MOSCOW – President Vladimir Putin wasn't waiting at the end of the red carpet to greet Chinese leader Xi Jinping upon his arrival in Russia on Monday for a high-profile visit.
But it wasn't a snub.
Russia's standard protocol for visiting dignitaries calls for them to be welcomed at the airport by a lower-ranking Cabinet official.
Many observers argue that the fighting in Ukraine has made Russia increasingly dependent on China for support as the country becomes isolated from the West.
But Putin didn’t deviate from the script, and the start of Xi's trip was like that of any visiting leader.
Putin sent Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Chernyshenko to the Russian capital's Vnukovo airport to meet Xi after he stepped off his Boeing 747.
The Russian president, meanwhile, was far away in central Moscow busy with other commitments before his high-stakes dinner with Xi in the evening.
Putin began his day by making an appearance at a meeting of the Interior Ministry’s top officials. He also addressed a parliamentary conference involving lawmakers from African nations.
Back at the airport, Xi listened as a Russian military band played the national anthems of China and Russia. He then walked past a line of honorary guards accompanied by Chernyshenko.
While Putin didn't break protocol and pamper Xi with a surprise appearance at the airport, the Russian leader showered his Chinese guest with praise when he greeted him inside the Kremlin before a private dinner.
Facing the Chinese leader across a small table after they shook hands, Putin hailed what he described as China's "colossal leap forward“ under Xi's leadership, adding that he feels a bit of envy — a remark that drew a thin smile from Xi.
Xi responded in kind, saying he was sure that Putin would receive strong support in the presidential election next year, even though the Russian leader hasn't yet declared his intention to run.
They spent about 4 1/2 hours over a seven-course dinner, which included such offerings as a Pacific seafood platter, a sterlet — or small sturgeon — soup, quail and mushroom pancakes and venison roasted in cherry sauce. Putin got out to see Xi off and they shook hands again.
Before the meeting began, Putin described Xi's visit as a “landmark event” in an article published in China's top People's Daily newspaper, saying it offers a "great opportunity for me to meet with my good old friend with whom we enjoy the warmest relationship.” He also wrote in detail about their first meeting in 2010, adding that he and Xi met about 40 times and citing a line from Chinese philosopher Confucius that said: ”Is it not a joy to have friends coming from afar!“
Xi's visit offers an important political boost to Putin just days after the International Criminal Court issued an arrest warrant for the Russian leader on charges of alleged involvement in abductions of thousands of children from Ukraine.
Moscow, which doesn't recognize the court's jurisdiction, dismissed the move as “legally null and void," but it further ramped up the pressure on the Russian leader.
After Monday's private dinner, Putin and Xi will hold official talks on Tuesday that will also be attended by top officials from both countries. They are expected to issue conclusive statements after the negotiations.
Analysts say that Western sanctions have made Russia increasingly reliant on China.
“This relationship is increasingly asymmetrical — China has much more leverage,” said Alexander Gabuev, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment who has long studied Russia-China ties.
Gabuev noted that Xi could be expected to maintain strong support for Putin amid mounting Western pressure.
“The reality is that China sees absolutely no upsides in dumping Vladimir Putin, because there will be no incentives or no points earned in the relationship with the U.S.,” he said.
While most observers say that Beijing will be unlikely to offer Moscow military assistance as the U.S. and other Western allies fear, the alliance with Beijing would allow the Russian leader to pursue his course in Ukraine.
“This helps Russia stay defiant against Western sanctions,” tweeted Chris Weafer, CEO and Russian economy analyst at the consulting firm Macro-Advisory. “So long as Russia can trade with China, and other Asian states, it is no danger of running out of money or being forced to concede on the battlefield.”