President Vladimir Putin was not waiting at the end of the red carpet to greet Chinese leader Xi Jinping when he arrived in Russia for a high-profile visit on Monday, but it was not 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 Mr Putin did not deviate from the script, and the start of Mr Xi’s trip was like that of any visiting leader.
The Russian president sent Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Chernyshenko to the capital’s Vnukovo airport to meet Mr Xi after he stepped off his Boeing 747.
Mr Putin, meanwhile, was far away in central Moscow, busy with other commitments before his high-stakes dinner with the Chinese leader in the evening.
He began his day by making an appearance at a meeting of the Interior Ministry’s top officials, and also addressed a parliamentary conference involving politicians from African nations.
At the airport, Mr 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 Mr Chernyshenko.
While Mr Putin did not break protocol and pamper Mr Xi with a surprise appearance at the airport, the Russian leader showered his Chinese guest with praise in an article published in China’s top People’s Daily newspaper.
He described Mr Xi’s visit as a “landmark event”, 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 Mr Xi have met about 40 times and citing a line from Chinese philosopher Confucius: ”Is it not a joy to have friends coming from afar!”
Mr Xi’s visit offers an important political boost to Mr 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 does not recognise 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, Mr Putin and Mr 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.
He noted that Mr Xi could be expected to maintain strong support for Mr 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 US,” he said.
While most observers say that Beijing will be unlikely to offer Moscow military assistance as the US 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, chief executive 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.”