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How the Ukraine war brought China and Russia closer together

By Rosa de Acosta and Simone McCarthy, CNN

Hong Kong (CNN) — As countries around the world ramped up sanctions on Russia in the wake of Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, it became clear that the Russian president still had a powerful friend in Xi Jinping.

The Chinese leader, who declared a “no limits” partnership with Russia weeks before the full-scale invasion, set a policy of decrying sanctions and continuing to strengthen ties with Putin. On Thursday, Xi welcomed the Russian president to China for a two-day state visit — their fourth in-person meeting since Russia’s onslaught in Ukraine began.

The war has driven the two leaders and their economies closer together — with trade hitting record levels last year as Russia upped its imports of key commodities from China and Chinese buyers lapped up discounted Russian fuel.

The United States has said Chinese exports of products like machine tools and microelectronics are enabling Russia to bolster the defense industrial base powering its war in Ukraine, and official data show hefty increases of related goods that are consistent with those claims.

China has repeatedly defended its trade with Russia as part of normal bilateral relations. It also says it maintains a neutral position on the war and plays no other role than seeking peace.

Here’s how the two sides have upgraded their ties since February 2022.

Sanctions drive economies closer

The European Union, the US and many of its allies and others across the world have imposed a range of sanctions targeting Russian entities and the flow of goods to and from the warring country. Those have included efforts to limit its revenue from key exports like fuel, as well as its access to technologies and goods with military applications.

Despite these efforts to isolate Putin’s government and reduce its war coffers, Russia’s economy blew past expectations to grow by 3.6% in 2023, according to data from the International Monetary Fund. That followed a contraction in 2022, according to Russian state media.

The sanctions have caused a sweeping shift in who Russia trades with — and China has emerged as a key economic lifeline, greatly expanding trade ties with its northern neighbor. The two countries last year racked up $240 billion in bilateral trade, hitting a target to exceed $200 billion in two-way trade by 2024 ahead of schedule — a feat lauded by both Putin and Xi.

That’s driven China to rank as Russia’s top trade partner, Putin declared last year, with his presidential aide later confirming to Russian state media that the country had surpassed the EU to take that spot.

As the EU slashed purchases of Russian fuel and limited exports ranging from high-tech goods to transportation equipment, China bolstered its own exports of industrial and commercial goods to the country, such as vehicles, machinery and home appliances, data and official statements show.

Russia has also become China’s main oil supplier, overtaking Saudi Arabia, according to official Chinese trade data. China, however, is not alone in taking advantage of Russia’s need to find new markets for its fuel, with India also among buyers upping imports in the wake of the war.

Governments warn against support for Russia’s war effort

The wartime surge in trade, and growing purchases of oil, have sparked criticism in the West that China was helping to fund Russia’s war.

Western governments and independent analysts also raised alarm that dual-use goods with potential military applications are part of these surging imports.

White House officials in recent weeks have confronted China on what they believe is Beijing’s substantial support for Russia’s defense industrial base, including through exports like semiconductors, materials and machine tools they say are enabling Russia to ramp up production of tanks, munitions and armored vehicles.

In a visit to Beijing late last month, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken warned Chinese leaders that the US and other countries would act if Beijing didn’t move to stem this flow.

French President Emmanuel Macron and his European Commission counterpart Ursula von der Leyen also pressed Xi on such supplies during the leader’s state visit to France last week, with Von der Leyen saying after the meeting that “more effort is needed to curtail delivery of dual-use goods to Russia that find their way to the battlefield.”

Beijing has previously slammed the US as making “groundless accusations” over “normal trade and economic exchanges” between China and Russia. But analysts have pointed to nascent, potential signs that China may be seeking to dial down such imports — with China’s monthly exports to Russia declining in both March and April compared with the same periods in 2023, according to official Chinese customs data.

Putin and Xi’s high-level friendship

Xi and Putin’s relationship has also appeared to strengthen as both leaders consolidated power, rewriting previous term limits in recent years to extend their respective lengthy rules.

The war has not changed that dynamic. Putin’s overseas travel has declined since the outbreak of the conflict, but this trip marks his second to China since the invasion and the two leaders’ fourth in-person meeting in that time.

Xi has made a single known phone call to Ukrainian leader Volodymyr Zelensky during that period and met US President Joe Biden in person twice on the sidelines of international summits since Biden took office in 2021.

Xi and Putin have a history of marking milestones together. This week’s visit is Putin’s symbolic first international trip since starting a fifth term in office following his victory in a tightly controlled election in March. It mirrors Xi’s state visit to Russia in March 2023, which was the Chinese leader’s first overseas trip after starting a norm-shattering third term as president.

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