China “at a convenient time”.

The Russian leader’s visit, which Xi suggested would be staged around an investment forum for China’s Belt and Road Initiative, comes as Moscow and Beijing have sought to deepen their “no limits” partnership more than a year after Putin ordered the invasion of Ukraine.

China has provided Russia with a crucial economic lifeline to weather the effect of western sanctions and Xi’s peace plan to end the Ukraine conflict largely aligns with the Kremlin’s goals.

The west’s sanctions have cemented Russia’s status as a junior partner to China, which has increased purchases of Russia’s energy exports and sales of banned equipment such as microchips but stopped short of backing Putin’s war effort.

The US has said China’s peace plan would legitimate Russia’s territorial conquests in Ukraine while giving Moscow time to replenish its armed forces for a fresh offensive. “The world should not be fooled by any tactical move by Russia — supported by China or any other country — to freeze the war on its own terms,” US secretary of state Antony Blinken said on Monday.

Ukraine is also sceptical of the plan, but has refrained from criticising China ahead of an expected call between Xi and President Volodymyr Zelenskyy following his three-day visit to Moscow.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters that Putin and Xi discussed China’s peace plan at informal one-on-one talks that went on for more than four hours on Monday, but did not say whether Putin had accepted Xi’s invitation.

The two leaders called each other “dear friend” at the start of their meeting in the Kremlin on Monday, then dined on Russian delicacies including bliny and Siberian sturgeon, served with wine from a vineyard that is part of an infamous Black Sea palace complex linked to Putin.

At Tuesday’s formal meeting, Putin and Xi will be accompanied by some of Russia’s top security, foreign policy, and defence ministry officials, as well as the head of Russia’s central bank, Peskov said.

The meeting will be followed by a broader conversation involving more Russian officials, Peskov added, without specifying who was to attend.

Western countries are closely studying the trip for signs China may choose to supply Russia’s sputtering army with weapons or formally announce the Power of Siberia-2 gas pipeline, a plan to reroute Russia’s gas exports from Europe to Asia.

Putin has only left the former Soviet Union once, for a trip to Iran, since ordering the invasion of Ukraine in February last year.

His travel options are further restricted by the ICC warrant, under which any of the court’s 123 member states would be expected to arrest him.

Though China and Russia are not signatories to the court’s founding statute, the warrant puts more international pressure on Putin and is likely to drive him further into China’s embrace, said Alexander Gabuev, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

“It just increases China’s leverage. Where Putin can go at all is now an open question, and China can say he’s always welcome there. So it just drives Putin further into China’s pocket,” Gabuev said.

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