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Putin and Xi Hold Video Summit

todayDecember 15, 2021

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MOSCOW — President Biden may have his alliance of democracies, but Russia and China still have each other.

Xi Jinping addressed Vladimir V. Putin as his “old friend,” and the Russian president called his Chinese counterpart both his “dear friend” and “esteemed friend” as the two leaders held a video summit on Wednesday — a display of solidarity in the face of Western pressure over Ukraine, Taiwan and other disputes.

China and Russia, once adversaries, have formed an ever-tighter economic, military and geopolitical partnership under Mr. Xi and Mr. Putin — one that increasingly looks like a bloc against American influence as both countries’ confrontations with the United States deepen.

In footage of opening remarks released by the Kremlin, Mr. Putin said that he would attend the opening ceremony of the Beijing Olympics in February, making him the first leader of another country to confirm that he would go to an event that Mr. Biden has already pledged to boycott, as have the leaders of Australia, Canada, New Zealand and others.

During the meeting, Mr. Xi voiced support for Mr. Putin’s demands for “security guarantees” from the West that would effectively preserve a Russian sphere of influence in parts of Eastern Europe, according to the Kremlin. That fast-moving diplomatic push, coupled with alarming troop movements near Russia’s southwestern borders, has Western officials fearing a possible Russian invasion of neighboring Ukraine in the coming months.

The meeting lasted more than an hour and afterward, both sides offered accounts of the salient points that differed in detail and focus, but not in the main thrust. The Kremlin said that Mr. Putin concurred with Mr. Xi’s critical view of Western military activity in the Asia-Pacific region, such as Australia’s deal to deploy nuclear-powered submarines with American and British backing.

Mr. Xi, noting that he was meeting Mr. Putin for the 37th time since 2013, praised the Russian president for thwarting attempts to “drive a wedge between our countries.” The Chinese public account of the meeting mentioned neither Ukraine nor NATO, but appeared to allude to Russia’s security concerns over them.

“We firmly support each other on issues concerning each other’s core interests and safeguarding the dignity of each country,” Mr. Xi said, according to reports in Chinese state news media.

The message emerging from the meeting was clearly meant as a riposte to the “Summit for Democracy” that Mr. Biden hosted last week, widely viewed as an effort to build a united front against authoritarian governments like those in Russia and China.

Mr. Xi told Mr. Putin that while Russia and China were not formally allies, “in its closeness and effectiveness, this relationship even exceeds an alliance,” according to a Kremlin aide, Yuri V. Ushakov, who briefed reporters in Moscow on the meeting after it ended.

The talks came at a high-stakes moment. Karen Donfried, the American assistant secretary of state for European and Eurasian Affairs, was in Moscow on Wednesday for talks on Ukraine. Russian officials presented her with a proposal demanding that the West roll back its military support for Ukraine and rule out the expansion of the NATO alliance to include Ukraine or other countries in the region.

Mr. Xi “underlined that he understands the Russian concerns and fully supports our initiative about working out such security guarantees for Russia,” Mr. Ushakov said.

And as the United States and its allies threaten crushing economic sanctions against Russia were it to assault Ukraine, Moscow is signaling that it has plenty of other friends in the world.

The Russian president’s trip to New Delhi last week to meet with Prime Minister Narendra Modi of India sent a similar message.

On Wednesday, Mr. Putin and Mr. Xi even discussed forming an “independent financial infrastructure,” Mr. Ushakov said, apparently in an effort to reduce their reliance on Western banks and their vulnerability to punitive measures from the West.

“A new model of cooperation has been formed between our countries — one based on foundations like noninterference in domestic affairs and respect for each others’ interests,” Mr. Putin told Mr. Xi.

Both Russia and China frequently accuse the West of interfering in other countries’ domestic affairs and disrespecting their interests.

In another symbol of their bond, Mr. Xi and Mr. Putin spoke with the Chinese and Russian flags in the frame behind them — in contrast to Mr. Putin’s videoconference last week with Mr. Biden, when Mr. Putin spoke next to only the Russian flag.

For Mr. Xi, the summit was a chance to deflect criticism that has been piling up over China’s actions from the South China Sea to the mountainous border with India. He hopes to show that China is not isolated diplomatically, especially on the eve of the Winter Olympics, which are intended to showcase China’s global stature, not the souring of its relations with much of the world.

“I expect that in February of next year, we will finally meet in person in Beijing,” Mr. Putin told Mr. Xi. “We have unfailingly supported each other in questions of international athletic cooperation, including in not accepting any attempts to politicize sports or the Olympic movement.”

Cheng Xiaohe, a professor at the Renmin University’s School of International Studies in Beijing, said the relationship between the two countries gave their leaders the opportunity to demonstrate “mutual support and joint confrontation” in facing the United States. That is especially true at a time of economic uncertainty and rising international tensions.

“Both China and Russia face the same pressure from the United States,” he said. “Therefore, the two countries need to support each other in diplomacy.”

The Russian and Chinese leaders meet or speak often — though only virtually since the pandemic began. What was unusual about Wednesday’s meeting was China’s effort to telegraph its message in advance.

“Close strategic coordination” between the two countries, as a spokesman for the foreign ministry put it this week, is essential in today’s turbulent world.

The two countries have deepened a relationship that, over the decades, has been fraught with suspicion and, in 1969, a border clash near Khabarovsk.

When Russia faced sanctions following the annexation of the Ukrainian peninsula of Crimea in 2014, Mr. Putin turned to China to soften the blow, stepping up trade across the border from energy to timber.

That same year, Russian public opinion of China improved sharply; 70 percent of Russians now have a positive attitude toward the country, according to the Levada Center independent pollster — far better than their view of the United States, the European Union or Ukraine.

The militaries of both countries have also stepped up joint exercises and even operations, including in the air and, for the first time in October, naval patrols in the Pacific. They have also pledged to explore space together.

Before Wednesday’s call, Dmitry Rogozin, the head of Russia’s space program, said that a proposed Russian-Chinese lunar station “will be based on principles of equal partnership, transparency and consensus in the decision-making process” — in contrast, he noted, to the terms set by the United States in its lunar station project.

Even so, there are limits to this united front.

China has never recognized the annexation of Crimea, for example, nor does Russia side with China on its expansive claims in the South China Sea. They have also stopped short of binding themselves with a formal treaty alliance, preferring to maintain their ability to act independently and flexibly.

“I do not think they are yet at a point where Beijing would endorse any adventurous action in Ukraine — nor would Russia eagerly side with China if the Chinese decided to invade Taiwan,” said Sergey Radchenko, a professor of international relations at Cardiff University, who has written extensively on the relationship.

“I would imagine that they would each show a degree of benevolent neutrality toward the other.”

Anton Troianovski reported from Moscow, and Steven Lee Myers from Seoul. Khava Khasmagomadova contributed reporting from Moscow. Claire Fu and John Liu contributed research.

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