Vladimir Putin acknowledges Chinese ‘concerns’ over Ukraine

Russian president Vladimir Putin has acknowledged Chinese “concerns” about the war in Ukraine in the first public admission of differences between Beijing and Moscow over the conflict.

Putin’s comments came in a meeting with China’s president Xi Jinping in Uzbekistan on Thursday, the first time the two had met in person since the Kremlin launched its all-out invasion of Ukraine in February.

“We highly value the balanced position of our Chinese friends when it comes to the Ukraine crisis,” Putin told Xi, according to a Kremlin transcript. “We understand your questions and concerns about this. During today’s meeting, we will of course explain our position, though we have also spoken about this before.”

Putin arrived in Uzbekistan as Russian forces in the north-east of Ukraine have been forced into retreat by a Kyiv counter-offensive that has recaptured important territory, boosted Ukrainian morale and raised questions about whether Moscow can sustain its offensive.

“There are setbacks for Russia on the ground in Ukraine and now on the diplomatic front as well,” said Nigel Gould-Davies, senior fellow at the International Institute for Strategic Studies, a London think-tank.

Russia has frequently rebuffed claims that it is becoming globally isolated by pointing to increasingly close economic and political ties with China and other non-western nations.

China and Russia have previously been careful to avoid any public suggestion of differences over the invasion, which Putin launched just weeks after he met Xi in Beijing when the two declared that the partnership between their nations had “no limits”.

But China has been repeatedly criticised by the US and its allies for refusing to condemn the invasion.

In a statement on Thursday’s meeting, the Chinese foreign ministry made no mention of Ukraine or of Beijing’s concerns.

The ministry said Xi had told Putin that China would “work with Russia to fulfil their responsibilities as major countries” and “to extend strong mutual support on issues concerning each other’s core interests”.

Alexander Gabuev, senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, said: “Xi has probably been voicing some concerns with the Russians: ‘Oh, we really want this war to end. It’s disruptive for the global economy and you should do something about it.’ And then Putin was reacting to that.”

Evan Medeiros, a China expert at Georgetown University, said Putin’s comments were very significant given his recent courting of Beijing.

“This statement is an odd and stark shift for Putin, who has spent the last six months trying to pull China closer on Ukraine,” said Medeiros, who served as former US president Barack Obama’s top Asia adviser.

Putin and Xi were in Samarkand for a summit of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation, a Eurasian political and security forum.

Speaking about their last in-person meeting in Beijing in early February, Putin said: “A lot has happened since then.” But he added that the friendship between China and Russia had “remained constant”.

Gould-Davies said the Ukraine war had many unwelcome implications for Beijing and that it was wrong to believe western nations’ response to the invasion would push China and Russia together. “The opposite is the case. This war is creating new difficulties in the Sino-Russia relationship,” he said.

Raffaello Pantucci, a senior fellow at Singapore’s S Rajaratnam School of International Studies, said it was “no secret that the Chinese weren’t ecstatic” about the Ukraine war, with its resulting disruption of energy markets and food price inflation.

“That’s hugely negative to them and the Russians can see that,” said Pantucci. “It’s paying respect to recognise those issues publicly.”

While the US and EU have stepped up pressure on other countries to crack down on Russian efforts to evade sanctions, Beijing has suggested willingness to help Moscow resist them. China’s third top-ranking official Li Zhanshu last week proposed sharing experience on “legislation regarding fighting against external interference, sanctions and long-arm jurisdiction”.

US officials have said there was no evidence that China had been taking actions that would violate US sanctions and trigger possible penalties on Chinese officials or companies.

With additional reporting from Maiqi Ding in Beijing

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