UFA, Russia (AFP) - Russian President Vladimir Putin on Wednesday welcomed the leaders of emerging powers for a summit Moscow hopes will show it not isolated despite the standoff with the West over Ukraine.
The Kremlin sees Brics - a group of emerging economies that includes Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa - as a growing economic and political influence to challenge Western hegemony.
Moscow's ties with Brics have become more vital amid the damage inflicted on Russia's economy by Western sanctions, and Putin's exclusion from the Group of Eight gathering, which met last month as the G-7.
Brics "illustrates a new polycentric system of international relations" demonstrating the increasing influence of "new centres of power," Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said in a statement published Wednesday.
Held this year in the city of Ufa, some 1,100km east of Moscow, the summit itself starts Thursday, following a day of bilateral meetings between Putin and the other leaders.
"I won't hide that we are especially happy to see our friends from China," Putin told Chinese President Xi Jinping ahead of talks.
"We are well aware of the difficulties we have to face economically and in global politics, but by joining efforts we will without a doubt overcome all problems," he added.
Putin also met with India's Narendra Modi and South Africa's Jacob Zuma, and is set to speak with Brazil's Dilma Rousseff after hosting a dinner with Brics leaders.
Also expected late evening, is the Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, who will meet Putin on Thursday afternoon, right after the Brics summit.
Taking place at the same time in Ufa is a meeting of the regional security grouping, the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO), to which Iran has applied.
Brics "augurs the formation of a new world, in which the West will not dominate," Fyodor Lukyanov, the chairman of the Council on Foreign and Defence Policy, wrote in Rossiiskaya Gazeta state daily.
Critics, however, say that while the summit is symbolically important for Russia, Brics is not a strong political force due to the very different agendas and priorities of its members.
The summit is "compensation for one and a half years of a diplomatic blockade," wrote Alexander Gabuyev of the Carnegie Moscow Centre.
But, he added, "Moscow is likely alone in its euphoria about the double summit and emerging new geopolitical constructs."
RUSSIA LOOKS EAST FOR MONEY
Among the tangible results of Brics emergence has been the establishment of a Brics bank to finance infrastructure projects in member states and developing countries.
The bank, which was officially launched Tuesday, will start funding proposals early next year, said Russian Finance Minister Anton Siluanov.
Sanctions have cut off access to Western borrowing for Russia, and Siluanov said that companies like oil giant Rosneft may now turn to the Brics bank for funding.
"The bank is an instrument for development, for economic growth," Siluanov said, while ruling out any bailout loans to Greece.
Thirsty for cash, recession-hit Russia has also been asking China to lift existing restrictions for Chinese investors on participating in foreign financial markets, Siluanov said.
"We are talking about gradual lifting of barriers for investing by Chinese financial institutes... it would help develop the economy of our two countries," he said.
In a major boost to trade with India, Russia's oil giant Rosneft on Thursday signed a deal with Essar group to supply 100 million tonnes of oil over the next decade to a refinery in India's Vadinar, and inked a preliminary agreement to buy a stake of up to 49 per cent in the refinery.
Leaders on Thursday will discuss regional and global issues, including the Syria conflict, threat of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria group, the situation in Greece and Iran's nuclear programme.