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Vladimir Putin’s Pomp-Filled China Trip Underscores the Limits of Western Pressure

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The handshakes were warm, smiles beaming, as Chinese President Xi Jinping welcomed his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin to Beijing’s Great Hall of the People on Tuesday. As the two strongmen greeted flag-waving schoolchildren from a red carpet, the People’s Liberation Army band played the Soviet-era ditty Moscow Nights, whose waltzing lilt stood in stark contrast to the mayhem sown by Russia’s latest offensive in northeastern Ukraine’s Kharkiv region, which has forced almost 8,000 people from their homes.

Officially, Putin’s trip is to mark 75 years since the Soviet Union recognized the People’s Republic of China, with a gala to mark the occasion, though his war of choice casts a long shadow. And while it is de rigueur for Russian leaders to make Beijing their first overseas trip, the immediacy of Putin’s visit—just nine days after beginning his sixth presidential term—telegraphs the depths of a relationship declared “no limits” just days before he triggered Europe’s deadliest land war since World War II.

“The China-Russia relationship today is hard-earned, and the two sides need to cherish and nurture it,” Xi told Putin at the Great Hall of the People. “China is willing to … jointly achieve the development and rejuvenation of our respective countries and work together to uphold fairness and justice in the world.”

It was a display of unity that will disappoint Western leaders, who have spent the last few months desperately trying to press home to Xi that his backing of Putin harms China’s own interests. Xi only recently returned from a three-nation tour of Europe, where European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen and French President Emmanuel Macron lectured him on the imperative to halt support for Putin’s war machine. (It was also a point that German Chancellor Olaf Scholz made in Beijing in March.)

But the result has been a doubling down. In a press conference on Thursday, Putin praised the “warm and comradely” talks with Xi, who in turn heralded the “everlasting” friendship between China and Russia that had “become a model for a new type of international relations.”

U.S. diplomats have repeatedly told TIME that Xi may not be getting full information about the Ukraine war and Europe can help paint a true picture. Yet experts fundamentally disagree that Xi is poorly briefed. Xi and Putin have met more than 63 times overall and their respective top brass have high-level consultations every two weeks or so. On Thursday, both sides announced a ramping up of military drills.

“Xi probably has more information and is better informed about Ukraine and Russia than any Western country,” says Alexander Korolev, an expert in China-Russia relations at the University of New South Wales in Sydney.

Indeed, the U.S. argument that pressure can spur Xi to adjust course wants for any real evidence. The more than 16,500 Western sanctions that have severed Russia’s access to the international trading system have only deepened its economic dependence on China. Bilateral trade hit $240.1 billion in 2023, up 26.3% from a year earlier, as Xi has allowed Chinese firms to keep trading with Russia while avoiding any weapons sales or direct state-directed assistance that would flout those sanctions. In recent weeks, Washington has turned the screws on China both for supplying dual use goods—not to mention drones, helmets, vests, and radios—to Russia as well as trade and technology more generally.

Ultimately, Putin and Xi bond over weathering Western pressure and share a broad outlook that sees the U.S.-dominated liberal order as decadent and in terminal decline. And repeated U.S. attacks on China’s strategic interests—from trade and technology to human-rights and the status of Taiwan—has bolstered the opinion that nothing can overt the decline of relations. On Tuesday, the Biden administration unveiled stiff new tariff rates on $18 billion worth of Chinese imports to shield American workers from alleged unfair competition. Rather than force a retreat, says Marcin Kaczmarski, a lecturer in security studies at the University of Glasgow, “the only question is do Biden’s tariffs push Xi Jinping to be more open to offer something to Russia or just hold course?”

It’s clear that Putin is seeking to draw China closer, as spotlighted by the phalanx of top officials, brass hats, and business executives also in Beijing, including Russia’s defense minister, foreign minister, finance minister, security council secretary, central bank governor, as well as the heads of its largest banks and most powerful CEOs. Putin wants access to Chinese financial markets and to use the Chinese yuan currency to boost Russian trade.

In particular, substantial progress on the Power of Siberia 2 natural gas pipeline, which is slated to carry 50 billion cubic meters of gas annually from northern Russia to China via Mongolia, “will be a clear signal of China’s long term strategic commitment to Russia,” says Kaczmarski. “Putin would like to achieve something but it's completely up to Beijing at this moment.”

Still, Europe is key to Xi’s strategic calculus, although, paradoxically, splits between member states may actually serve Western interests. Despite deep skepticism, China is keen to present itself as “neutral” regarding Ukraine: offering a specious peace plan and seeming to restrain Putin amid his repeated nuclear threats. In an interview with China’s official Xinhua News Agency published on the eve of his arrival, Putin said that he is prepared to negotiate to resolve the Ukraine conflict. “We are open to a dialogue on Ukraine, but such negotiations must take into account the interests of all countries involved in the conflict, including ours,” he said.

The intent was to enhance Xi’s role as a potential peacemaker, building on last year’s remarkable truce that China helped negotiate between Iran and Saudi Arabia. “China can broker talks between Russia and Ukraine because we emphasize the need for bilateral negotiations,” says Wang Yiwei, a professor of international relations at Beijing’s Renmin University. “Just blaming Russia or Ukraine cannot solve this problem.”

Xi’s final stops on his Europe tour in Serbia and Hungary overtly courted the continent’s more pro-Kremlin members who buy this position. But were Europe united in backing the U.S., Xi might throw his full weight behind Putin. “As long as China can keep Europe divided and detached from the U.S., it still makes sense to have some limitations in the assistance they provide to Russia,” says Kaczmarski. “A united Europe might result in more open support of Russia, including arms deliveries.”

Korolev agrees: “When European capitals start to hammer points that repeat U.S. officials, it’s a signal for China that Europe has very little autonomy,” he says. “It might, in fact, be an extra push for Xi Jinping to consolidate his partnership with Putin.”

On Friday, Putin and Xi traveled to Harbin, a city in northeastern China once dubbed “Little Moscow” for its Russian Orthodox-style architecture and large ethnically Russian population. Russia’s sovereign wealth fund is due to open an office in Harbin, according to the country’s state media, while the two two leaders will attend the opening of the China-Russia Expo trade fair. The symbolism of a shared history and common future is hard to miss.

As Alexander Gabuev, the director of the Carnegie Russia Eurasia Center in Berlin, wrote in the New York Times this week: “Never since the fall of the Soviet Union has Russia been so distant from Europe, and never in its entire history has it been so entwined with China.”

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Write to Charlie Campbell at charlie.campbell@time.com