Samarkand, the Uzbek city known for its great mosques and mausoleums and which was an enclave on the Silk Road, will host the first meeting between Russian President Vladimir Putin and his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping since the Kremlin began its invasion of Ukraine seven months ago.
This meeting, framed in the celebration of the summit of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, which will also be attended by 14 other countries, maintains special importance due to the circumstances and the context surrounding the summit. And it is that Putin, after having staged a rapid offensive against Ukraine, coming to control the Donetsk oblast, Luhansk, Kherson and Zaporozhye, has now suffered a Ukrainian counteroffensive after the Ukrainian army managed to recapture the city of Kharkov after an unexpected "blitzkrieg", which may represent a turning point in the conflict.
From the European Union, the recovery of Kharkov has been celebrated with enthusiasm. Statements such as "the war is won with weapons”, “the European Union has regained its inner strength“ or ”this is the time for us to show determination, not appeasement“ have been those that have been heard from European diplomats, including the president of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, who has accused Putin of causing ”the spiral of destruction and death" in Ukraine.
For this reason, Putin, aware of his current weakness, is looking for a foothold in China that will be able to add the remaining forces to it and show the world that Russia is not isolated. However, Jinping has always been cautious when positioning himself in this conflict and that is that although he has condemned the expansion of NATO to the east in a strategy that has ended up surrounding Russia, Beijing has not provided weapons to Moscow and has extended its hand on more than one occasion as a diplomatic actor that can mediate in the conflict, making it clear that China “is following an independent policy” in relation to Ukraine.
The last meeting between the two leaders took place in Beijing, on the sidelines of the Winter Olympics, weeks before Russia began its invasion. After that meeting, Putin and Jinping issued a joint statement where they asked the West to abandon “its ideologized approach to the Cold War”, an idea that has been confirmed again by the Chinese president after the NATO Summit in Madrid where the new strategic concept was approved in which the allies referred to China, for the first time, as a threat that challenges “our interests, security and values”.
For this reason, this point is the one that unites Moscow and Beijing the most since they are “threatened” by the West and the expansion of NATO, getting stronger with the new integration of Sweden and Finland.
Even so, China cannot risk everything to the support of the Kremlin since it would lose a lot as one of the most important and influential powers especially in relation to trade relations, being a bridge of constant economic flow at an almost global level. In addition, the Asian country has been characterized in recent years for not being warmongering when it comes to the outside. For China, the philosophy of “winning without fighting" is still very latent and that is what it has gradually been forging.
Thus, Samarkand, a city of special interest to the two powers, will be the meeting point of these two leaders who are currently in very different positions of power. On the one hand, Putin will try to appear normal after the beating of Kharkov, so it will be in his interest to maintain an image of having the situation under control, even if it is not true.
On the other hand, Xi Jinping's trip to Samarkand marks his first trip outside Chinese borders since the coronavirus pandemic. In addition, China is one month away from the celebration of the XX Communist Party Congress, where the Chinese leader is expected to be confirmed again for a third consecutive term, after he reformed a law that allowed him to remain in office and also place himself in the same position that Mao Zedong lived as a leader throughout the entire history of the Communist Party of China.
On the Asian continent, China is not the only country that has made maneuvers when it comes to positioning itself in the Russian-Ukrainian conflict and is that the former Soviet republics of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan refrained from supporting the invasion of Ukraine, an attitude that the Kremlin came to label as an “ingratitude”.
From what is concluded at this meeting we will see if the countries of Central Asia or even China offer greater support to Russia, something that is not expected at the moment, which would show that the Russian country is totally isolated, at least in terms of military support.