While a global audience of millions watched the spectacular opening to the Winter Olympics, the real action was occurring in the wings – and it had very little to do with sport.
The key event of the Olympics so far was China making common cause with Russia in its stand-off with NATO over Ukraine.
That support was confirmed when Russian President Vladimir Putin met Chinese leader Xi Jinping in Beijing on Friday.
Both countries also demanded an end to NATO’s eastward expansion, already one of Moscow’s key demands amid high tensions in eastern Europe.
Putin met Xi ahead of attending the opening of the Winter Olympics and praised the two countries’ growing friendship. At the start of the visit, Putin described relations with China as “unprecedented.”
Russia and China also said they were “deeply concerned” about serious challenges to international security, according to a joint statement released by the Kremlin.
“No state could or should ensure its security in isolation from global security and at the expense of the security of other states,” the statement said.
It calls on NATO to “abandon the ideological approaches of the Cold War era” and to “respect the sovereignty, security and interests of other countries.”
In a further show of good relations, Russia signalled its intention to supply more natural gas to China amid strained relations with the West.
Announcing a new contract to supply 10 billion cubic metres of gas per year, Putin said: “A step forward has been made in the gas sector,” according to the Interfax news agency. Further hydrocarbon deals between the two countries have also reportedly been worked out.
The meeting comes as tensions remain high between Russia and the West amid fears that Moscow may be planning to invade Ukraine, due to the massing of more than 100,000 troops near Ukraine’s borders.
Russia has denied such plans but the build-up comes as Moscow demands “security guarantees” of NATO, namely that it will halt its eastward expansion and give guarantees that Ukraine will never become a member of the alliance.
Diplomatic efforts have so far failed to produce a breakthrough.
Beijing’s plans to increase its gas imports from Russia come amid concerns that Europe is excessively dependent on Russian gas.
Moscow is currently waiting for approval of the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline to Germany. The German government has warned that the pipeline could never become operational in the event of a Russian invasion of Ukraine.
China has been supportive of Russia in the crisis so far, as it likewise wants to see the safeguarding of Russian security interests and opposes the expansion of military blocs such as NATO.
Shortly before his trip, Putin highlighted Russia’s friendship with China and with Xi in interviews with Chinese state media.
It is the first face-to-face meeting between the two leaders since the outbreak of the pandemic.
Putin, ‘friend of China’
Putin attended Friday night’s the opening ceremony of the Winter Olympics at the national stadium in Beijing, better known to most as the “Bird’s Nest.”
He will be the most high-profile political guest at the ceremony and will be honoured as a “friend of China.”
Due to ongoing tensions with China over its human rights violations at home, however, countries including the United States, Britain, Canada and Australia have imposed a diplomatic boycott of the Winter Olympics, under which their teams will take part, but they will not send any politicians or official representatives.
Moscow and Beijing’s foreign ministers meanwhile gave a signal of unity after preparatory talks on Thursday evening.
In the talks between China’s Wang Yi and Russia’s Sergei Lavrov, both sides coordinated their positions on the Ukraine crisis, Afghanistan, North Korea and other international and regional issues, Russian news agency TASS reported.
China’s Foreign Ministry said the ministers jointly opposed the “politicisation” of sport and any attempt to create confrontations between international camps and blocs.
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