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Russian President Putin makes first trip since inauguration to critical ally China

JUANA SUMMERS, HOST:

When world leaders take office or start a new term, they usually choose the destination of their first overseas trip carefully. It sends an important signal. Well, Russian President Vladimir Putin was sworn in last week for his fifth term. And tomorrow, he starts his first foreign trip of this new term. It's a two-day visit to China to meet with Chinese leader Xi Jinping. To talk us through the significance of this trip and what we can expect for it, we are joined by NPR's Russia correspondent Charles Maynes in Moscow and China correspondent John Ruwitch in Beijing. Hi to both of you.

CHARLES MAYNES, BYLINE: Hi, Juana.

JOHN RUWITCH, BYLINE: Hey, Juana.

SUMMERS: Charles, I want to start off with you. I mean, it seems like Putin is sending a very clear signal with this trip. The relationship with China continues to be of paramount importance to Russia. So tell us - just how important is it?

MAYNES: Well, China, of course, is a major power and Russia's neighbor. So it's always been important to Moscow, both in good times and bad, and they've had periods of both. But with the war in Ukraine, China's emerged as Russia's essential ally. Remember, President Xi's first visit after his reelection last year was to Moscow, and now here we have Putin returning the favor. And keep in mind, these two leaders know each other very well - in fact, so well, they've already met more than 40 times.

SUMMERS: Yeah, that is a lot of meetings. And ahead of this coming meeting, President Putin said that, under Xi's wise leadership, Russian-Chinese relations had reached their highest level ever.

MAYNES: Yeah, you know, compliments from Putin to Xi are plenty and often these days. And again, it comes back to Ukraine. While formerly neutral on the Ukraine issue, China has nonetheless provided diplomatic cover for Russia, endorsing the Kremlin's view that the U.S. and NATO provoked this conflict. In fact, just last week, Xi repeatedly rejected European overtures to exert pressure on Putin to end the war.

Moreover, Beijing has provided economic cover, you know, by shielding the Russian economy from Western sanctions. So China has been buying up Russian oil and gas that used to go to Europe. It's selling key goods that Russian consumers used to get from the West, like cars and electronics.

But all of it has to be pointed out - you know, Xi calls most of the shots here. In fact, Russia is so reliant on China these days that one concern you occasionally hear in Moscow is that Putin has lost all agency in this relationship.

SUMMERS: So the stakes for Russia are clear. But John, this relationship has also become more important for China, too, right?

RUWITCH: It is. It's been catalyzed by the war. And as Charles talked about, there's been the trade element. Trade has risen between these two countries over the past couple of years sharply. China has also, yes, benefited from that low-priced Russian energy that doesn't need to come by sea, and that gets at the geopolitics of all this.

It's important to get along with a big neighbor with a long border. It hasn't always been this way, but now they really have aligned interests in a more multipolar world with, arguably, a diminished U.S. role. Also, you know, the deeper relationship, particularly economically, just puts on display for all to see China's strength as a partner. Here's Philipp Ivanov, a visiting scholar at the School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University.

PHILIPP IVANOV: It's a huge win for China - look how we help Russia. And its economy is growing in two-plus percent. It sustains this major war effort. It's completely isolated, but we came to its help.

RUWITCH: And that's a message that many countries are likely to take note of.

SUMMERS: And as you both know, international relationships are rarely all upsides. So I'm curious, John, what's the risk here for China?

RUWITCH: Yeah, for sure. I mean, China first, you know, has said they would rather there wasn't a war in Ukraine. And in fact, last year, they introduced a vague, 12-point peace plan that never really got much traction, yet Putin endorsed it just ahead of this trip.

I asked a scholar here named Zhou Bo about all this. He's a retired Chinese military officer, and he's now a senior fellow researching security at Tsinghua University here in Beijing.

ZHOU BO: People might say that China, you know, is kind of tiptoeing. I think that people are not wrong in describing China's position more or less like this. But I think China is also trying to strike a balance.

RUWITCH: It's trying to balance, right? So there's pressure from Europe, a major trading partner. Xi Jinping was just there trying to shore up their relationship. The U.S. has dialed up heat with sanctions on Chinese companies this month that it said were supporting Russia's weapons production and ability to wage war. U.S. officials have also threatened to go after Chinese banks, which would be a huge step. And there was a drop in Chinese exports to Russia in April, and some analysts think that that may have actually been a kind of pullback in the face of the pressure.

SUMMERS: Charles, I remember these leaders have famously described their relationship as, quote, "no limits," but clearly that's not quite the case. So help us understand - what are some of the limits and the points of friction here?

MAYNES: Yeah, you know, John talked earlier about this Chinese balancing act, and it's on display here. Beijing supports Moscow in all these ways we've outlined, and yet it stopped short of providing weapons directly. So that's a limit - how firm is up for debate. As John notes, the U.S. says Chinese trading in dual-use technologies that make their way into the Russian war effort and threaten these secondary sanctions as a result.

Now, another limit has been Putin's nuclear saber-rattling, most recently with his announcement that Russian forces will carry out exercises using tactical nuclear weapons - in other words, low-yield battlefield nukes. The use of nuclear weapons in Ukraine was something that Xi personally warned Putin against during his visit to Moscow last year. In fact, it's one of the few clear points in this Chinese peace plan John mentioned that was seen as directly critical of Moscow.

SUMMERS: For each of you, play the tape forward for us a little bit. What happens over the next few days?

RUWITCH: Well, there's going to be some symbolism and substance, right? There are plans to celebrate 75 years since the Soviet Union recognized the People's Republic of China right after the Communist Party swept to power here in 1949. They're going to launch a year of cultural exchanges.

Putin's also going to visit the city of Harbin for a trade expo. That city's up north, near the border. I've been there. There's very deep links to Russia that you can actually see in the architecture. But the issues that we mentioned earlier - trade, the war in Ukraine, the red line on nukes - these are expected to be high on the agenda in discussions.

The two leaders, by all accounts, are close and getting closer. They've been known to send each other birthday greetings. But with just about every meeting they have, they seem to demonstrate this deepening recognition of their overlapping geopolitical interests.

MAYNES: Yeah, you know, I think there's no question these two men - very close in age - also have a shared worldview. Putin has repeatedly made this pitch to Xi that what Russia is experiencing in Ukraine is akin to what China is experiencing in Taiwan and elsewhere, and that's that the West, and specifically the U.S., is out to contain us - to block our rise. And Xi, by all accounts, agrees. So like Putin, he sees the U.S. trying to stymie a new world order - what he and Putin refer to as a multipolar world in which China and Russia are among new centers of power. And that's a vision in which, by default, the U.S. and its Western allies would have a lesser role to play.

SUMMERS: That's NPR's Charles Maynes in Moscow and John Ruwitch in Beijing. Thank you both.

RUWITCH: Thanks, Juana.

MAYNES: You bet.

(SOUNDBITE OF MNELIA SONG, "CLOSURE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

John Ruwitch is a correspondent with NPR's international desk. He covers Chinese affairs.