If you want to understand the China-Russia relationship, the frozen border city of Heihe is a good place to start.

It is a bleak, bitterly cold place, even at this time of year.

Its most impressive feature by far is the sweeping, frozen Heilongjiang river that hugs it. On the other side is Russia.

It’s a place that’s much quieter than it used to be. COVID, a closed border and then a sanction-induced squeeze on Russia’s economy have stifled much of the previously booming tourist trade.

Prior to the pandemic, there was a lot of cross-border activity, with Chinese groups heading north to experience Siberia and Russians coming the other way.

Lots of people living in the border towns would regularly cross to go shopping, do business or socialise.

But despite the drop in traffic, signs of that close affinity are everywhere here, from the imposing Russian architecture to the Russian stores stacked with vodka, Russian dolls and (Vladimir) Lenin motif merchandise.

Mr Jia runs one such shop filled with faux and real fur hats and gloves.

The friendship is a good one, he says. He previously lived in Russia and Russians are his customers and his friends.

“They are nice and straightforward,” he remarks with a smile.

It’s a view that’s common here, as is his take on the war in Ukraine, the opinion that Russia isn’t entirely to blame.

“Wars have to be fought for a reason,” he says after pausing for thought.

“No one goes to war if they don’t have to. Some things are like having a ticking time bomb next to your pillow, and it’s not going to be easy to sleep.”

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It is an opinion encouraged in China, the true horror of the war and who perpetrated it is largely censored here.

Indeed, China has trodden a very careful path throughout the conflict, never overtly condemning or condoning the invasion while insisting it is best placed to play peacemaker.

But it has quietly been providing Russia with finance, technology and diplomatic cover and the West now fears it could go further.

There are signs of that tacit support everywhere in Heihe and reminders of why China might want to maintain it.

The best example perhaps runs under our feet – the huge pipes that carry Russian gas into China.

Heihe is the entry point for the Power of Siberia 1 gas pipeline and China is now buying more of this gas than ever before, compensating Russia for much of the trade it has lost with Europe.

Further up the river, there is also an enormous bridge that facilitates the trade in commodities that still flows between the two.

It is also a reminder that this vast border is peaceful. It hasn’t always been the case and battles gone by destroyed communities around here. Maintaining today’s peace allows both sides to focus resources elsewhere.

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Xi Jinping lands in Moscow

‘No one else wants to be friends with us’

It is at this bridge we meet Slava, a Russian truck driver who lives just on the other side of the river.

He has driven to and from China for many years and spoke with unusual frankness about the position Russians are in.

“There is no one else,” he says about the incoming help from China. “No one else wants to be friends with us.

“Europe doesn’t want to work with us or be friends, so we have our neighbours left to work with. They give us work. We give them work. That’s it.”

“I hope they don’t send us to war,” he adds. “That’s the problem, Ukraine, you know? Ukraine.”

Indeed, while this relationship is nothing short of a lifeline to Russia, it offers huge value to China too that goes far beyond trade.

Crucially Russia offers China a like-minded ally in what it sees as a reshaping of the world order and its ever-increasing power struggle with America.

In short, a defeated Russia and a united, victorious West would be damaging to President Xi’s vision for an ascendant China.

That’s the bigger picture here, the standoff that’s pushing two neighbours closer.

China knows Xi’s visit to Moscow speaks volumes, it’s a big gesture he’s chosen to go regardless.

China is still treading its careful path, but be in no doubt, its number one interest is China.