Standing alongside Xi Jinping in the 15th-century Chamber of Facets, one of the most historic ceremonial venues at the Kremlin, Vladimir Putin raised his glass of white wine.
He proceeded to make a toast to the “health of our great friend Xi and the deepening of the Russian-Chinese partnership”, before ending his speech with the phrase ganbei, Chinese for “empty glass”.
Putin’s speech was a culmination of the Kremlin’s two-day charm offensive with China, aimed at cementing ties between the two countries amid Russia’s growing isolation from the west.
From the moment Xi stepped off his Boeing 747 at Vnukovo airport in Moscow on Monday, it was clear that Xi’s visit was of huge importance to the Kremlin. On his way to the five-star Chinese-owned Soluxe Hotel, Xi drove past a series of large billboards dedicated to his visit.
The Soluxe is set next to a nearly 13-acre park with trees and plants from all over China, while its rooms are designed based on “feng shui principles”, Russian state media proudly boasted.
A few hours later, facing the Chinese leader across a small table after they first shook hands, Putin hailed what he described as China’s “colossal leap forward“ under his “dear friend” Xi.
In the evening on Monday, Putin and Xi spoke for more than four hours and enjoyed a six-course dinner featuring quail blinis, Siberian salmon, venison in cherry sauce and wine from Russia’s Black Sea coast.
In a rare move, Putin escorted Xi to his car after the talks and the two were seen smiling together.
Unsurprisingly, Xi was spared the long-table diplomacy reserved for western dignitaries that travelled to Moscow in futile attempts to prevent the war in Ukraine.
Instead, Putin on Tuesday rolled out a seemingly endless red carpet for his Chinese counterpart, as XI entered the Kremlin’s Grand Hall from one side and Putin entered from the other.
In a tightly choreographed ceremony filled with imperial grandeur, Xi and Putin then walked towards each other and met in the middle, smiling as they shook hands.
As their national anthems played, the two leaders, wearing matching maroon ties, silently stood dwarfed by two giant flags of Russia and China that dominated the hall filled with golden chandeliers.
There was plenty of pomp on the second day of Xi’s visit as it was evident that Russia was eager to honour the visiting Chinese leader. A state dinner is planned for the evening, with the heads of Russia’s largest companies invited to attend.
Muscovites too could hardly ignore Xi’s visit. The capital’s already terrible traffic was further paralysed as police closed off much of the roads in the centre of the city.
And on state television, Russians were treated to a series of Xi’s pre-recorded quotes about the importance of labour and hard work. Observers of the two’s body language say Xi came across as more relaxed and commanding than Putin.
Karen Leong, the managing director of Singapore-headquartered Influence Solutions, said Xi had pre-empted Putin by a split-second in reaching out for their set-piece handshake. This move, she told Reuters, suggested that “even though Xi is the one visiting Moscow, he is the one who is going to be taking the lead in this relationship”.
Pavel Pryanikov, a prominent Russian blogger, said that “from the first minutes of the meeting it looked that Xi felt like he is the boss.”
Xi’s visit comes at a time of growing Russian dependence on Beijing, and those close to the Kremlin were quick to stress that the meeting was that of two equals.
“Russia and China are equal partners and almost allies,” said Sergei Markov, a former Kremlin adviser and political commentator.
“Therefore, if you read someone about the fact that China is subjugating Russia, you should know that this is transmitted by the west.”
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