Putin acknowledges China’s concerns over Ukraine crisis as sign of friction

Russian President Vladimir Putin said on Thursday he understood China’s Xi Jinping was worried about the crisis in Ukraine, a surprise acknowledgment of friction with Beijing over the war after a week of staggering Russian losses on the ground.

Since Russia invaded Ukraine in February, China has toed a cautious line, criticizing Western sanctions against Moscow but stopping short of endorsing or helping the military campaign.

“We highly appreciate the balanced position of our Chinese friends regarding the Ukrainian crisis,” Putin told Xi during their first meeting since the start of the war.

“We understand your questions and concerns about this. At today’s meeting, we will of course explain our position.”

Xi did not mention Ukraine in his public remarks, nor in a Chinese account of the meeting, which took place in Uzbekistan on the sidelines of a regional summit.

Beijing’s backing is widely seen as essential for Moscow, which needs markets for its energy exports and sources to import high-tech goods as sanctions are imposed by the West.

The Russian president’s comments suggested a Chinese shift to a more critical stance, at least privately. Ian Bremmer, a political science professor at Columbia University, said they were the first public sign of Putin acknowledging the pressure to back down.

“Russia has become a pariah for the G7 because of its invasion. China does not want to be part of it,” Bremmer wrote on Twitter, referring to the major industrialized nations of the Group of Seven.

White House spokesman John Kirby says China should reject Russia’s invasion: “The whole world should be aligned against what Mr. Putin is doing,” Kirby told CNN.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov later told reporters the talks with China had been excellent.

The last time Putin and Xi met, they signed a “limitless” friendship agreement between their countries. Three weeks later, Russia invaded Ukraine in what it called a “special military operation” to “disarm” its smaller neighbor. Ukraine and the West accuse Russia of an unprovoked war of aggression.

Ukraine has accused Russian forces of targeting civilians and war crimes, which Moscow denies. The day after his surprise visit to the recaptured town of Izium in the northeast of the country, President Volodymyr Zelenskiy said Ukrainian authorities had found a mass grave there. He said more information should be available on Friday.

“Morally Acceptable”

Pope Francis said on Thursday it was morally right for nations to supply arms to Ukraine to help the country defend itself against Russian aggression.

“It’s a political decision that can be moral, morally acceptable, if taken under conditions of morality,” Francis told an airline news conference as he flew in from a trip to Kazakhstan.

Francis also urged the government of Kyiv to be open to a possible dialogue, even if it may “smell” because it would be difficult for the Ukrainian side.

In Washington, US officials said the United States would soon announce a new $600 million arms package for Ukraine’s military.

Also on Thursday, Germany said it would provide two more multiple rocket launchers to Ukraine and European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said Europe should support Ukraine with tanks. combat, because the Ukrainians were proving that they could defend themselves if they had the right military equipment.

Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova said any decision by the United States to supply Ukraine with longer-range missiles for the American-made HIMARS system would cross a “red line” and of the United States “a direct party to the conflict”.

In Kyiv, von der Leyen had talks with Zelenskiy where she told him that Ukraine’s process of joining the European Union was on track.

“It’s impressive to see the speed, the determination, the precision with which you progress,” she said.

Ukraine became a candidate for EU membership in June.

Von der Leyen said “you have your European friends by your side for as long as it takes”.

Fortifying Russians

After a week of rapid Ukrainian gains, Ukrainian officials said Russian forces were strengthening defenses and it would be difficult to keep up the pace of the advance.

Putin has yet to publicly comment on the setback suffered by his forces in northeastern Ukraine this month. Ukrainian officials say 9,000 km2 (3,400 sq mi) have been taken over, a territory the size of the island of Cyprus. Russian troops hastily abandoned dozens of tanks and other armored vehicles.

Footage shot by Reuters on Thursday in the eastern town of Kupiansk, which Ukrainian forces recaptured last week, shows many buildings were damaged or burned.

“No electricity, no communications…if there was communications, we could at least talk to the family. If only there hadn’t been all this bombing with everyone in their basements,” said a man.

The rapid progress has raised hopes of further gains before the onset of winter.

But Serhiy Gaidai, governor of Ukraine’s Lugansk region, said it would still be an uphill battle to regain control of his region from Russia, which recognizes it as an independent state controlled by separatists.

There has also been no respite from Russia’s daily missile strikes, a day after it fired cruise missiles at a reservoir dam near Kryvyi Rih, Zelensky’s hometown in the central Ukraine.

Authorities in Kryvyi Rih are working to repair the damage and as a result water levels are falling, said Kyrylo Tymoshenko, deputy head of the presidential administration.

Ukrainian forces repelled three Russian attacks north of the city of Donetsk on Thursday, the Armed Forces General Staff said in a Facebook post.

Russian forces have launched attacks on several settlements on the Kharkiv frontline in the past 24 hours, the General Staff of the Armed Forces of Ukraine said.

Reuters was unable to verify reports from the battlefield.

(Reuters)

Christi C. Elwood