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A symbolic Moscow meeting between Xi and Putin

PIEN HUANG, HOST:

Tomorrow, Chinese President Xi Jinping will visit Russian President Vladimir Putin in Moscow, and the war in Ukraine is likely to top their list of things to talk about. The three-day visit comes at a crucial time - the recent one-year anniversary of Russia's invasion of Ukraine - and the Chinese government wants to help negotiate an end to the war. It also comes as Putin made a surprise visit to the Russian-occupied city of Mariupol earlier today. It's believed to be his first visit to the territory, which was taken by Russian forces last year. To learn more about the state visit between China and Russia and the relationship between these two countries, we've called Joshua Yaffa. He's a contributing writer at The New Yorker, where he's covered Russia for years, and he's author of the book "Between Two Fires: Truth, Ambition, And Compromise In Putin's Russia." Joshua Yaffa, welcome. Nice to have you back on the program.

JOSHUA YAFFA: Thanks for having me.

HUANG: So this trip was announced on Friday by both the Chinese and Russian governments. Can you talk a little bit about why this visit is such a big deal?

YAFFA: Well, it's certainly a big deal for Putin, first and foremost, who's found himself isolated like never before in the wake of his invasion of Ukraine, now past its one-year mark. Russia has been effectively isolated entirely - diplomatically, economically - from the West, the United States and the EU, losing access to valuable energy markets and simply becoming an effective pariah in Western capitals, especially in the wake of the decision by the ICC last week to indict Putin on the charge of war crimes. Only the second sitting leader...

HUANG: ICC - International Criminal Court, yeah.

YAFFA: That's right. Right - only the second sitting leader in world history to face charges while in office. So the degree to which Putin has lost any sort of foothold, access, legitimacy or even prospect of ever being welcomed back into a club of legitimate leaders, even if and when the war in Ukraine somehow draws to a close - that door has really closed quite conclusively for Putin. And for Xi himself, there are parallel interests at play. China is engaged in what both sides - both China and the United States - admit is a long-term strategic geopolitical rivalry. Both countries see the other as the primary, if not geopolitical threat, then at least rival for power, influence and effective domination of both geopolitics and economics in the 21st century.

So for Xi, meeting with Putin is very much about sending signals to Washington. I think that's the primary reason why - or rather what Xi hopes to get out of not just this meeting with Putin, but really his relationship with Russia more broadly, and how can Russia be used to create a geopolitical balance to both distract the United States - sap its resources, sap its attention - and to create economic benefit for China.

HUANG: Yeah, so we've set the diplomatic stage for this meeting. Do we have any sense of what, concretely, each side wants out of these talks?

YAFFA: Well, of course, what Russia would like is Chinese weapons. And we've seen some indications that - first and foremost, from the United States, so it's hard to tell what evidence or intelligence is at play here. But Secretary of State Blinken has been very direct about warning China that there would be severe consequences if it did indeed sell weapons to Russia, suggesting that such deals were very, very close to happening. But I think the real point of this meeting is symbolic - symbolic for Putin for the reasons we talked about, to show that the attempts to turn him into an international pariah have failed. Here he is hosting the leader of arguably one of the world's most powerful countries, the emerging or emerged power of the 21st century.

And for Xi, it's also a way to signal to the U.S. that he can't be boxed in, he can't be intimidated. He is going to pursue China's rather ambitious geopolitical and diplomatic agenda without concern for what the U.S. might think. This comes on the heels, of course, of China's successful brokering of a deal between Iran and Saudi Arabia, playing a new role for China as peacemaker in the Middle East. So that's certainly the kind of diplomatic win, symbolic or real, that Xi will be looking for in his dealings with Putin and by inserting himself in the Ukraine war, more broadly.

HUANG: Now, we know that Putin keeps a tight grip on the media in Russia. Is this visit being spun by Putin in any way that you can see?

YAFFA: Russia's television channels, which have become full-bore propaganda outlets since the start of the war, are heralding the visit as exactly what we've talked about - a sign that Russia is not isolated, that Russia remains a relevant world power. Here it is hosting a summit with the leader of the most relevant emerging power of the 21st century. All signs that the Western project to isolate, demean Russia, to remove it somehow from the club of legitimate nations, or Putin from the club of legitimate leaders - that that project has failed and that there's a new power order in the offing.

HUANG: And before we let you go, Joshua, you've been covering Putin and Russian politics for quite some time. So what are you going to be paying attention to the most over the course of the visit that's coming up tomorrow?

YAFFA: I think what's really important for Putin to signal, first and foremost, for his own population - even within that, the elite segment of the population - is that he is still a leader that can, on the one hand, get Russia out of this war, bring the war to a close and to promise after that - whenever that happens, however that happens - a future stability that the elite can count on and the population can count on. Maybe not a return to the full status quo ante, the normal that existed before the war, but at least a sense of normality - political, economic and so on. It's really important for Putin to prove that he still is a leader worth betting on. I don't think the plates have started shifting in a serious way inside Russia, where Putin's rule is under immediate threat. I don't want to suggest that. But over time, those will be questions that become really important. Is Putin still someone the elite wants to bet on? And if he is able to prove that he has close relations with someone like Xi and that China is still betting on him, that's an argument that he can sell to the Russian population and, first and foremost, to the Russian elite.

HUANG: That was Joshua Yaffa, contributing writer to The New Yorker. His latest book is "Between Two Fires: Truth, Ambition And Compromise In Putin's Russia." Joshua Yaffa, thanks so much for joining us.

YAFFA: Thanks for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Pien Huang is a health reporter on the Science desk. She was NPR's first Reflect America Fellow, working with shows, desks and podcasts to bring more diverse voices to air and online.