MOSCOW — With the West pushing hard to isolate Russia, President Vladimir Putin on Tuesday turned to the East to find an escape hatch as his nation signed dozens of trade deals with neighboring China.
The agreements, which spanned from energy to finance to defense, were the latest in an economic partnership that has accelerated this year throughout the crisis in Ukraine, as the West has moved to freeze Russia out of its financial markets. Putin met Chinese Premier Li Keqiang in Moscow on Tuesday, to cap a three-day visit in which the nations pledged to keep building their fast-growing ties.
The two nations share an authoritarian approach to dissent, a mutual suspicion of the United States and a 2,600-mile-long border across which trade is rapidly increasing. The new deals this week came shortly after China praised Putin’s handling of the conflict in Ukraine and China’s leaders confronted protesters in Hong Kong.
“We do have great plans,” Putin told Li on Tuesday. “We are natural partners, natural allies. We are neighbors.”
Russia, which has bountiful oil, natural gas and coal supplies, and China, a voracious energy consumer, are a geopolitical match made in heaven, especially as Russia’s Western partners have pulled back this year following increased Western sanctions for its role in the Ukraine conflict. But they have long had trouble actually making deals with each other, in part because their hard-nosed negotiating styles have clashed, analysts say.
But this year the squeeze of sanctions has bolstered interest in a partnership with its neighbor to the south. China, eager to drive a tough bargain, has been willing to step in to fill the gap. And Russia has thrown open the doors to Chinese investment in its oil fields, rolled out the red carpet to top Chinese leaders and pushed hard to spur stalled discussions on cooperation in a host of sectors.
“Russia has the biggest territory in the world, while China has the largest population,” Li said Tuesday, according to a transcript posted on the Kremlin’s Web site. “That alone makes our two economies complementary.”
Among the 38 deals, which were signed Monday with Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev, Chinese banks offered more than $4 billion in credit lines to Russian businesses, a significant lifeline as sanctions have dried up Western financing. The governments also finalized the $400 billion natural gas deal inked in May, signed agreements to cooperate in outer space and laid the groundwork for China to help build a stretch of high-speed railway that European manufacturers had once planned to work on.
The two nations also agreed to rely more on their national currencies for conducting trade, a move intended to strike a blow to the dollar. It would be particularly advantageous for Russia, whose ruble has slipped 19 percent against the dollar this year.
“I have never attended a ceremony where so many documents were signed,” Medvedev said Monday.
The European Union remains by far Russia’s most important trading partner, at $410 billion in 2013. But Chinese investment in Russia increased 15 percent last year alone. Just six years ago, trade between the two countries totaled $40 billion. Now it is $90 billion, and Medvedev said he wanted to pump it up to $200 billion a year.
Not all the trade deals being struck between the two countries may be bargains for Russia. The details of the May gas deal have been kept private, but Russian media accounts suggest that China got a favorable deal because Putin particularly needed to show the world that Russia could survive with greatly diminished European trade.
Russian negotiators had expressed hope they could strike another landmark energy deal, this time to build a natural gas pipeline to western China . Instead, the two sides punted and said they would keep discussing it this autumn.
“Chinese are tough negotiators, and they are not going to help Russia at the expense of their own benefit,” said Alexander Lukin, the director of an Asian studies center at Moscow State Institute of International Relations who also trains Russian diplomats. “We don’t idealize it, but China is a friendly country and Europe has shown itself to be hostile.”
With the United States and Europe united on steps against Russia and showing few signs of rolling back sanctions anytime soon, other areas of Asia have also become more critical for Russian investments. South Korea has not issued any economic bans against Russia. Japan has done so, but not as extensively as Western powers.
“Hong Kong is especially important for Russia now, because that’s the only major financial center that is out of Western political control,” said Vasily Kashin, a China expert at the Moscow-based Center for Analysis of Strategies and Technologies.
The reshaped partnerships are likely to stick, he said.
“Unlike any sanctions that might be imposed or lifted by politicians, this is kind of irreversible,” Kashin said. “During this crisis, Russians will build new ties with new partners, and even after these current political conditions are gone, relations probably will not go all the way back.”