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Putin visits Beijing for first time since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine

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Vladimir Putin has arrived in China for a high-level meeting with Chinese leader Xi Jinping, the Russian president’s first visit to Beijing since he ordered the invasion of Ukraine last year.

The two-day trip comes as Xi hosts one of the biggest events of China’s diplomatic calendar this year, the Third Belt and Road Forum for International Cooperation, to mark the 10th anniversary of the $1tn infrastructure building programme.

Putin, who the Kremlin has said is the “main guest” at the event, will meet Xi on Tuesday ahead of a summit on Wednesday.

China views Russia as an essential bulwark against what it sees as US attempts to counter its growing international influence. Beijing has carefully avoided any direct criticism of Moscow, refusing to condemn the Ukraine invasion and instructing its state media to echo Russian propaganda on the war.

The trip is also an important marker of Putin’s defiance of western attempts to isolate him over the war in Ukraine, and of the convergence in the stances of both Moscow and Beijing on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

The Russian leader cut back his foreign travel after the war in Ukraine began and until last week had not left the country since a war crimes indictment from the International Criminal Court in March.

The trip also marks the first time Putin has travelled further afield than former Soviet Union states since he visited Iran in July 2022. He skipped the G20 meetings of industrialised nations held in Indonesia last November and in India in September.

“Putin is going to places where the FSO,” Russia’s presidential security service, “can ensure his safety. He didn’t go to the G20 because there were a lot of western leaders and their secret services might have tried to get biological samples from him,” said Alexander Gabuev, director of the Carnegie Russia Eurasia Center.

“In Beijing everything is guaranteed to be the way he wants. There is prestige in that he is isolated and is speaking right after Xi. That’s important for him. There isn’t anyone else of the same stature.”

Analysts say Beijing, meanwhile, has a firm interest in seeing Putin remain in power in Russia, and added China was worried by the short-lived insurrection by now-deceased warlord Yevgeny Prigozhin in June. Russia sent several senior officials to China in the months following the invasion, including its economy and trade ministers.

Since the invasion, Russia had become increasingly dependent on China as an economic lifeline, said Zsuzsa Anna Ferenczy, a former political adviser at the European parliament who is now with National Dong Hwa University in Taiwan.

Not only did China buy Russian oil but it provided Moscow with access to technology and products that it might struggle to procure from the west. China also needed Russia as a partner in its efforts to counter the west-led world order and spread its own influence and system of global governance, she added.

However, she said the war had clearly made Beijing the dominant partner, with Xi able to highlight his strong support for the developing world at the forum.

“Russia really has become a junior partner in this relationship . . . And again the BRI summit will give China another huge platform to showcase its alternative [governance model],” said Ferenczy.

The sizeable Russian delegation this time includes several top members of the country’s economic elite, pointing to the crucial role Beijing has played in extending a lifeline to help Moscow weather the blow from western sanctions over the Ukraine war.

The most closely watched of them is Gazprom’s Alexei Miller as Russia pushes for China to finalise talks over the planned Power of Siberia-2 gas pipeline.

The long-mooted project became a symbol of Russia’s dependence on China during Xi’s visit in March after Miller, chief executive of the state gas export monopoly, skipped the summit and Xi skirted around the topic even as Putin talked about it as though it were a done deal.

Despite Miller’s presence, China was unlikely to sign any major agreements with Russia during this week’s summit to avoid risking blowback over its tacit backing of the war in Ukraine, Gabuev said. “The Chinese aren’t going to sign anything important because it’ll prompt an outcry over them creating another revenue stream for Putin’s war chest,” he added.

The BRI forum follows a study by New York-based research firm Rhodium Group that found about $79bn of loans under the programme were renegotiated or written off in the past three years.

Beijing has slowed the approval of new big-ticket mega projects and many analysts believe the BRI will turn to more targeted schemes using green technology, in which China is a leading manufacturer.

Putin met Hungary’s prime minister Viktor Orbán and Vietnamese president Vo Van Thuong on Tuesday, ahead of further meetings with Thai, Mongolian and Laotian leaders.

Other leaders attending the summit include Joko Widodo of Indonesia and Thai premier Srettha Thavisin as well as those from Kazakhstan, Ethiopia and Chile.

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