MOSCOW - Chinese Prime Minister Li Keqiang met his Russian counterpart on Monday ahead of talks with President Vladimir Putin on a visit to Moscow that comes as Russia struggles with its most serious standoff with the West since the Cold War.

Li sat down with Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev, with a raft of economic deals on the table, ahead of a meeting with Putin scheduled for Tuesday.

Medvedev said the two sides would sign over 40 “very important bilateral documents.”

Li jetted into the Russian capital on Sunday for a three-day visit aimed at bolstering economic ties between the two neighbours in a trip hailed by Beijing as a “major event.”

Li’s first visit to Russia as premier comes at a sensitive time as the Kremlin is grappling with the consequences of its support for separatists in Ukraine during a six-month conflict in the east of the ex-Soviet nation.

Li’s Russia trip is part of a week-long visit to Europe. Ahead of his Moscow visit, Li travelled to Germany for talks with Chancellor Angela Merkel.

He will also participate in a summit in Milan later this week.

Merkel has been seen as one of the European Union’s top negotiators on the Ukraine crisis.

She has held regular talks with Putin but has also thrown her weight behind EU sanctions against Russia in a bid to make Putin drop support for separatists in eastern Ukraine.

Saddled with several rounds of Western sanctions and the Russian economy in tatters, the Kremlin appears keen to see an easing of punitive measures from the West.

Putin late Saturday ordered a pullback of troops from the border with Ukraine and will hold key talks with Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko on the sidelines of an Asia-Europe meeting in Milan.

China has spoken out against Western sanctions against Russia and has called on all sides to reach a political settlement over Ukraine.

Once bitter foes during the Cold War, Moscow and Beijing have over the past years ramped up cooperation as both are driven by a desire to counterbalance US global dominance.

China and Russia often work in lockstep at the UN Security Council, using their veto power as permanent council members to counter the West on issues such as the Syria crisis.

Russia’s showdown with the West over Ukraine has given Moscow a new impetus to court Beijing.

Resource-hungry China is seeking to diversify its sources of energy amid booming domestic consumption, while Russia is seeking to tap fast-developing Asian markets.

After a decade of tough negotiations China and Russia inked a 30-year, $400-billion agreement in May that will eventually involve 38 billion cubic metres of gas annually.

Critics however disparaged the terms of the deal, saying Putin, in his bid to spite the West, signed an agreement that was more beneficial to China than to Russia.