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The Russia-Ukraine War Began After a Xi-Putin Summit. Can It End With One?

As Russian tanks and troops amassed around Ukraine’s borders in February 2022, President Vladimir Putin’s meeting with Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping ahead of the Winter Olympic Games in Beijing served to showcase the unprecedented “comprehensive strategic partnership for a new era” between the two men and their nations.

Less than two weeks later, the Kremlin launched what has become Europe’s most devastating war in decades. And now, more than a year after their last in-person encounter, Xi has once again met Putin, this time as part of a three-day visit to Moscow that wrapped up Wednesday.

The trip comes in the wake of a 12-point Russia-Ukraine peace framework proposed by the Chinese Foreign Ministry and a surprise deal overseen by Xi for Middle East rivals Iran and Saudi Arabia to reestablish diplomatic ties, signaling the Chinese leader’s willingness to stake a claim toward resolving a conflict still raging thousands of miles away with no clear end in sight.

Although it appears that Xi is leaving Moscow without a tangible deal, he may be walking away with key gains that could ultimately influence the course of the war.

“The Chinese top leader is likely to use this trip to have a better grasp of his Russian counterpart’s true intention about the crisis at this stage,” Zhang Xin, an associate professor at the East China Normal University in Shanghai, told Newsweek“and based on such an updated perception, may try to use China’s and his personal leverage to help frame (not dictate) the course of the crisis in Ukraine.”

Zhang was skeptical that Xi or any top Chinese officials harbored “the illusion that the trip would lead to a peace deal or some other form of political settlement right away.” But he noted that the Chinese leader’s “intention to de-escalate is sincere to start with and any role towards resuming peace talks would be a tremendous victory for Chinese diplomacy.”

“It is also possible the trip will give the Chinese decision-makers some updated clues whether it is possible to give all parties directly involved a way out,” Zhang said, “and what this ‘way out’ may entail for both Russia and Ukraine .”

The White House has preemptively rejected any China-brokered ceasefire, arguing that such a move would only benefit Russia’s efforts to entrench and refresh its troops in Ukraine. Should Beijing and Moscow unite in their call for even a temporary cessation of hostilities, however, the US position could run the risk of backfiring in terms of international views of the conflict.

“It may even reinforce the perception that Ukraine is not in the position to make these crucial decisions by itself,” Zhang said, “and Ukraine may be willing to make some compromises for a possible ceasefire or peace deal, and it is the US as the puppet master that is trying to block a possible peace deal now.”

George Beebe, a decades-long veteran of Russia analysis in US government postings including at the State Department, the White House and the CIA, also warned of possible blowback associated with Washington’s approach.

Beebe, now serving as director of grand strategy at the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft in Washington, DC, told Newsweek that such a US position “plays into China’s hands in the attempt to portray the United States as opposed to peace, as an obstacle to the settlement in Ukraine, as a spoiler of potential compromises.”

“Implicit in that [U.S.] argument is that there can be no agreed settlement,” Beebe added. “If you’re saying that Russia can hold no Ukrainian territory it annexed or conquered and any acknowledgment of that only ratifies and legitimizes aggression and that’s something we can’t agree on , what you’re essentially saying is the only way this war can end is if Ukraine completely defeats the Russian military and drives it off of all Ukrainian territory.”

Even with Kyiv prepared to wage a spring counteroffensive armed with a growing list of Western military equipment, however, he argued that such a “decisive victory” may not be possible at this stage, particularly because of something else Xi’s visit signals.

“The Chinese are signaling that they do not want the Russians to lose this war, and they are totally capable of making sure that the Russians don’t,” Beebe argued. “So that imposes, I think, some real constraints on what is possible for Ukraine and the United States to achieve on the ground.”

So far, Beijing has not sent any significant military aid to Moscow, and Chinese officials have said such a move would not align with China’s neutral policy. At the same time, US officials say their intelligence suggests such a decision is not off the table for Beijing.

Beebe also saw China holding leverage on Russia to ensure Beijing’s overtures were not repelled by the Kremlin.

“The Russians have such dependence on China, economically and strategically, largely as a result of this invasion and the resulting alienation of the West that has followed, that the Russians can’t really stiff-arm the Chinese on their involvement,” he said . “That’s already clear from this visit.”

Olexiy Haran, a professor at the National University of Kyiv Mohyla Academy in Ukraine, also told Newsweek that “China doesn’t want Russia to be defeated for obvious reasons.”

“China needs Russia in global competition with the West, particularly with the United States,” Haran said. “Secondly, China uses the weakening of Russia to receive supplies of Russian energy resources at cheap prices and in transforming Russia into a junior partner of China.”

He said that so far Beijing’s assistance to Moscow appeared to be limited to non-lethal aid such as boots and drones that do not have combat purposes. And he conveyed that his “hope is that China will not supply Russia with arms” moving forward.

Haran doubted whether China’s plan was to get Russian forces to pull out entirely from Ukrainian territory without conditions, or that Beijing “was an honest broker” due to its echoing of Moscow’s talking points over the origins of the conflict being tied to NATO expansion. But he believed Xi’s influence “may be useful in some concrete, specific target points.”

As Russian tanks and troops amassed around Ukraine’s borders in February 2022, President Vladimir Putin’s meeting with Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping ahead of the Winter Olympic Games in Beijing served to showcase the unprecedented “comprehensive strategic partnership for a new era” between the two men and their nations.

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