A FRIENDSHIP with “no limits”. These were the words of Russian president Vladimir Putin back in February this year when he shook hands with his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping at the opening of the Beijing Olympics shortly before Russia launched its invasion of Ukraine.

A lot has happened on the international stage since then and the measure of that friendship with “no limits” has well and truly been put to the test.

Putin and Xi met in person for the first time last week since the start of the war in Ukraine and the outcome of that ­encounter on the sidelines of the ­Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) summit in Uzbekistan’s ancient Silk Road city of Samarkand has been the subject of ­careful scrutiny by diplomacy pundits. In fact, few recent meetings ­between world leaders have been as highly anticipated as this one.

As always words matter immensely in such encounters and Putin’s admission that he understood that Xi had ­“questions and concerns” about Russia’s war in Ukraine along with his praise for China’s “balanced” position on the war only deepened the intrigue surrounding current ­relations between the two countries.

But if the meeting between the two was meant to signal the strength of the ­relationship between Moscow and ­Beijing at a time of increasing animosity with the West and challenges to their agendas then that was not the impression that came across.

READ MORE: Putin faces stark choices as Ukraine begins to turn tide of war

The bottom line here is that as Russia attempts to recover from a humiliating military rout in north-eastern Ukraine and faces growing global isolation, Xi knows he holds more cards on the leverage front over Moscow than ever before.

On the face of it, the Chinese government has echoed Russia’s insistence that US-led Nato “encroachment” in ­Europe was the real trigger for the Ukraine war, but Beijing to date has only paid lip service to such a message.

Writing recently in Foreign Affairs ­magazine Alexander Gabuev, a senior ­fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for ­International Peace summed up the thinking of many analysts’ response to the meeting between Putin and Xi.

“Russian President Vladimir Putin’s ­decision to invade Ukraine has forced Russia to turn to its fellow Eurasian giant, hat in hand,” wrote Gabuev.

“China and Russia often appear as a pair, two great authoritarian powers seeking to revise the international order. But theirs is not a relationship of equals,” ­Gabuev said, before going on to explain how Beijing’s dominance in its ­relationship with Moscow is only likely to increase as the war in Ukraine deepens.

Even the timing of the meeting played out against Putin and in Xi’s favour. For Putin it came as the Russian leader is ­under tremendous domestic ­political ­pressure with battlefield setbacks in Ukraine and uncertainty over Russia’s ultimate objectives there. For Xi on the other hand the timing could not have been better giving him precisely the push in prestige he wanted for an internal ­audience just weeks ahead of a Chinese Communist Party congress at which he will secure an unprecedented third term in power.

In all, Putin’s woes suit China’s ­long-term interests say many analysts. Among them is Philipp Ivanov, CEO of Asia Society Australia a leading business and policy think-tank dedicated to Asia.

“China will unapologetically use its hard-headed and self-interested policy ­approach to Russia’s engulfment in its most significant crisis since the collapse of the Soviet Union to derive the ­maximum benefit for its long-term foreign-policy objectives,” was how Ivanov recently summed up Beijing’s likely approach ­writing in Foreign Policy magazine.

There are other pressure points too in ­relations between the two nations. Both have conflicting interests for example in Central Asia, where some former Soviet republics have been unnerved by Putin’s military adventurism in Ukraine and are developing closer economic ties with China.

Kazakhstan especially has become ­uncomfortable with Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine and growing pressure from the Kremlin. With China having invested heavily over the years in its relations with such countries in Beijing is not about to blow that now.

While few doubt that cooperation ­between Russia and China will continue, it would be a mistake to believe that things are as they were before February. Since then that friendship of “no ­limits” has been shown to be a myth and when viewed from Beijing’s perspective the confines and boundaries are growing.