The ‘inside track’ of Putin-Xi Jinping talks

The two statesmen spent all Thursday together after Putin’s jet landed at dawn in Beijing. They had extensive discussions, and as Putin later remarked, it turned from a state visit into a “working visit.”

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Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov (C) addressing the Council for Foreign and Defence Policy, Moscow, May 18, 2024

In international diplomacy, summit meetings stand apart from regular high-level meetings when they are held at key moments or important junctures to reinforce partnerships and/or launch major initiatives. 

The summit meeting at Beijing last Thursday between Chinese President Xi Jinping and Russian President Vladimir Putin last falls into such a category, taking place at a momentous juncture when a great shift in the global power dynamic is happening and the breathtaking spectacle of history in the making playing out in real time. (Read my article in NewsClick titled Sino-Russian Entente Shifts Tectonic Plates of World Politics.)

The two statesmen spent an entire Thursday together after Putin’s presidential jet landed at the crack of dawn in Beijing. Extensive and very detailed discussions indeed took place. As Putin said later, this was a state visit which turned into a “working visit.” 

The “debriefing” on Saturday by Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov for the foreign and security policy elite in Moscow at the annual plenary of the Council on Foreign and Defense Policy — Russia’s equivalent of the Council of Foreign Relations headquartered in New York — soon after Putin’s entourage returned from China gives some invaluable glimpses into the ‘inside track’ of the closed-door discussions in Beijing. 

At the most obvious level, Lavrov hit hard in his speech at the US and its NATO Allies with exceptional bluntness that their agenda to inflict a “strategic defeat” on Russia militarily and otherwise — to “decolonise’’ or “dismember” Russia, et al — is pure fantasy and it will be resolutely countered. Lavrov predicted that the escalation in western weapon supplies to Ukraine only highlights the ground reality that “the acute phase of the military-political confrontation with the West” will continue in “full swing”. 

The western thought processes are veering round dangerously to “the contours of the formation of a European military alliance with a nuclear component,” Lavrov said. In particular, France and Germany are still struggling with the demons in their attics — the crushing defeat France suffered at the hands of the Russian army in the Napoleonic war and the destruction of Hitler’s Wehrmacht by the Red Army. 

The big picture is that the West is not ready for a serious conversation. Lavrov lamented that “they have made a choice in favour of a showdown on the battlefield. We are ready for this. And always.” That Lavrov spoke in such exceptionally tough tone suggests that Moscow is supremely confident of Beijing’s support in the crucial phase of the Ukraine war going forward. This is the first thing. 

The current Russian offensive in the Kharkov Region took off when only six days were left for Putin’s forthcoming visit to China. Moscow gave the clearest signal possible that this is Russia’s existential war which it will fight no matter what it takes. Beijing understands fully the highest stakes involved.  

In Lavrov’s words, “Russia will defend its interests in the Ukrainian, Western and European directions. And this, by and large, is understood in the world by almost all foreign colleagues with whom we have to communicate.” 

In his speech, Lavrov acknowledged that the stance of the Chinese leadership is a matter of great satisfaction for the Kremlin. As he put it, “Just the day before, President Vladimir Putin visited China. This is his first foreign visit since his re-election. Negotiations with Chinese President Xi Jinping and meetings with other representatives of the Chinese leadership have confirmed that our comprehensive partnership and strategic cooperation surpass the traditional interstate alliances of the previous era in quality and continue to play a key role in maintaining international security and balanced global development.” This is the second thing. 

The salience of Lavrov’s speech, however, lies in certain momentous remarks he made regarding the future trajectory of the Russia-China entente as such. In measured language, Lavrov declared that Russia has an open mind on “building a real alliance with China.” 

“This topic can and should be discussed specifically. We [Russian foreign and security policy elites] can and should have a special conversation on this topic. We are ready to debate and discuss the ideas expressed in publications and aimed at building a real alliance with the PRC,” he told the elite audience.

Indeed, this is a hugely consequential statement against the backdrop of the gathering storms in the US-Russia-China triangle, with Russia in the middle of a bitterly-fought proxy war with the US and Beijing bracing for the inevitability of a confrontation with Washington in Asia-Pacific. 

Lavrov, the consummate diplomat, ensured that his explosive idea of a “real alliance” had a soft landing. He said, “The assessment given by our leaders says that the relationship is so close and friendly that it surpasses the classic alliances of the past in quality. It fully reflects the essence of the ties that exist between Russia and China and are being strengthened in almost all areas.” 

Indeed, the very fact that Lavrov aired such views openly is important, signalling coordination between Moscow and Beijing. In some form or the other, the topic figured in the discussions in Beijing just the previous day between Putin and Xi.  

Of course, never in their history have Russia and China been so deeply entwined. But for the Sino-Russian entente to assume the form of “a real alliance,” conditions are steadily developing in the Asia-Pacific. Lavrov noted meaningfully that “Our actions in Chinese and other non-Western areas arouse the undisguised anger of the former hegemon [read the US] and his satellites.”

He argued that even as the US is on overdrive “to set up as many countries as possible against Russia and then take further hostile steps,” Moscow will “work methodically and consistently to build new international balances, mechanisms, and instruments that meet the interests of Russia and its partners and the realities of a multipolar world.” 

With an eye on China, Lavrov pointed out that the NATO is actively making a bid for its leading role in the Asia-Pacific region. The NATO doctrine now speaks of the “indivisibility of security in the Euro-Atlantic and the Indo-Pacific region. Blocks are being introduced into it — the incarnation of the same NATO. More and more numerous attempts. “Threes”, “fours”, AUKUS and much more are created.” 

Lavrov concluded that “it is impossible not to think about how we should structure our work on the topic of security in these conditions.” He sensitised the audience that the time may have come to combine “the Eurasian ‘sprouts’ of a new architecture [EAEU, BRI, CIS, CSTO, SCO, etc], a new configuration with some kind of “common umbrella.” 

Lavrov assessed that such an effort will be entirely in sync with Xi Jinping’s “concept of ensuring global security based on the logic of indivisibility of security, when no country should ensure its security at the expense of infringing on the security of others.”     

Lavrov disclosed that Xi Jinping’s concept on global security was indeed  discussed during Putin’s visit to China both at delegation level as well as in a restricted narrow format, and during the one-on-one conversation between the two leaders. He summed up that “We see a great reason for the practical promotion of the idea of ensuring global security to begin with the formation of the foundations of Eurasian security.”

Lavrov made these profound remarks publicly on the eve of his working visit to Astana to take part in the Foreign Ministers Meeting of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation. China is assuming the SCO Chair later this year. Lavrov continued the discussions on this complex issue with his Chinese counterpart, Foreign Minister Wang Yi, whom he met earlier today in Astana. The Russian readout is here.

M. K. Bhadrakumar

M. K. Bhadrakumar was a career diplomat by profession. Roughly half of the 3 decades of his diplomatic career was devoted to assignments on the territories of the former Soviet Union and to Pakistan, Iran and Afghanistan. Other overseas postings included South Korea, Sri Lanka, Germany, and Turkey. He writes mainly on Indian foreign policy and the affairs of the Middle East, Eurasia, Central Asia, South Asia and the Asia-Pacific.

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