Putin, Xi plan to meet in Uzbekistan next week amid frayed relations with West
Leaders last met in Beijing in February before the Kremlin sent troops into Ukraine
Russian President Vladimir Putin and Chinese President Xi Jinping are expected to meet next week in Uzbekistan for talks that could signal another step in warming ties between two powers that are increasingly facing off against the West.
The meeting at the Shanghai Co-operation Organization — a political, economic and security forum that China and Russia dominate — comes at delicate times for both leaders.
Putin is dealing with the economic and political fallout of his war in Ukraine, which has left Russia more isolated. Xi, meanwhile, is also facing a slowing economy as he seeks a third five-year term as Communist Party leader. While he's expected to secure it, that would represent a break with precedent.
Russian Ambassador to China Andrei Denisov told reporters that the two would meet at the organization's summit in the Uzbek city of Samarkand on Sept. 15 and 16. "We are actively preparing for it," Denisov was quoted as saying by Russia's state news agency Tass.
Putin later confirmed it himself, telling top Chinese legislator Li Zhanshu at an economic forum in Russia's far eastern city of Vladivostok that "we will see each other with President Xi Jinping soon, I hope, in Samarkand, Uzbekistan."
The visit to Uzbekistan, if it goes ahead, would be part of Xi's first foreign trip in 2½ years. Xi has only left mainland China once — to make a one-day visit to the semi-autonomous city of Hong Kong — since the start of the COVID-19 outbreak in late 2019.
When asked about the trip, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Mao Ning told a daily briefing Wednesday: "On your question, I have nothing to offer."
Foreign policies increasingly aligned
Moscow and Beijing have increasingly aligned their foreign policies to oppose liberal democratic forces in Asia, Europe and beyond, making a stand for authoritarian rule with tight borders and little regard for free speech, minority rights or opposition politics.
The Russian military held sweeping military drills that began last week and ended Wednesday in the country's east that involved forces from China, another show of increasingly close ties between the two.
Each leader may also be hoping the meeting will bolster his standing at home. For Putin, it's an opportunity to show that he still has powerful allies. For Xi, it could be a chance to be seen as standing up to Western opposition to the Ukraine war and burnish his nationalist credentials at a time when relations with the U.S. have grown increasingly tense over trade, technology, human rights issues and its threats to attack Taiwan.
Coming just ahead of China's party congress, the overseas visits would also show Xi as confident of his position.
Putin and Xi last met in Beijing in February, weeks before the Kremlin sent troops into Ukraine. The two presidents oversaw the signing of an agreement pledging that relations between the sides would have "no limits." It remains unclear whether Xi knew at the time of Russia's plans to invade Ukraine.
While offering its tacit support for Russia's campaign in Ukraine, China has sought to appear neutral and avoid possible repercussions from supporting the Russian economy amid international sanctions.
Even though Moscow and Beijing in the past rejected the possibility of forging a military alliance, Putin has said that such a prospect can't be ruled out. He also has noted that Russia has been sharing highly sensitive military technologies with China that helped significantly bolster its defence capability.
Putin defends military action in Ukraine
At Wednesday's economic forum, Putin said Moscow will press on with its military action in Ukraine until reaching its goals, and mocked Western attempts to drive Russia into a corner with sanctions.
Putin told the annual forum that the main goal behind sending troops into Ukraine was protecting civilians in the east of that country after eight years of fighting.
"It wasn't us who started the military action, we are trying to put an end to it," Putin said, reaffirming his argument that he sent troops into Ukraine to protect Moscow-backed separatist regions there, which have fought Ukrainian forces in the conflict that erupted in 2014 following Russia's annexation of Crimea.
"All our action has been aimed at helping people living in the Donbas. It's our duty and we will fulfil it until the end," he said.
Putin also rejected the EU's argument that Russia was using energy as a weapon by suspending gas supplies via the Nord Stream 1 gas pipeline to Germany.
He reaffirmed the Russian argument that Western sanctions have hampered maintenance of the last turbine that remains in operation, forcing its shutdown.
Putin's spokesperson, Dmitry Peskov, said on Monday that the pipeline would remain down until sanctions are lifted.
Putin repeated that Moscow stands ready to "press the button" and start pumping gas "as early as tomorrow" through the Nord Stream 2, which has been put on hold by the German authorities.
'It is gas blackmail': energy analyst
While Putin dismissed accusations that Russia is weaponizing its energy supply, independent energy analyst Mikhal Krutikhin says that is exactly what the country is doing.
"It is gas blackmail," Krutikhin said in an interview with CBC News from Oslo, Norway, where he is seeking political asylum.
"We see that the Russian government of Mr. Putin hopes to press the Europeans into either a lift in the sanctions against Russia or stop their support over Ukraine."
Krutikhin, who is a co-founder and leading analyst at RusEnergy, an independent firm based in Moscow, left Russia on Feb. 25, one day after Russia launched its invasion, because he said he was receiving threats for criticizing Russia's energy policy.
He said Russia has a track record of cutting its energy exports in an attempt to get what it wants, and the closure of the Nordstream pipeline is no different.
EU proposes price cap
Shortly after Putin spoke at the forum, EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said Europe is considering a price cap on Russian gas, following the G7's proposal to cap the price it pays for Russian oil.
The plans are designed to reduce Russia's oil and gas profits and limit the money going to fund its war in Ukraine.
However, Krutikhin doubts the proposals will be effective because key importers like China and India will continue to sign contracts with Russia.
Putin called Western attempts to cap prices for Russian oil and gas "stupid" and threatened to respond to such moves by completely cutting energy supplies to the West.
"Will they make political decisions violating [existing] contracts?" he said at the forum. "In that case, we will just halt supplies if it contradicts our economic interests. We won't supply any gas, oil, diesel oil or coal."
He also said that Russia will have enough customers in Asia. "The demand is so high on global markets that we won't have any problem selling it."
With files from Briar Stewart