Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping to Cement Ties at Olympics Amid Threat of War in Ukraine

Russian president Vladimir Putin has praised his country's ties with China and its leader Xi Jinping ahead of a summit alongside the opening of the Winter Olympic Games in Beijing, which is expected to consolidate their defiance of the U.S.

In an article for Chinese news agency Xinhua, Putin touted the countries' record trade, cooperation on energy, and receiving widespread international criticism—something he and his Chinese counterpart have in common.

"Sadly, attempts by a number of countries to politicize sports to the benefit of their ambitions have recently intensified," Putin wrote in the piece, also published on the Kremlin website Thursday, which referred to "creating mechanisms to offset the negative impact of unilateral sanctions."

The U.S. and other allies are not sending high-level officials in protest at China's human rights abuses, which makes Putin, himself under fire over the threat of a Russian invasion of Ukraine, the most prominent leader to attend the Games.

"I think Xi and Putin will find much common ground but Xi will almost certainly not hesitate to insist on China's own interests, which is for Putin not to spoil Xi's big party in the Winter Games," Steve Tsang, director, China Institute at London's School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) told Newsweek.

The leaders will meet on Friday for the first time in two years after the COVID-19 pandemic deterred Xi from seeing foreign dignitaries. After their talks, they are expected to release a statement about their shared views on international and security issues.

The summit is expected to cement the partnership of their countries, which have pushed back against U.S. and western scrutiny of what they claim are solely domestic affairs.

For China, this includes its treatment of the Uyghur minority, and for Russia it includes a clampdown on freedoms and the jailing of opposition politician, Alexei Navalny.

The countries often vote as a bloc in the UN. On Monday, China backed Russia to dismiss a Security Council meeting called by the U.S. to discuss Moscow's military build-up by Ukraine, which President Joe Biden warns could lead to an imminent incursion.

"Putin should be able to get Xi to commit to supporting Russia should the Ukraine situation end up with Russia being sanctioned," Tsang told Newsweek, "but probably on the understanding that Putin will not spoil Xi's Winter Games."

Putin and Xi are likely to present a strong united front this week. However, there is a limit to the countries' cooperation, especially on military matters, even if they do hold joint drills.

Moscow and Beijing stand to benefit if there is doubt over whether the U.S. can defend democracy in Ukraine, said Daniel Russel, a former senior official on Asian issues in the Obama administration.

"What's driving them together is their common interest in undercutting the U.S.," he told The Wall Street Journal.

However, both countries are sensitive about their strategic autonomy and are reluctant to enter into legally binding security guarantees with one another.

Beijing might understand Russia's demands for NATO not to expand, but "it has no real interest in becoming entangled" in Moscow's conflict with the alliance regarding Ukraine, Anna Kireeva, an associate professor, Moscow State Institute of International Relations told CNN.

Putin and Xi are likely to use this week to build on what are stronger ties than the Russian leader enjoyed with Xi's two predecessors, Hu Jintao and Jiang Zemin.

Tsang told Newsweek this relationship "reflects in part changes in China where Xi has made himself a strongman—like Putin."

"The other important changes are Xi's revival of the socialist ideology and thus enhanced commitment to make the world safe for authoritarianism," Tsang said, "in particular in former socialist countries, as well as his shared interest with Putin to challenge the U.S.-dominated world order."

 Vladimir Putin (L) and Chinese President Xi
Russian President Vladimir Putin (L) and Chinese President Xi Jinping (R) wave during a welcoming ceremony on November 14, 2019 in Brasilia, Brazil. The pair will meet during the Olympics amid the backdrop of a crisis in Ukraine. Mikhail Svetlov/Getty