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Russia's Putin and China's Xi will meet in Beijing ahead of Olympics opening ceremony

TAMARA KEITH, HOST:

Russian President Vladimir Putin and Chinese leader Xi Jinping will have their first face-to-face meeting in almost two years at the Beijing Olympics on Friday. The meeting comes amid the ongoing Russia-Ukraine crisis. Beijing has largely sided with the Kremlin in that dispute. Meanwhile, President Biden and Western leaders have symbolically boycotted the Beijing Games.

Here with us to talk about what Xi and Putin might have to say to each other at tomorrow's meeting are NPR's China correspondent John Ruwitch and Russia correspondent Charles Maynes. Hello to both of you.

JOHN RUWITCH, BYLINE: Good afternoon.

CHARLES MAYNES, BYLINE: Hi there.

KEITH: John, China is hosting its second games in recent years but under very unusual circumstances, including a pandemic and a Western boycott. What does Putin's presence at these games offer Xi?

RUWITCH: For China, it's a big opportunity, right? For Xi Jinping, this is a huge year. There's a lot riding on the Olympics, and it's a moment to showcase China and to showcase his leadership of China. Having Vladimir Putin there beside him at the opening ceremony helps to demonstrate that. I mean, in particular, it does so in the face of this Western diplomatic boycott.

You know, critically, I think it shows the world how much of a counterbalance, really, Russia has become for China to the West. Putin is going to be the first world leader that Xi Jinping is meeting face to face in roughly two years. And more broadly, the China-Russia relationship, which has been improving in recent years, seems to now be in some ways hitched to - you know, to how bad relations are with the U.S. It's almost a function of that for China. The two are both unhappy about, you know, American dominance in their neighborhoods, and they're finding a lot of common ground.

KEITH: Charles, let's take the Russian view now. What does Putin want to get out of this meeting?

MAYNES: Well, you know, first of all, this is also a rare trip abroad for Putin. The last one of recent times was to meet with President Biden in Geneva in - over the last summer. And, you know, for Putin, this is a chance to show that Russia and China are partners and growing closer all the time.

On the eve of the trip, Putin penned an essay, talked about the future of Chinese relations, mostly in terms of economics and trade, but also hinting at global politics. The Kremlin has said these two leaders will issue a joint statement while Putin is in Beijing, saying that the two sides have common views on the world stage. That's a hint, I think, at what's been going on in Ukraine. And certainly, we've seen China back Russia on these security proposals that Moscow wants regarding Ukraine. This is with Beijing saying that Moscow has legitimate arguments in its demands that NATO and its expansion into Eastern Europe and to Ukraine in particular.

But of course, Putin is also here for the Olympic Games. It was interesting that Putin's letter touched on his fond memories of visiting Beijing the last time China hosted the games in 2008. Only, that event was actually marred by Russia sending troops into neighboring Georgia. And frankly, there's been a lot of talk here in Russia about whether Putin would dare to spoil the Olympic party again, particularly at a moment when the Kremlin really needs Chinese support, much more so than it did in 2008, which gives a sense of who has the stronger hand in this relationship.

KEITH: Charles, let's stick with that point. How does China's support help Russia at this particular moment when it is in this faceoff with the West over Ukraine?

MAYNES: You know, beyond the political gestures, you know, Chinese support offers Putin, really, options as he looks to dull the effects of any Western penalties or sanctions that might come from this standoff over Ukraine. You know, Russia has said explicitly that the leaders will talk about offsetting the negative impact of sanctions. So, you know, it also offers a backup plan for Russia's energy security in the face of what might be Europe perhaps walking away from Russian gas imports if Russia was to invade Ukraine. Now, one pipeline, called the Power of Siberia, went online between Russia and China in 2019, and there's talk of building another. There's also the optics of a budding military alliance with the two sides holding joint military exercises of late.

But there are also limits. For example, China doesn't recognize Crimea. That's the peninsula, of course, that Russia annexed from Ukraine in 2014. And China has preserved reasonably good relations with Ukraine through all of this.

KEITH: And talking about Crimea brings up a potential parallel with China and Taiwan. John, I want to finish with you. Beijing claims Taiwan as part of China and wants to rule it one day. And obviously, there are big differences, but are there lessons for China in this current showdown over Ukraine?

RUWITCH: There are definitely lessons. I agree that the differences are huge. But for China, this is a learning opportunity, right? They get to see, in real time, how the West is responding to a territorial crisis like this.

I mean, Ukraine, in some ways, is a test of wills, right? It's a showdown between Joe Biden and Vladimir Putin - the West and Russia. Does the U.S. have the influence, the discipline, the ability to marshal a truly unified and effective response? And what happens if there's fighting? China is going to be watching all of this.

You know, also worth noting, and which works in China's favor, is that Biden made China the core of his foreign policy. He wanted stable and predictable relations with Russia. That's not happening, and what's happening over in Ukraine is a distraction for him.

KEITH: NPR China correspondent John Ruwitch and NPR Russia correspondent Charles Maynes, thank you both.

MAYNES: Thank you.

RUWITCH: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.