Shifting Discourse Between Xi and Putin On Ukraine

Publication: China Brief Volume: 24 Issue: 11

Xi shakes hands with Putin in Beijing, October 18, 2023. (Source:

Executive Summary:

  • Across 12 communiques, meeting readouts, and official phone calls between Xi Jinping and Vladimir Putin since February 2022, the salience of language on Ukraine has reduced, but the substance has hardened. The latest communique includes a statement that “the root causes must be eliminated” and a reference to the “indivisibility of security.”
  • Other linguistic changes include the disappearance of the phrases “changes unseen in a century” and “a new type of international relations” this year, which occurred frequently in last year’s messaging.
  • The latest communique appears to be the first time that Russia has explicitly endorsed the PRC’s desire for unification with Taiwan—yet another instance of the two states growing bolder in their international claims.



On May 16, Vladimir Putin, newly returned as president of the Russian Federation, traveled to Beijing. There, he was met by President Xi Jinping for their annual in-person meeting. Coverage from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) noted that the two countries’ bilateral relations “have weathered wind and rain, have become stronger over time, and have withstood the tests of the unpredictability of international storms (中俄关系历经风雨,历久弥坚,经受住了国际风云变幻的考验)” (FMPRC, May 16). The meeting was accompanied by the signing and release of a Joint Communique (联合声明) (MFA, May 16). These two documents are part of the regular rhythm of Sino-Russian relations in the “new era.” Between these annual peaks in diplomatic activity, the two leaders—and self-described “old friends (老朋友)”—engage in a number of other conversations, both in person and over the phone (, May 17).

Since the beginning of February 2022, in addition to signing three joint communiques, the two men have met in person five times (three times to coincide with the communiques, and also at the Beijing Winter Olympics on February 4, 2022; in Uzbekistan on September 15, 2022; and in Beijing at the Belt and Road Summit on October 18, 2023), and have conducted four phone calls (on February 25, 2022; on New Year’s Eve, 2022; on New Year’s Eve, 2023; and on February 9, 2024). The readouts and texts of these 12 exchanges and agreements provide a window onto the relative priorities of the two sides. The general trend is one of increased convergence of interests in deepening of the relationship. Changes in the language, in terms of shifts in particular formulations, the omission of certain phrases, and the incorporation of new terms, may carry implications for the relationship. Several are worthy of mention here.

The Fall of Ukraine

One current that flows through these communiques and conversations is Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. The first meeting and communique took place shortly before Russian troops set foot in Ukrainian territory; the first phone call was held the day after the war had begun; and the rest have occurred in the shadow of the conflict. There are some consistencies across the last 28 months. For instance, whenever the war is mentioned, it is referred to mainly as the “Ukraine crisis (乌克兰危机),” and less frequently as the “Ukraine issue (乌克兰问题)”—it is not referred to as a war (or even a “special military operation,” to use a preferred Russian characterization).

The first phone call, on February 25, 2022, is in many ways an anomaly (MFA, February 25, 2022). Other calls always describe the relationship in positive tones, noting the “the spirit of mutual support and friendship (友好的精神),” “permanent good-neighborliness (永久睦邻友好),” or the desire to “maintain close contacts (我愿同普京总统保持密切交往).” This first call, however, dispensed with such niceties. Xi frostily pointed out that “recent dramatic changes in the situation in eastern Ukraine have drawn great attention from the international community,” and warned that the PRC would “decide on its position based on the merits of the Ukrainian issue itself.” Such a terse exchange is likely a reflection of the PRC’s initial shock at Putin’s decision to invade, and an uncertainty about how best to respond. As the war has progressed, however, any disagreement has been washed away. As Xi put it in the most recent call, on February 9: “Looking back on the road we have traveled, we have weathered many storms together.” References to storms, turbulence, and inclement weather, are frequent euphemisms deployed to describe an adverse international environment.

Across the three joint communiques, the variation in the level of attention paid to Ukraine is stark. The first communique was issued before the invasion, so naturally does not directly refer to Ukraine. The second and third communiques map onto each other more closely, however. The second contains nine sections, the last of which is largely dedicated to the conflict, while the third contains ten, of which the ninth is again focused on Ukraine. In the second communique, the Russian side appears willing to make concessions to the PRC in terms of its framing of the conflict, “positively assessing the objective and impartial position of the Chinese side on the Ukrainian issue,” “reaffirming its commitment to restarting peace talks as soon as possible,” and further welcoming the “constructive ideas set out in the document entitled ‘China’s position on the political settlement of the crisis in Ukraine.’” These statements should not be mistaken for any fissures in the relationship. As the communique emphasizes throughout, both countries maintain “strong support for each other’s core interests, national sovereignty and territorial integrity” and, crucially, their relationship is “without limits, and there is no forbidden zone for cooperation (没有止境,合作没有禁区).”

The most recent communique, however, has toned down much of this rhetoric. Gone is the reference to a limitless friendship, but gone too is much of the discussion of Ukraine. The coverage in the 2023 communique is two thirds longer than that contained in the latest version. Much of this text is almost identical, though there are a couple of differences. Reference to the PRC’s position paper has been dispensed with, for instance (FMPRC, February 24, 2023). In its place is a statement that “the root causes must be eliminated (必须消除危机根源)” and a reference to the “indivisibility of security (恪守安全不可分割).” The latter phrase appears in the 2023 communique, but not in the section on Ukraine. Taken together, this could suggest a tacit endorsement of Russia’s claim that its actions in instigating the conflict were legitimate.

Additional Linguistic Shifts

Other changes in the language of these texts are worth noting. In 2023, Xi famously was overheard saying to Putin, “Right now there are changes, the likes of which we haven’t seen for 100 years. And we are the ones driving these changes together (这也是百年变局的一部分,我们共同来推动它),” to which Putin replied, “I agree.” This formulation, “changes unseen in a century (百年变局),” was a frequent refrain last year, also appearing in both the two leaders’ in-person meetings as well as their phone calls (see China Brief, November 21, 2023). It did not appear in the 2023 communique, so it is unsurprising that it is absent in this year’s. More notable, however, is its absence in the readouts of both the February 9 phone call and the May 16 meeting. It is unclear why this formulation has apparently fallen out of fashion.

A related phrase, the construction of a “new type of international relations,” which did appear in last year’s communique, has disappeared this year altogether. The PRC’s three global initiatives have also had mixed reception in the communiques. In 2022, the Russian side “reaffirmed its readiness to continue to work on the global development initiatives proposed by China;” in 2023 saw an articulation of all three initiatives individually; but 2024 saw only the Global Development Initiative get a mention by name, while the set were less specifically referred to as “a series of global initiatives have important and active significance (一系列全球倡议).”

Another potentially concerning shift is Russia’s stance on Taiwan. Putin has made a point of affirming the one-China principle in every meeting, call, and communique since February 2022, but this year’s communique went one step further. This time, the Russian side also “firmly supports the Chinese side’s initiatives to … achieve national unification (支持中方 … 实现国家统一的举措).” This appears to be the first time that Russia has endorsed the PRC’s desire for unification with Taiwan—yet another instance of a further emboldening of these two states.


The shift in language pertaining to Ukraine across the readouts of the nine discussions and three communiques that have been released since February 2022 suggest that, as far as the PRC and Russia are concerned, the “crisis” is now less of a concern. The recalibration of the language, both in terms of the phrases used and the level of attention given to he conflict reflect a degree of confidence on both sides. The PRC is unambiguously supportive of Russia. Initial concerns, which were reflected in a degree of censure on the PRC’s part, have given way to a greater sense of impunity. There is a sense that the Ukraine crisis is manageable, and so sights can now be set on the real task at hand—accelerating the emergence of a multipolar world.

Linguistic analysis of the sort contained above with that of additional official statements and analysis of wider political and geopolitical developments. It reiterates, however, the PRC’s support of Russia, and the conception that the two “exceed” the traditional model of geopolitical alliances, as the 2023 communique puts it. There is no clearer statement than one which comes near the top of the latest communique: “the development of the Sino-Russian partnership for comprehensive strategic cooperation in the new era is in the fundamental interests of the two countries and peoples (发展中俄新时代全面战略协作伙伴关系符合两国和两国人民的根本利益).”