USSURIYSK, Russia -- Despite much of the Russian military's preoccupation with war in Ukraine, Russian President Vladimir Putin attended large-scale military exercises Tuesday (September 6) involving tens of thousands of troops from Russia, China and other countries sympathetic to Moscow.
The Vostok-2022 drills, involving several of Russia's neighbours, as well as Syria, India and China, started last Thursday and are due to end Wednesday. The Central Asian participants are Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan.
Moscow has found itself increasingly isolated politically and economically since Russia invaded pro-Western Ukraine on February 24.
Putin attended manoeuvres on training grounds in the Russian Far East and in the waters off its eastern coast, and was seen smiling and joking with his Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu, according to the Zvezda military news service.
Putin also met with military chief of staff Valery Gerasimov at the Sergeyevsky military range and later observed the final phase of the military exercises, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told local news agencies.
Confirming its participation in the drills in August, China said the joint exercises were "unrelated to the current international and regional situation".
Since Russia's invasion of Ukraine, Moscow has sought closer ties with countries in Africa, South America and Asia -- particularly China.
The two nations held a joint military exercise in May, sending bombers over the seas in northeast Asia where a key meeting of foreign leaders was being held.
While warming ties between China and Russia undermine global security, Washington does not "read anything" into the drills, the US State Department said.
Similar drills last took place in 2018.
By going ahead with the quadrennial Vostok drills, Putin appeared to be sending a message that Moscow is capable of conducting business as usual, despite suffering heavy losses in troops and equipment in Ukraine.
According to Moscow, over 50,000 soldiers and more than 5,000 units of military equipment, including 140 aircraft and 60 ships, were involved in the drills.
In comparison, Moscow said 300,000 soldiers participated in the 2018 drills, although Western military analysts say both figures are inflated.
A senior US official August 8 estimated that up to 80,000 Russians have been killed or wounded in Ukraine since the war began.
Some 50,150 Russian troops have been killed since the start of the war, the Ukrainian general staff said on Facebook Monday.
Russia has given an official death toll only on two occasions, the last on March 25, when it said 1,351 troops had been killed, which analysts consider far too low.
A 'strategic' relationship
Putin's visit to Russia's Far East will continue on Wednesday in the port city of Vladivostok, where he is expected to address the Eastern Economic Forum.
More than 5,000 people will be taking part in the four-day forum that kicked off on Monday with the largest delegation hailing from China, according to the Kremlin.
At the forum's plenary session, Putin will be joined by China's top legislator Li Zhanshu -- who ranks third in the Chinese government hierarchy -- with a personal meeting also on the agenda.
Li will become the highest-ranking Chinese Communist Party politician to travel to the country since Moscow's invasion of Ukraine.
"Russia-China relations of comprehensive partnership and strategic co-operation are developing progressively," the Kremlin said in a statement ahead of the meeting.
It also noted "China's balanced approach to the Ukraine crisis" and Beijing's "understanding" of the reasons behind Russia's offensive.
Beijing and Moscow have drawn closer in recent years, ramping up co-operation as part of what they call a "no limits" relationship.
Beijing has refused to condemn Moscow's intervention in Ukraine and provided diplomatic cover by blasting Western sanctions and arms sales to Kyiv, heightening tensions between China and the West.
Moscow was in full solidarity with Beijing during the visit.
In a sign of further rapprochement, Russia announced Tuesday that China will be switching from US dollars to yuan and rubles to pay for deliveries of Russian natural gas.
The new payment system is "mutually beneficial" and will "become an excellent example for other companies", the CEO of Russian energy giant Gazprom, Alexei Miller, said in a statement.
In response to Western sanctions, Russia has reduced gas deliveries to several European countries -- causing energy prices to soar -- and is seeking to boost deliveries to markets outside Europe.
Russia's largest bank, Sberbank, meanwhile announced Tuesday that it started issuing loans in Chinese yuan in response to a "strong demand" in Russia, the Interfax news agency reported.
At the economic forum, Putin is also expected to hold talks with Burmese junta chief Min Aug Hlaing.
Russia and China have been accused of arming Burma's junta with weapons used to attack civilians since last year's coup.
Meanwhile in Moscow, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, who had visited Burma and Cambodia in August, on Tuesday was hosting Thai counterpart Don Pramudwinai.
Later in the month, the Shanghai Co-operation Organisation (SCO) summit scheduled for September 15-16 in Uzbekistan could also become an opportunity for Moscow and Beijing to further cement ties.
An in-person meeting is reportedly planned between Putin and Chinese President Xi Jinping, who has not left China since 2020 due to the coronavirus pandemic.
The two leaders last met in Beijing in early February ahead of the Winter Olympics Games and days before Putin launched the offensive in Ukraine.