(MENAFN- Asia Times) Monday marks the 20th anniversary of the United States' ground invasion of Iraq in 2003. So on Monday afternoon when Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping sit down in Moscow for an informal lunch and one-on-one talks that will be followed by a formal delegation-level dialogue the next morning, they will surely be reminded of their countries' strong track record of close proximity that is once again being tested in the midst of the Ukraine crisis.
Both Russia and China called the 2003 US invasion of Iraq as“illegal ,” showcasing their convergence on“restraining ... [American] monopoly and domination in world affairs,” and their experience since, and now in the Ukraine war, should only further cement their“no limits” partnership.
However, this piece of great-power geopolitics offers little respite, if any, from the unending stream of death, destruction and disruptions reverberating from its epicenter in Ukraine to the far corners of the international community.
Sino-Russian convictions meanwhile stand reinforced by what major-powers geopolitics can deliver. The US-led Second Gulf War of 2003 that ended 30 years of rule by Saddam Hussein ushered in an unending era of conflict and chaos, making Iraq home for Hamas, al-Qaeda, Islamic State, and and no one shedding any tears for the God-forsaken Iraqis.
So much so that an Axios-Ipsos survey held this month found as many as 61% of Americans did not believe the US invasion of Iraq was the right decision.
Given such knotted history and the multilayered puzzle of the Ukraine crisis, what can one expect from this week's Putin-Xi summit? Who seems to be setting their agenda, and what could be the motivations guiding their perspectives?
Can this summit prove to be an inflection point? At the most visible level, since the Munich Security Conference of February 17-19, China has been working on its 12-point peace proposal on the Ukraine crisis. And seeking peace in Ukraine has come to define President Xi's Moscow visit.
Putin driving the agenda
To begin with, it is Putin who seems to be driving the agenda of this summit. After his December 30 videoconference and formal invitation to Xi to visit Moscow in the spring, Putin called their ties“a model of cooperation between major powers in the 21st century.”
The Chinese readout of that meeting, on the other hand, was relatively muted and made no mention of a visit promising to take a“objective and fair” position on Ukraine crisis.
But it is not that China has not reciprocated . The Chinese perhaps believe in doing rather than talking.
For instance, in the midst of Western sanctions, Sino-Russian bilateral trade showed an impressive 32% upswing for 2022 and Chinese companies have stepped in to fill the vacuum created by the exodus of foreign firms, resulting in 11 of 14 car brands in the Russian market today being Chinese.
And now Xi arrives in Moscow on the back of having brokered a peace deal between Iran and Saudi Arabia, thereby forcefully inching to the center stage of global diplomacy.
However, Putin is not making Xi's challenge easy. After a visit by Chinese State Councilor Wang Yi, Putin was the first to announce Xi's Moscow visit, declaring that Sino-Russian ties were“reaching new frontiers.” And now, Putin has moved the global focus on this summit taking place in the backdrop of the ninth anniversary of Russia's 2014 invasion of Crimea.
This weekend, Putin undertook a surprise trip to Crimea and Mariupol, marking the occasion to claim Russia's legitimate incorporation of these territories.
This is bound to color Western imaginations of the Putin-Xi summit as well as putting added pressure on President Xi exploring peace possibilities. Western media have criticized this as Putin's defiance by a display of bravado following an arrest warrant from the International Criminal Court for war crimes. He was shown driving a car and walking around Mariupol, where he visited several districts before returning to Moscow.
Indeed, on eve of the Putin-Xi summit, US National Security Council spokesman john kirby told Fox News that“some sort of call for a ceasefire” coming out of the summit would be“unacceptable, because all that's going to do is to ratify Russia's conquest to date.”
He accused Beijing and Moscow of trying“to rewrite the rules of the game globally.” Secretary of State antony blinken had earlier explained China's peace initiatives as and attempt to distract the world away from its support of Putin.
China's peace initiative
With us president joe biden having put together a coalition of 50 nations committed to supporting Ukraine defending itself against Russian threats and Putin showing no sign of relenting, the chances of the Chinese peace proposal making any headway in this week's summit remain bleak.
Both sides remain committed to escalating. Western countries have begun supplying Ukraine with main battle tanks and fighter jets, which could take the war across to Russian territories, increasing unpredictability about its trajectories.
But Xi has also put his personal intervention at stake, promising to“play a constructive role in promoting talks” and planning even to speak with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky after his meeting with Putin. This would be Xi's first contact with Zelensky, and it would not be easy to convince the Ukrainian leader of China's neutrality and strike a balance between Moscow and Kiev.
Xi's peace mission is also his first foreign trip after securing an unprecedented third term in office, with all his domestic constituencies watching.
Today, the world, including Ukraine, sees Sino-Russia ties through the prism of fhs Xi-Putin joint statement of February 2022 announcing their“no limit” partnership. But it is important to note that the Ukraine war has seen China becoming cautious in its support to Putin and displaying its desire to put an early end to the Ukraine crisis.
The Russian readout on Putin-Xi bilateral talks on the sidelines of the Samarkand SCO summit last September, for instance, acknowledged China's“questions and concerns” while appreciating Beijing's“balanced position” (not support) on the Ukraine crisis.
Most important, China has avoided supplying any weapons, or even material support, for Russia's war efforts, though the Americans suspect Beijing of preparing to do so. China has also increasingly sought to portray itself as“an honest broker between Moscow and Kiev” and last month enunciated a detailed 12-point peace proposal, though it received only a lukewarm, even skeptical response from most Western countries.
But Russia, with an economy of about one-tenth the size of China's, has become increasingly dependent on Beijing, thus expanding China's sway over the Russian power elite. But access to Russian energy, and even defense technologies, remains Moscow's strong bargaining point with Beijing.
Also, in the long run, China will need Russia for its ongoing confrontation with the United States and its friends and allies. This will see Xi walking the tightrope of not harming his interests in Russian friendship while being fully aware of how Western countries are interpreting his words and deeds on an everyday basis.
Summit's limited remit
Recent weeks have seen China publicizing its limited remit on the Ukraine crisis, thereby lowering expectations from this week's much-hyped Putin-Xu summit. Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin recently summarized China's position on the Ukraine crisis in a single sentence as one where China aims to“urge peace and promote talks.”
This may be driven partially by the recent reports of some US agencies having confirmed that rounds of Chinese ammunition were used in battlefields in Ukraine and suspicions they were fired by Russian forces. US officials even claim to possess intelligence indicating that Beijing is considering sending arms and ammunition to Russia.
But the presence of Chinese ammunition cannot be conclusive evidence. Even before the Ukraine war began, the world saw China and Russia standing together to oppose the United States and its allies both inside and outside the United Nations.
The world has seen them set up the world's largest parallel regional forum, the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) that covers 40% of the global population and 30% of global GDP, with several other nations trying to join them as members, observers, dialogue partners, special invitees etc.
Russia has its 10-member Collective Security Treaty Organization of former Soviet republics. All this means the world remains divided, with a large number of nations staying neutral or disinterested. Most of them have no leverage other than voting in the UN General Assembly, which also stands divided.
But the United States feels on the back foot after China's recent diplomatic coup in facilitating a peace agreement between Iran and Saudi Arabia, the main arch-rivals of the Middle East, where Washington enjoys unquestioned leadership. This explains why President Xi plans to speak with Zelensky knowing well the cost it may have for Sino-Russian friendship.
As for ending the Ukraine war, modern wars have no easy closure. This is especially so when they are driven by major-power geopolitics and have no regard whatsoever for their actual victims.
So it makes sense to keep expectations pragmatic, and the Putin-Xi summit will at best give them a chance to reaffirm their friendship and assert their leadership, with little respite to the Ukraine crisis.
Follow Swaran Singh on Twitter @SwaranSinghJNU.