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Putin and Xi highlight Russia-China cooperation against backdrop of war

Russian President Vladimir Putin, shown in the Kremlin, meets with Chinese President Xi Jinping via video conference on Friday. (Mikhael Klimentyev/Sputnik/Kremlin Pool/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock)
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Russian President Vladimir Putin and Chinese leader Xi Jinping met remotely via video link Friday — an indication of Moscow’s latest efforts to strengthen ties with Beijing as Russia’s isolation grows because of its invasion of Ukraine.

As Western nations have imposed sweeping sanctions and distanced themselves from Moscow, China has been bolstering its economic and political ties with Russia, seeing this as an opportunity that could benefit Beijing in the longer term, analysts say. Crucially, Xi has declined to condemn or put pressure on Putin over the invasion.

On Friday, Putin stressed the importance of Chinese-Russian relations on the world stage, calling them “a model of cooperation between major powers in the 21st century,” and he said Moscow hoped the two countries would strengthen their military cooperation.

Moscow has sought to boost economic cooperation with Beijing after rounds of Western sanctions were imposed after the invasion. The two countries are trading partners, with China importing Russian oil and gas, advanced military technology and other mineral resources in exchange for high-tech Chinese goods.

Russia and China last week conducted joint naval drills, which the chief of Russia’s general staff, Gen. Valery Gerasimov, described as a response to “aggressive U.S. military buildup” in the Asia-Pacific region. And last week, Putin oversaw the inauguration of a gas field in Siberia that is intended to increase Russia’s energy exports to China as the West has worked to cut its energy dependence on Moscow.

“Military and military-technical cooperation, which contributes to ensuring the security of our countries and maintaining stability in key regions, occupies a special place in Russian-Chinese cooperation,” Putin said Friday. “We aim to strengthen cooperation between the armed forces of Russia and China.”

Russian President Vladimir Putin said on Dec. 30 he was expecting Chinese President Xi Jinping to make a state visit to Russia in spring 2023. (Video: Reuters)

Putin, unaccustomed to losing, is increasingly isolated as war falters

Xi said that the leaders were regularly “in close, strategic contact” and noted that bilateral relations between Moscow and Beijing had expanded significantly this year.

“In the face of a difficult and far-from-unambiguous international situation, we are ready to build up strategic cooperation with Russia, provide each other with development opportunities, and be global partners for the benefit of the peoples of our countries and in the interests of stability throughout the world,” Xi said.

In recent years, Beijing and Moscow have found common ground over a shared frustration with the global dominance of the United States. Putin and Xi see Washington as a hindrance to their geopolitical and economic ambitions and have sought to forge a “no-limits” relationship as a counterweight to American international primacy.

On Friday, Putin highlighted Russia and China’s expanding trade partnerships, claiming that this year, Russia became one of the leading oil exporters to China despite what he called “the unfavorable external situation, illegitimate restrictions and direct blackmail by some Western countries.” He claimed that Sino-Russian trade is set to increase by 25 percent.

Putin invited Xi to pay a state visit to Russia in the spring, saying their meeting would be the “main political event” of the year.

On Thursday, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters that after opening remarks, the leaders would meet privately to discuss “the most acute regional problems.”

In 2019, Xi described Putin as his “best friend,” and during Russia’s war in Ukraine, the Chinese leader has spurned efforts by French President Emmanuel Macron to bring him in as a mediator between Putin and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky. Although Beijing has been notably unwilling to support the invasion publicly, with Xi apparently raising “questions and concern” during a meeting with Putin in September, China has accused NATO of provoking Russia’s offensive and has offered validation of Putin’s security concerns, with Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi describing them in January as “legitimate.”

Alexander Gabuev, a Carnegie Endowment expert on Sino-Russian relations, said that Friday’s call was proof that the traditional partnership between Beijing and Moscow is expanding and that while the countries’ dependencies are mutual, they also are “asymmetric.”

“Moscow is a much needier partner than China is,” he said. “China has a lot of alternatives. China is not under sanctions. … It is China that’s dictating the terms of the engagement, not Russia.”

With ties between China and the United States deteriorating, Beijing is trying to turn every bilateral relationship to its benefit and is exploiting Russia’s vulnerability, Gabuev added.

“I think that this dependency is a bad thing for Russia long-term. The Kremlin has this tunnel vision: Everything is viewed through the lens of war in Ukraine and fight with the collective West, and everything that helps Russia to have the resources, the financial flows, everything it needs to for this war is a good thing,” he said. “Putin may not see it as a disadvantage but a price to pay to be able to continue this war.”

Meanwhile, the Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics — occupied areas of Ukraine that Russia illegally declared that it has annexed — adopted new constitutions Friday that seek to cement their ties to Moscow. The Russian state news agency Tass quoted Denis Pushilin, the acting head of the DPR, as calling the move “a historic event.”

“This stage marks the return of Donbas to the bosom of the Russian cultural and historical tradition, the fulfillment of our hopes, the achievement of the goal that we have been working toward for eight long years,” Pushilin said in an address to the DPR Parliament.

According to the Russian newspaper Vedemosti, Kherson and Zaporizhzhia, two other Ukrainian regions that Russia claimed to have annexed in September, will adopt their own constitutions “at a later time” — an indirect acknowledgment that Russia does not fully control these regions.

Air raid sirens again wailed in the Ukrainian capital early Friday in response to an overnight drone raid, according to the Kyiv region’s governor, Oleksiy Kuleba. Ukraine’s air force said all 16 self-detonating drones that attacked the country had been destroyed.

In a statement Friday, Ukraine’s national energy company said it had restored the energy grid to the same level as before Russia’s massive missile strike Thursday but noted that challenges continued in the southern and eastern regions. Ukraine’s armed forces said the country’s air defense had intercepted 54 of 69 cruise missiles fired from air and sea.