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Xi-Putin meeting will happen on the sidelines of a security forum in Uzbekistan

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

More than a dozen national leaders are meeting today in Uzbekistan, in Central Asia. Our focus is on two in particular - Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping. Russia's leader is directing a disastrous invasion of Ukraine. China's leader tied his country to Russia in what they called a no-limits strategic partnership, just before the invasion went wrong. NPR Russia correspondent Charles Maynes is in Moscow and following the summit. Hey there, Charles.

CHARLES MAYNES, BYLINE: Hi there.

INSKEEP: What's the setting for this meeting?

MAYNES: Well, you know, the slogan going into the summit has been the world is coming to Samarkand. And it's almost true. You know, you've got the leaders of 15 countries that represent over 3 billion people gathering in this ancient Silk Road city. Security, as you might imagine, is very tight. You can now only get into Samarkand by train, and even then you need a special QR code. This is an annual event, but it's the first time participants have met in person since the pandemic, and that's providing a little curiosity. For some, like Vladimir Putin, it's a rare venture outside of Russia, while for Xi Jinping, the Chinese leader, this trip is the first time he's actually traveled anywhere outside China since the pandemic began three years ago.

INSKEEP: OK, so each of them is the leader of what is seen in its own way a dominant power, although one is looking less and less dominant in its region by the day. What do their leaders do?

MAYNES: Well, you know, these two leaders, they're expected to hold bilateral talks later today. The Kremlin says they'll focus heavily on Ukraine. Ahead of the trip, Putin's foreign policy adviser praised what he called the special significance of the meeting. As you noted, these two leaders, last time when they met, pledged their friendship had, quote, "no limits."

But Russia likes to say that China has a well-balanced approach to Ukraine, and by that they mean that Beijing is not critical of the Kremlin's actions and supports Moscow's wider argument that NATO expansion in Europe provoked this whole Ukrainian crisis. In fact, just last week, a top Chinese official was in Russia and offered the most vocal support for Russia's military campaign we've heard so far. According to Russian analyst Fyodor Lukyanov, who I spoke with earlier today, it reflects growing trust between the two sides.

FYODOR LUKYANOV: The partnership is still very strong. And the very fact that China rejected all the terms by Americans and Europeans to convince Chinese to take distance from Russian behavior and to be at least neutral, if not critical - all those attempts, they failed.

MAYNES: You know, but Lukyanov says this fundamentally isn't China's war, and Xi knows it. So, for example, he hasn't provided weapons to Moscow, and he hasn't been willing to risk Western sanctions, even as China's plucked up discounted oil from Russia, which it needs to pivot its economy towards Asia, particularly as Europe weans itself from Russian energy.

INSKEEP: How? Listening to you talk, it sounds like there are some limits to the strategic partnership. And I suppose if you're Putin, you have to wonder what happens as you become more and more dependent on your one big ally, China.

MAYNES: You do. And this is also coming at a time that's not great for the Russian leader. You know, Putin hasn't publicly commented on these recent Ukrainian counteroffensive, these gains that we've seen on the battlefield. Certainly in Russia, his spokesman insists the military operation will continue until Russia reaches its objectives. But Xi Jinping is certainly aware of what's going on, and he'll need to decide if and when Russia becomes a drain on China, either politically or economically. We're not there yet, but the truth is Russia needs China these days much more than the other way around. And Putin will certainly be looking to make sure China's support won't waver, given Russia's recent setbacks.

INSKEEP: I guess we should also mention, when you talk about Samarkand, this is a region of empire that's been contested by different empires for centuries and centuries. China is off to one side; Russia is off to the other side and used to actually control that very city. What is the - what else is going on at this summit?

MAYNES: Well, there are a lot of subplots here. You know, there's Central Asia, former Soviet republics like Kazakhstan, that are nervous about recent Russian expansionism. There's also kind of a den-of-rivals aspect to this summit. You know, the leaders of Armenia and Azerbaijan are fighting with one another. Kyrgyzstan and Turkmenistan are at odds over a border dispute. There's India and Pakistan also with their long rivalry. So in that sense, you know, the Uzbeks, the hosts, say that they'll have a joint statement at the end, but I suspect they'll have to go pretty wide if they're going to satisfy everyone.

INSKEEP: NPR's Charles Maynes. Thanks so much. Really appreciate it.

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

Steve Inskeep is a host of NPR's Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.
Emily Feng is NPR's Beijing correspondent.