CNN  — 

Xi Jinping and Vladimir Putin have met at the Kremlin and touted the close ties and strategic visions shared by China and Russia, on the first day of a state visit framed by Beijing as a peacemaking project despite deep skepticism in Kyiv and the West.

It is the Chinese leader’s first visit to Russia since Moscow launched its unprovoked invasion of Ukraine last year, coming just days after the International Criminal Court in the Hague accused the Russian president of committing war crimes in Ukraine and issued a warrant for his arrest.

The war in Ukraine was raised in the first hours of their meeting, and is expected to be a key point of discussion throughout Xi’s visit, which will be closely watched for any potential impact on an entrenched conflict that has killed tens of thousands and triggered a mass humanitarian crisis.

Talks between the two leaders lasted four and a half hours on Monday, according to Russian state news agency RIA Novosti. Further formal meetings are expected to follow on Tuesday..

“In the last few years, China has made a colossal leap forward,” Putin told Xi, sitting side by side with him at the Kremlin on Monday afternoon. “In the whole world, this evokes interest, and unfortunately even envy.”

Xi, who called Putin his “dear friend,” praised his Russian counterpart in turn, saying the country’s development had “significantly improved.”

“Both sides exchanged in-depth views on the Ukraine issue,” reported Chinese state news agency Xinhua later in the day, describing the leaders’ meeting as “in-depth a