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Chinese soldiers march through Red Square during the Victory Day military parade in Moscow on May 9, 2015.

Yuri Kadobnov/AFP / Getty Images

The Chinese love note to Russia comes in the form of a video that opens with the sun rising over The Egg, the distinctive performing arts centre in Beijing. A new day is dawning, one filled with blooming tulips, smiling children and a China that, at least while the camera rolls, is suddenly in thrall to its northern neighbour.

Vladimir Putin is "as handsome as Uncle Xi," says one woman, using the affectionate term for President Xi Jinping. "Grandpa Putin, we welcome you to come to our kindergarten," says a child, extending the affection to the Russian leader.

In a chorus of voices interspersed with images of Russian restaurants and businesses in Beijing, Chinese young and old extoll Russia for its bread, its vodka, its architecture, its Tchaikovsky, its steelmaking and its beautiful women. "Blond-haired, blue eyes and long legs," says one man, a little breathlessly.

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The video continues like this for more than five minutes, a paean to warming Sino-Russian relations. It was released online to millions of views just before Mr. Xi flew to the Russian capital, where he sat next to Mr. Putin in commemorating the 70th anniversary of the end of the Second World War last week.

Like the video, the event was a striking demonstration of the ways in which China and Russia have come together in a new warming of relations. Chinese soldiers marched alongside the 16,000 Russian troops in a Red Square ceremonial parade, in a display of camaraderie followed by a joint live-fire military exercise in the Mediterranean Sea.

Mr. Xi is "our great friend," Mr. Putin declared after signing a raft of new trade deals that will see the two countries buy more of each other's trains, planes, energy and gold.

In the past year, the two countries have signed more than 100 agreements and accords worth, in aggregate, nearly a half-trillion dollars that cover sales of natural gas, electricity, coal and oil.

Spurned and sanctioned by the West over his incursions into Crimea and eastern Ukraine, Mr. Putin has made a dramatic China pivot. Beijing, long leery of Moscow, has enthusiastically reciprocated. The two powerful leaders – both charismatic and popular at home – have met 11 times in the past two years. On Tuesday, the Communist-run Global Times newspaper called on "the Western elite to relinquish their egoism and self-centredness and have a good look at how the China-Russia partnership is redefining the old system of international relations."

The degree to which that is true is hotly debated. China, in particular, has long been deeply suspicious of Russia – the two sides traded fire in the 1960s – and Beijing's strict policies on respecting sovereign state boundaries have made for discomfort with Mr. Putin seizing parts of Ukraine.

"This is not a new millennium version of the Sino-Russia international proletariat revolution," said Merriden Varrall, director of the East Asia Program at the Lowy Institute for International Policy in Sydney.

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So it may be wrong to label China best friends with Russia – Mr. Putin's declarations of camaraderie notwithstanding. But the two nations have, if nothing else, created a warm business relationship that has emerged in surprisingly short order, providing Russia a potential lifeline outside sanctions – though many of the deals will take years to come to fruition – and China a major new market and source of resources.

For Moscow, the shift began with an internal assessment of its own weakness early last year as it began to contemplate U.S. sanctions. Planners looked to Iran and North Korea as examples, and decided that their own vulnerabilities lay in their dependence on Western energy demand, capital and technology. "They concluded that if the West imposed sanctions, Russia would have no other choice than to be more and more accommodating to China," Alexander Gabuev, who has published extensively on Sino-Russian relations, wrote in an article on the new "soft alliance" for the European Council on Foreign Relations.

Having the Kremlin shake hands with Zhongnanhai came with the added benefit of delivering a sharp elbow to Western powers, in particular the United States. "It carries a lot of symbolic importance for both Moscow and Beijing," said Benjamin Herscovitch, a Beijing-based research fellow with the Centre for Independent Studies, an Australian think tank.

"Both countries, over the last decades, have spent a lot of time emphasizing the importance of democratizing international affairs and moving beyond this North Atlantic-centric system where Washington, London, Paris and Berlin dictate terms to the rest of the world," he said. "Having Russia and China developing increasingly close ties in the face of Western concern about Russia's behaviour is a nice way of saying things have changed now."

In that sense, closer ties further the impact China and Russia can have in forums such as the United Nations Security Council, where they already often act in concert. China "shares most Russian perceptions of the world," including a "struggle against uni-polarity and the hegemonic ambitions of the United States," said Igor Zevelev, a Moscow-based foreign-affairs analyst. That has made China popular not just with Russian political leadership, but with its citizenry.

Still, observers have cautioned against reading too much into the postcards being exchanged between Moscow and Beijing. Friendly relations are unlikely to develop into anything more substantive besides business dealings: For example, China would not want to wed itself to Russia militarily, out of fear of being drawn into an unpredictable mess of Mr. Putin's making.

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"It would be impossible for Russia to affect China's foreign policy, or vice versa," said Li Xing, a Russia expert at Beijing Normal University. "The development of China's relationship with Russia is mainly to further China's national interest and strategy. Russia is not a threat to China now, so what reason does China have not to develop our relations with Russia?"

The two leaders have agreed to work together on China's Belt and Roads initiative, which is building new trade routes through the centre of the continent. That co-operation stands to create long-term opportunities for joint work.

But Mr. Gabuev suggested that the highlights of the new Sino-Russian relations may already have been accomplished. China, after all, has good reason to be wary of Russia, with its unstable ruble, as well as the sanctions, creating major business uncertainty. The biggest change may be in Russia's attitude toward China; like Western powers, it has had to grapple with a Middle Kingdom whose economic and political might has risen dramatically.

"Just one year ago, Russia was pretty afraid about China's growing role in Central Asia, and not knowing what to do with that," Mr. Gabuev said. The subsequent shift toward working alongside China "is a dramatic change in Russia's attitudes," he said.

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