Vladimir Putin has hinted at frictions in Russia’s relations with China by publicly admitting Beijing has “questions and concerns” about Moscow’s military operation in Ukraine, which has suffered devastating setbacks in recent days.
Speaking at a high-level summit in Uzbekistan, Mr Putin surprisingly acknowledged potential disharmony with Xi Jinping in his first face-to-face meeting with the Chinese leader since Russia’s invasion in February.
“We highly value the balanced position of our Chinese friends when it comes to the Ukraine crisis,” the Russian president told Xi at their first meeting since the war began.
“We understand your questions and concern about this. During today’s meeting, we will of course explain our position.”
Xi did not mention Ukraine in his public remarks but Beijing’s support for the invasion is seen as essential for Moscow in the face of Western sanctions and Russia’s need for markets for its energy exports and imports of hi-tech goods.
The last time the two men met they signed a “no limits” friendship agreement between their two countries. Three weeks later, Russia invaded Ukraine. Since then, China has trodden a careful line, criticising Western sanctions against Russia but stopping short of endorsing or assisting the military campaign.
The apparent friction comes after a week of the fastest Ukrainian gains since the war’s early weeks. Putin has yet to publicly comment on the setback suffered by his forces after Ukrainian troops made a rapid advance through the frontline last week. Russian troops have abandoned dozens of tanks and other armoured vehicles in haste.
Kyiv says it recaptured more than 3,000 square miles this month.
Putin and Xi are attending the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation in Uzbekistan, a grouping of largely authoritarian states seen by some as a growing power bloc rival of the West.
Putin told the Chinese president that Moscow backs Beijing’s “One China” policy, opposes “provocations” by the United States in the Taiwan Strait, and said Russia values China’s “balanced position” on Ukraine.
It is Xi’s first trip outside China since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic.
Putin threw his weight behind Beijing and referred to China’s insistence that other countries do not recognise Taiwan.
“We intend to firmly adhere to the principle of ‘One China’,” Putin said.
He added that Russian “condemns provocations by the United States and their satellites in the Taiwan Strait”.
The United States has no formal diplomatic relations with Taiwan but is bound by law to provide the island with the means to defend itself.
China has never ruled out using force to bring Taiwan under its control.
“In the face of changes in the world, in our times and of history, China is willing to work with Russia to play a leading role in demonstrating the responsibility of major powers, and to instill stability and positive energy into a world in turmoil,” Xi told Putin.
China held blockade-style military drills around Taiwan after US House speaker Nancy Pelosi visited the island last month. Taiwan strongly rejects China’s sovereignty claims.