When Xi Jinping arrives in Moscow for a three-day visit next Monday, it will be fresh from his diplomatic triumph in brokering an accord between Saudi Arabia and Iran. It emerged this week that the deal, besides restoring diplomatic relations between the two countries, has seen Iran halt weapons shipments to Houthi rebels in Yemen, raising hopes of an end to the civil war there.
Although Xi’s visit to Moscow comes amid Chinese efforts to promote a negotiated settlement in Ukraine, nobody expects him to achieve a diplomatic breakthrough next week. Both Russia and Ukraine believe the next few months of fighting could be crucial and neither is ready to start peace talks while there is still hope of gaining a decisive advantage on the battlefield.
The United States and its European allies have dismissed China’s proposals for a ceasefire, a prisoner swap and the start of peace talks, questioning Beijing’s credentials as an honest broker on account of its failure to condemn Vladimir Putin’s invasion. And even if China is officially neutral in the conflict, its neutrality takes a form that is of more value to Russia than to Ukraine.
Xi’s visit to Moscow could prove to be useful in moving the conflict towards a peaceful resolution, however, not least because it comes as the sands of elite opinion in Washington are starting to shift. Florida governor Ron De Santis this week joined Donald Trump, against whom he is expected to compete for the 2024 Republican nomination, in declaring that Ukraine was not a vital American interest.
More voices in the US foreign policy establishment are asking questions about the shape of a possible peace settlement and the compromises Ukraine might have to make, including on its territorial integrity. Although a coalition of Western powers have been arming Ukraine’s war effort, the lion’s share of its military assistance comes from the US, so pressure from Washington to make peace would be difficult for Kyiv to resist.
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China’s economic and diplomatic support is crucial for Putin, giving Xi leverage in encouraging the Russian leader to enter talks that could lead to an unsatisfactory compromise for Moscow. Even if Xi’s effort at peacemaking fails, it will further enhance his standing within the Global South and reinforce China’s leading position among developing countries.