Russian President Vladimir Putin said on Thursday he understood China’s Xi Jinping had concerns about the situation in Ukraine, a surprise acknowledgment of friction with Beijing over the war after a week of stunning Russian losses on the ground.
Since Russia’s invasion, China has trod a careful line, criticizing Western sanctions against Russia but stopping short of endorsing or assisting in the military campaign.
“We highly value the balanced position of our Chinese friends when it comes to the Ukraine crisis,” Putin told Xi at their first meeting since the war began.
“We understand your questions and concerns about this. During today’s meeting, we will of course explain our position.”
Xi did not mention Ukraine in his public remarks, nor was it mentioned in a Chinese readout of their meeting, which took place in Uzbekistan on the sidelines of a regional summit.
Pressure on Putin?
Beijing’s support is widely seen as essential for Moscow, which needs markets for its energy exports and sources to import high-tech goods as it faces sanctions imposed by the West.
The last time the two men met they signed a “no limits” friendship agreement between their two countries. Three weeks later, Russia invaded Ukraine.
The Russian president’s comments suggested a Chinese shift towards a more critical stance, in private at least. Ian Bremmer, political science professor at Columbia University, said it was the “first public sign of Putin recognizing pressure to back down.”
“Russia has become a pariah to the G7 because of their invasion. China wants no part of that,” he wrote on Twitter, referring to the Group of Seven leading industrialized nations.
White House spokesperson John Kirby said China should reject Russia’s invasion: “The whole world should be lined up against what Mr. Putin is doing,” Kirby told CNN.
“This is not the time for any kind of business as usual with Mr. Putin.”
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov later told reporters that the talks behind closed doors with China had been excellent.
“European friends” of Kyiv
In Kyiv, Ursula von der Leyen, the president of the European Commission, held talks with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, where she told him Ukraine’s accession process to the European Union was well on track.
Ukraine became a candidate to join the EU in June, in a bold geopolitical step which both Kyiv and Brussels hailed as an “historic moment.”
Von der Leyen said the European Union would never be able to match the sacrifices Ukrainians are making or compensate them for their fight for democracy and humanity, but pledged, “you have your European friends by your side as long as it takes.”
The EU’s sanctions on Russia are having a deep and visible impact, she said, and although giving support is costly, “freedom is priceless.”
After a week of the fastest Ukrainian gains since the war’s early weeks, Ukrainian officials said Russian forces were now fortifying defenses and it would be hard for Kyiv’s troops to maintain the pace of their advance.
Putin has yet to publicly comment on the setback suffered by his forces after Ukrainian troops made a rapid armored thrust through the front line last week. Russian troops have abandoned dozens of tanks and other armored vehicles in haste.
Kyiv says it recaptured more than 8,000 square kilometers, nearly equivalent to the size of the island of Cyprus. The speed of the advance has lifted Ukrainian morale, pleased Western backers who have provided arms, intelligence and training, and raised hopes of further significant gains before the winter sets in.
More challenges for Ukraine
Serhiy Gaidai, governor of Ukraine’s eastern Luhansk region, said it would still be a tough fight to wrest control of his region back from Russia, which recognizes it as an independent state controlled by separatists.
Oleksiy Danilov, secretary of Ukraine’s national security and defense council, said in an online post: “We should avoid euphoria. There is still a lot of work to be done to liberate our lands, and Russia has a large number of weapons.”
There was no let-up either in Russia’s daily missile strikes on Ukraine, a day after it fired cruise missiles at a reservoir dam near Kryvyi Rih, Zelenskyy’s hometown.
Authorities in the city of Kharkiv said Russian shells had hit a high-pressure gas pipeline, while a rescue operation was underway in the city of Bakhmut with four people suspected to be trapped under rubble after a strike, Pavlo Kyrylenko, the Donetsk regional governor, said.
Russian forces launched attacks on several settlements on the Kharkiv front line in the past 24 hours, the general staff of Ukraine’s Armed Forces said on Thursday.
But Britain’s defense ministry said in an update that Ukraine’s forces were continuing to consolidate their control of newly liberated land in the region.
The United States on Thursday imposed new sanctions on 22 individuals and two entities that had facilitated Russia’s war in Ukraine, the Treasury Department said.
Russian Foreign Ministry spokesperson Maria Zakharova had earlier warned Washington to tread carefully, saying any decision to supply Kyiv with longer-range missiles for US-made HIMARS systems would cross a “red line” and make the United States “a direct party to the conflict .”
The UN nuclear watchdog’s 35-nation Board of Governors on Thursday passed a resolution demanding that Russia end its occupation of the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant in Ukraine, diplomats at the closed-door meeting said.