By Guy Faulconbridge
(Reuters) -Chinese President Xi Jinping told President Vladimir Putin on Monday that he was convinced Russians would support him in a presidential election due in 2024, even though the Kremlin chief has not yet said if he will seek another term.
Putin, who came to power on the last day of 1999 when Boris Yeltsin resigned, is the longest-serving Kremlin leader since Josef Stalin.
“I know Russia will hold a presidential election,” Xi told Putin in Mandarin.
“Under your strong leadership, Russia has made great strides in its prosperous development. I am confident that the Russian people will continue to give you their firm support.”
As Xi’s words were translated into Russian, Putin looked Xi in the eye and smiled briefly.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov swiftly pointed out that Xi had not specifically said Putin would participate in next year’s election but added that the Kremlin shared Xi’s confidence in Russians’ support for Putin.
Xi and Putin were due to hold one-to-one talks on Monday and then dine. The menu included blini with quail and mushrooms; sterlet sturgeon soup; pomegranate sorbet, nelma – an Arctic fish – with vegetables; venison with cherry sauce; pavlova; and wines from Russia’s southern Krasnodar region.
When he first came to power, Putin vowed to end the chaos that gripped Russia after the 1991 fall of the Soviet Union, but the invasion of Ukraine has triggered by far the biggest challenge of his rule.
The war ushered in the gravest confrontation with the West since the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis, while Russia’s military has suffered a series of defeats in Ukraine and the West has slapped the toughest sanctions ever on Russia’s $2.1 trillion economy.
China’s “no limits” partnership with Russia has come under greater scrutiny, with the U.S. concerned that Beijing might be considering supplying weapons to Moscow.
Beijing has denied that and also pushed back against what it casts as the West’s fanning of the Ukraine war.
Xi was the first leader to meet the Russian president since the International Criminal Court (ICC) issued an arrest warrant for him on Friday over the deportation of Ukrainian children to Russia during its year-old invasion of Ukraine.
Moscow said the charge was one of several “clearly hostile displays” and opened a criminal case against the ICC prosecutor and judges. Beijing said the warrant reflected double standards.
Xi called Putin his “dear friend”, and Putin used the same term to his guest.
“In recent years, China has made a tremendous leap forward in its development,” Putin said. “It arouses genuine interest all over the world, and even we envy you a little.”
(Reporting by Guy Faulconbridge; Editing by Mark Trevelyan and Andrew Cawthorne)