It was a ceremony with an imperial air, evoking the all-encompassing tsarist power of Peter the Great, the same power that Vladimir Putin so admires. The Chinese leader, Xi Jinping, enjoyed such a sumptuous reception at the Kremlin Palace that even the soldiers who opened the huge golden doors leading to St George's Hall had a rehearsed contortion of the neck muscles that went unnoticed by anyone. Autocratic pomp and circumstance.
Jinping's visit to Moscow is considered strategic and momentous because of the significance of all that surrounds it: both powers have critical frictions with the United States and most NATO member states; one of them has been invading Ukraine for a year; both face various types of international sanctions; both are ambitious leaders who undermine democratic values and human rights. Both seek a new world order with greater weight of their political, economic and military decisions. On top of this, both countries have territorial disputes in their respective spheres of influence.
Jinping has arrived in Russia following the announcement by the International Criminal Court (ICC) to issue an arrest warrant against the Russian dictator, accused of war crimes; specifically, for deporting Ukrainian children to Russia.
A lawsuit filed at the time by the Ukrainian president, Volodymir Zelenski, who went so far as to denounce a group of "200,000 children" in this situation, but finally the Court based in The Hague, Netherlands, recognised the abduction of 16,000 Ukrainian children.
This international body, which functions as a kind of "tribunal of tribunals", was created under the Rome Treaty to "try persons accused of committing war crimes, crimes of aggression and crimes against humanity". Its jurisdiction is international and 123 countries around the world have joined the ICC.
However, neither Russia, nor the United States or China are part of it (along with other countries including Israel, North Korea, India, Iran, Armenia, Azerbaijan and others) and it is important not to confuse it with the International Court of Justice attached to the United Nations.
There are those who see this ruling as a moral victory and yet another way of embarrassing both Jinping and Putin because the Chinese leader continues to side with the bloc of autocracies and his main ally is now a dictator with an international arrest warrant.
The three-day meeting in Moscow had several purposes, one of them very relevant: to discuss the Chinese dignitary's twelve-point peace proposal on the Russian invasion of Ukraine. A war occupation that has been going on for more than a year and in which China has never condemned the Russian outrage, either openly or in the rounds of sessions at the UN General Council.
From Beijing, Jinping flew out in a negotiating mood after a historic mediation between Saudi Arabia and Iran that has gone almost unnoticed in much of the Western media. However, given the importance of what happened, it did not go unnoticed by Washington, which sees how its Saudi partner is now a mere mirage.
On 10 March, a communiqué signed by the foreign ministers of China, Iran and Saudi Arabia announced "the resumption of diplomatic relations and the reopening of embassies in Tehran and Riyadh within two months".
Since 2021, there had been rumours that Beijing had been mediating between the two arch-enemies who have been at loggerheads since 1979 over control of the Middle East, and while international eyes have been focused on Ukraine, it has finally been possible to restore relations.
For Jinping, this represents a major diplomatic success in a region such as the Middle East, which has been a source of destabilisation for decades, with multiple confrontations between regional countries and bitter neighbourly relations.
For China, it seems fundamental to its New Silk Road strategy that the Middle East should be a stable and predictable region. Since the departure of NATO troops from Afghanistan on 30 August 2021, much has moved in the Middle East, but no one expected that the historical struggles between Shiites (Iran) and Sunnis (Saudi Arabia) could be put aside because their opposing interests also feed back into the wars in Syria and Yemen.
The twelve points for peace proposed by China for both Russia and Ukraine are ambiguous, even though they speak of respect for territorial integrity.
Putin, who had already had the document in his hands for several days, told the Chinese leader that "many points of the peace plan can serve as a basis for a peaceful settlement of the conflict" when the West and Kiev are ready.
China's agenda includes: 1) respect for the sovereignty of all countries and their territorial integrity; 2) abandonment of the Cold War mentality; 3) respect for countries' legitimate security concerns; 4) ceasefire; 5) initiation of peace talks because dialogue and negotiation are the only viable way out to resolve the crisis; 6) resolution of the humanitarian crisis by protecting the safety of civilians and with humanitarian corridors for their evacuation; 7) support for prisoner exchanges between Russia and Ukraine and cessation of attacks on civilian facilities; 8) protection of the safety of nuclear power plants and an end to armed attacks on nuclear plants; 9) reduction of strategic risks with the emphasis that a nuclear war must be avoided; 10) guarantee of grain exports; 11) cessation of unilateral sanctions for failing to solve problems and even creating new ones and protection of the stability of industrial and supply chains; and, 12) support for Ukraine's post-war reconstruction.
Respect for sovereignty and territorial integrity is ambiguous as it does not clarify whether this includes Russia returning to Ukraine the territories invaded since 2014 such as Crimea, the annexation of Donbas, Lugansk, Zaporiyia and Mariupol and recently acceded to the Russian Constitution as an integral part of the Russian Federation.
Regarding grain supplies, thanks to Turkey's mediation with President Recep Tayipp Erdogan, together with the UN, a corridor has been established for Ukrainian-produced grain and other foodstuffs that cannot go abroad because Russian troops control Ukrainian ports on the Azov and Black Seas.
The permits to extend these exports were agreed every 60 days, the safe conduct permits expired on 19 March and Turkey together with the UN are mediating for them to be extended every 120 days. It has been a key pact for the export of wheat and other grains and it is thanks to the inspection by Turkish, Ukrainian, UN and Russian personnel that these cargo ships are able to leave these ports for the Bosphorus.
Is there seriousness in these peace proposals? Putin has heard them and Jinping is content to have presented them, knowing that he has never openly condemned the invasion, or killing, of Ukrainian civilians. Jinping has also offered a telephone conversation with Zelenski without any interest in visiting him in person as the delicate situation of a war provoked by his main partner merits.
Putin is all intent and provocation, manifested in his gestures and actions, his whole personality reveals a man with a hard fist, an imperialist-czarist mentality and Leninist-Stalinist actions: in recent months, fourteen Russian tycoons, many linked to the energy business, have died in strange circumstances. Some have even died with their families.
Putin is into magnificence and calibrates his gestures and reversals to the millimetre. The Russian response to the arrest warrant, issued by the ICC, has been all staged: a (plumper) Putin on a surprise visit to Crimea and then to Mariupol is shown driving a car somewhere on Ukrainian roads and then talking to neighbours in the destroyed Mariupol.
The curious thing is that the day after this surprise visit, a much slimmer, more rested and less round-faced Putin appeared in an impeccable suit, complete with red tie, to welcome his dear friend Jinping to the Kremlin.
And while the Chinese leader chose Russia for his first visit after being re-elected president for a third term on 10 March, dedicating three days to Putin's quest for peace, Putin is taking the side-lines to order a new missile attack on Kiev.
"We have many common tasks and goals. The ties that bind us together are becoming ever stronger. So much so that it is symbolic that you, dear friend, chose Russia for your first foreign visit in your new term," Putin reiterated, looking a smiling Jinping in the eye.
China has not quite found its place in the world, its closeness to Russia is an inevitably strategic pact: "We are partners in comprehensive strategic cooperation. It is this status that determines that there should be close ties between our countries".
Both have patted each other on the back, believe the world is against them and seek amid this animosity to unite, Jinping has even wished Putin to be elected (again) next year because his leadership is necessary for Russians.
At the age of 70, Putin has held the posts of president and prime minister of the Russian Federation since 2012, accumulating twenty years in power, and in 2024 he could be re-elected for another six years.
The same applies to Jinping (one year younger than Putin) who assumed all the powers of his country since 2013, becoming the totem of the Chinese Communist Party, the top military leader and president of the nation. His re-election last March will allow him to rule until 2028, when he will be 75 years old.
For the United States, Jinping's peace plan is a dead letter and a form of outward face-lifting, but without much commitment. US Secretary of State Antony Blinken himself criticised the meeting: 'For President Xi Jinping to travel to Russia days after the International Criminal Court issued an arrest warrant for President Putin suggests that China does not feel a responsibility to point the finger at the Kremlin for atrocities in Ukraine'.
In addition to Ukraine, the main focus of the Russia-China binational meeting was on trade, cooperation, investment and continued alignment on various positions in which they again strongly emphasised "the multipolar world".
In Jinping's words: "Putin and I expressed serious concerns about the continued strengthening of NATO's military and security ties with Asia-Pacific countries. We both oppose external military forces that undermine regional peace and stability".
During his speech, Putin noted that about two-thirds of trade between Russia and China is conducted in roubles and yuan and said he favoured using the yuan in Russia's trade with countries in Asia, Africa and Latin America.
Russia has long insisted on seeking an alternative monetary model to the dollar and intends to do so by boosting the yuan. For China, its most fundamental bargain is to obtain cheap Russian gas and oil in large quantities. China is willing to finance the construction of the Power of Siberia 2 pipeline from Mongolia to Chinese territory, so that the gas and oil that Europeans do not want will be taken by the Chinese.