Russian President Vladimir Putin is set to meet his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping in Uzbekistan on Thursday with Moscow seeking to shore up support as its invasion of Ukraine falters.
The two leaders are in the ancient Silk Road city of Samarkand to attend a meeting of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO), a regional security group formed by Beijing and Moscow as a counterweight to the influence wielded by the United States.
Putin and Xi are due to meet one-on-one on the sidelines of the summit. They are expected to discuss the situation in Ukraine and Taiwan, among other issues.
Kremlin aide Yuri Ushakov told a news briefing in Moscow on Tuesday that the meeting would hold “special significance” given the current geopolitical situation.
It comes after Russian forces have been pushed back in Ukraine by a multi-pronged counteroffensive and following a recent uptick in tensions between Beijing and the West over Taiwan, an island which China claims as its own.
The trip also marks Xi’s first overseas engagement since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Putin to push for further support over Ukraine
Al Jazeera’s Resul Serdar, reporting from Samarkand, said Putin is expected to press Xi for clearer backing over Moscow’s offensive.
“Experts and sources that we have spoken to say that Ukraine will be the number one issue on the table,” Serdar said.
“Russia is seeking the full support of China for its invasion. So far, China has refrained from providing solid support,” he said. “[China] says the war in Ukraine was provoked by NATO, however, it hasn’t said that it is a justified invasion.”
The meeting will mark the two leaders’ second face-to-face talks this year following discussions at the Winter Olympics in Beijing in February, after which Moscow and Beijing hailed a “no limits” partnership.
The February 4 meeting came weeks before Russia launched its invasion of Ukraine.
After the West imposed sweeping sanctions on Moscow over its war in Ukraine, Russia has increasingly turned towards Asia in a bid to keep trade flowing. In particular, Putin is seeking to boost energy exports to China and the rest of Asia, possibly with a pipeline through Mongolia.
Russia’s state energy giant Gazprom has for years been studying the possibility of creating a large new gas pipeline – the Power of Siberia 2 – to travel through Mongolia taking Russian gas to China.
The line could potentially carry 50 billion cubic metres of gas per year, about a third of what Moscow usually sells to Europe, which is seeking independence from Russian energy.
Putin, Xi and Mongolian President Ukhnaa Khurelsukh are due to hold a three-way meeting in Samarkand before the SCO summit concludes.
The Russian president will also meet leaders from Iran, Pakistan, India and Turkey, among others.
Iran on Thursday signed a memorandum on joining the SCO, which counts Russia, China, India, Pakistan and a number of Central Asian states as members.