FOCUS: Russia-Ukraine War

How Much Does Xi Jinping Care About Putin's ICC Arrest Warrant?

After the International Criminal Court issued an arrest warrant for Vladimir Putin, Chinese President Xi Jinping arrives in Moscow for a three-day visit. How far will he be willing to go to support Putin, a fugitive from international justice?

Photo of Russian President Vladimir Putin and Interior Minister Vladimir Kolokoltsev
Extended meeting of Russian Interior Ministry board on Monday, March 20
Pierre Haski


PARIS — Since Xi Jinping and Vladimir Putin said last year that the friendship between their nations was "boundless," the world has wondered where the limits really lie. The Chinese president's three-day visit to Russia, which began Monday, gives us an opportunity to assess.

Xi's visit is important in many ways, particularly because the International Criminal Court has just issued an arrest warrant against Putin for his role in forcibly sending thousands of Ukrainian children to Russia. For Putin, there could be no better response to this international court, which he does not recognize, than to appear alongside the president of a great country, which, like Russia, is also a permanent member of the UN Security Council. How isolated can Putin really be, when the leader of 1.5 billion people in China comes to visit?

The news reinforces the highly political nature of the Chinese leader's visit. By going ahead with his meeting with a man wanted by the ICC, Xi strengthens Russia and China's common front, facing off against an international order shaped by the West. Although in this case, it's only half true, because neither the United States, Russia nor China recognizes the court's jurisdiction — a telling paradox.

Between alliance and provocation

The political dimension is clear, but it remains to be seen what practical implications Xi Jinping's visit will have — and in particular, whether it will shed light on a key question from the past year: how far will China go in its support of Russia? Could it go as far as delivering lethal weapons to Russia?

So far, China has been careful not to do so, despite a significant increase in trade between the two countries. The delivery of weapons would likely result in Western sanctions, at a time when the Chinese economy is already slowing.

It is more likely that Xi will engage in a subtle balancing act between anti-American rhetoric and a desire to present himself to the world as a man of peace.

Cultivating China's place in the world

Last month, China presented a peace plan for Ukraine. The plan contains nothing too concrete, but it could go further during this trip, if only to bolster China's peaceful image among countries in the Global South.

These visits are not the actions of a man who's about to end a war that he sees as a civilizational conflict.

Can Xi really help to end the war? Not at this stage, judging by two highly symbolic visits made by Putin ahead of Xi's arrival: first to Crimea, and then, for the first time, Mariupol, the Ukrainian coastal city conquered at a high price last year, and from which a thousand children were taken to Russia.

These visits are not the actions of a man who's about to end a war that he sees as a civilizational conflict; they are a gesture of defiance, a sign that the war is not over.

Xi has a different agenda. It is political, and that of the emerging superpower. He does not want to let go of Putin or be drawn into a war that is not his; and, above all, he is cultivating China's place in the world at a time when tensions with the United States are running high. We'll be watching Moscow until Wednesday as he tries to achieve this delicate balance.