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With U.S. In Putin's Doghouse, Russia Promotes China As Key WWII Ally

Russian President Vladimir Putin (right) shakes hands with his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping in Moscow on May 8.

An indelible image from World War II shows U.S. and Soviet soldiers shaking hands at the Elbe River two weeks before the Nazi surrender -- the most powerful Allies meeting at Europe's heart after closing in on Germany from opposite sides.

Through the Cold War, the meeting was a symbol of unity between the United States and the Soviet Union even as they targeted one another with growing nuclear arsenals.

But with U.S.-Russian relations severely strained by Moscow's seizure of Crimea and the conflict in Ukraine, the Kremlin is playing up a less prominent pair of wartime allies -- the Soviet Union and China -- as a model for praise and emulation.

The shift comes as Russia, hit with U.S. and EU sanctions, steps up its courting of China as a political and economic partner. It has set the stage for a Moscow visit by Chinese President Xi Jinping, who will be the most prominent foreign leader in the audience when Russian President Vladimir Putin addresses a May 9 military parade celebrating the 70th anniversary of the Nazi defeat.

Western leaders including U.S. President Barack Obama are staying away to protest Moscow's interference in Ukraine, where a war between government forces and Russian-backed rebels has killed more than 6,100 people and revived memories of Europe's bloody 20th century divisions.

The Kremlin has portrayed Western leaders' refusal to come as tantamount to a denial of the Soviet Union's sacrifice in the war, which cost it 27 million lives.

'Rewriting' History

In an address to a conference this week on the Soviet and Chinese contributions to victory in World War II, Putin denounced what he said were "cynical attempts to rewrite history to suit today's political interests."

The gathering in Moscow was titled "The role of the U.S.S.R. and China in achieving victory over fascism and Japanese materialism in the Second World War." It was billed as the first-ever joint Russian-Chinese conference of its kind.

In his address, read out by a Russian deputy foreign minister, Putin said the conference "will foster the affirmation of the truthful view of the events of the war years, help immortalize the deeds of our fathers and grandfathers, and make a substantial contribution to the rearing of youth in the spirit of patriotism, humanism, and the friendship of people."

Putin did not say who was trying to rewrite history. But Aleksei Pushkov, the Kremlin-allied chairman of the international affairs committee in the State Duma, Russia's lower parliament house, made clear that the United States was the culprit -- and held out China as Russia's ally in combating such efforts.

"Attempts to rewrite the history of the Second World War come from a single capital," Pushkov wrote in a series of tweets accusing the United States of seeking to weaken and isolate Russia. "Two other capitals will counter this together: Beijing and Moscow."

It's Complicated

For Putin, highlighting China as a key wartime ally is a way to use the war as a symbol of unity without praising the United States, which he has increasingly branded as a dangerous global aggressor since starting his third presidential term in 2012.

It allows him to send a message to both Beijing and the Russian people that the countries are time-tested partners with a trusting relationship rooted in World War II.

The reality is more complex.

Three months after the war in Europe was over and three days after the United States dropped an atom bomb on Hiroshima, Soviet leader Josef Stalin declared war on Japan, which had been at war with China since 1937. Soviet forces then overran the Japanese army in Manchuria, and Japan formally surrendered on September 2, 1945.

The Soviet Union and China signed a "friendship and alliance" treaty in 1950, but tension between their communist rulers grew in the 1960s. Fighting along the Sino-Soviet border killed dozens of troops in 1969, and ties remained cool until the breakup of the Soviet Union.

Today, both Russia and China have territorial disputes with Japan and tensions with Tokyo that are rooted in the World War II era. They have used their UN Security Council veto power to undermine U.S. clout, and Putin has looked to China as a source of investment and a market for Russian energy -- an effort that has increased since the imposition of Western economic sanctions last year.

Ahead of Xi's arrival in Moscow on May 8 to sign a raft of trade deals, China echoed Russia's message -- minus the verbal attacks on the West.

"Seventy years ago, our countries honorably carried out their sacred mission to maintain peace," state-run Russian news agency TASS quoted Chinese Vice Foreign Minister Cheng Guoping as saying on May 6. "We should jointly speak in defense of the heritage of victory in the Second World War and international principles of equality and justice."

With reporting by RIA and TASS
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    Steve Gutterman

    Steve Gutterman is the editor of the Russia/Ukraine/Belarus Desk in RFE/RL's Central Newsroom in Prague and the author of The Week In Russia newsletter. He lived and worked in Russia and the former Soviet Union for nearly 20 years between 1989 and 2014, including postings in Moscow with the AP and Reuters. He has also reported from Afghanistan and Pakistan as well as other parts of Asia, Europe, and the United States.