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Chinese President Xi Jinping, left, and Russian President Vladimir Putin walk after their talks at the Kremlin in Moscow on March 20.Grigory Sysoyev/Sputnik, Kremlin Pool Photo via AP

Chinese President Xi Jinping began a state visit to Moscow on Monday, becoming the first foreign leader to shake hands with Russian President Vladimir Putin since the International Criminal Court issued a warrant for Mr. Putin’s arrest.

The ICC warrant will likely go publicly unmentioned during Mr. Xi’s three days in the Russian capital. Talks will focus instead on Beijing’s vague 12-point proposal for ending the war in Ukraine – a plan that has already been rejected by Kyiv as unfairly biased in Moscow’s favour. Mr. Putin, meanwhile, is expected to ask Mr. Xi to supply his country’s military with Chinese weapons.

The two men referred to each other as “dear friend” during a brief pre-dinner meeting at the Kremlin on Monday ahead of formal negotiations scheduled for Tuesday. Mr. Putin praised China’s economic development and said he looked forward to discussing Mr. Xi’s proposal for ending what both leaders called “the Ukraine crisis.”

In turn, Mr. Xi – who recently began a third term in power – said he admired the “strong leadership” of Mr. Putin, who has ruled Russia since the turn of the century, and said he was certain Russians would again support Mr. Putin in presidential elections scheduled for next year.

In addition to the warm words, Beijing’s economic support – in the form of a 34.3-per-cent surge in trade last year – has already provided a lifeline to the Russian economy, helping it weather multiple waves of Western sanctions designed to punish Moscow for the illegal invasion of Ukraine.

That camaraderie is why Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky’s government does not trust Mr. Xi’s peacemaking efforts. While Mr. Zelensky has publicly welcomed China’s interest in ending the war, officials in his government have rejected the idea that Beijing can be a neutral mediator. Mr. Xi and Mr. Putin declared their two countries had a “friendship without limits” in February, 2022, just weeks before Mr. Putin launched his full-scale invasion.

In a recent interview with The Globe and Mail, Mykhailo Podolyak, an aide to Mr. Zelensky, said China’s 12-point plan is at times contradictory – with one point calling for respect for the sovereignty and territorial integrity of all countries, while another calls for an immediate ceasefire that would leave Russian troops occupying about 15 per cent of Ukrainian territory.

Emerging as a peacemaker between Russia and Ukraine would further boost China’s international stature at the expense of the U.S., which has been seen for decades as the indispensable arbiter of international disputes. Earlier this month, Mr. Xi’s diplomats achieved an unexpected breakthrough when they brokered a détente between Iran and Saudi Arabia that saw the long-duelling theocracies agree to restore diplomatic relations, although it’s unclear whether the deal will bring an end to the proxy wars the two sides have fuelled across the Middle East.

Mr. Xi is expected to speak with Mr. Zelensky after his meetings in Moscow. If that happens, it will be the first direct conversation between the two leaders since the invasion began.

With peace a distant prospect, Mr. Zelensky will likely focus instead on trying to dissuade the Chinese leader from supplying Russia with weapons. China is already believed to be supplying the Russian military with raw materials, semiconductor chips, satellite imagery and other non-lethal aid.

Both Ukraine and the U.S., which has supported Kyiv with military and economic aid since the start of the full-scale invasion, have warned that Beijing providing Moscow with weapons could dramatically alter the conflict – both by giving Russia a boost and by creating an arms-production race between China and the West.

Mr. Xi arrived in Moscow just hours after Mr. Putin visited the scene of his alleged crime, taking an early Sunday morning drive through the streets of Mariupol, the Ukrainian port city that was almost completely destroyed by the Russian army last year. The ICC announced Friday that it was seeking the arrest of Mr. Putin and Russia’s Commissioner for Children’s Rights, Maria Lvova-Belova, over “the deportation of at least hundreds of children” from Ukraine to Russia, a program that was centred in Mariupol, which has been under Russian military occupation since May.

Forced deportation is considered a war crime under the Rome Statute, the document that underpins the ICC.

China, like Russia, has not signed the Rome Statute, and Mr. Xi’s visit signals that Beijing will continue to ignore a court that has also been asked to investigate China’s mass detention of its Uyghur minority. (While Ukraine has granted the ICC jurisdiction over alleged crimes committed on its territory, the court has ruled that it cannot otherwise conduct investigations on the territory of non-member states.)

Chinese state media highlighted that the summit in Moscow came on the 20th anniversary of the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, an event that Mr. Xi and Mr. Putin see as the moment the current made-in-Washington international system was exposed as fatally flawed.

In signed editorials carried simultaneously by Chinese and Russian state media ahead of the meeting in Moscow, both Mr. Xi and Mr. Putin wrote of their shared vision of a “multipolar world” – code for a new global order where the importance of the West, and the institutions it sponsors, have dramatically less clout.

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