President Vladimir Putin said on Thursday he understood China’s Xi Jinping had concerns about the situation in Ukraine, a surprise acknowledgement 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, criticising 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 concern about this. During today’s meeting, we will of course explain our position. ” Xi did not mention Ukraine or Nato in his public remarks, nor was it mentioned in a Chinese readout of their meeting, which took place in Uzbekistan.
Putin, by contrast, railed against the “unipolar”, American-led world order that he sees Beijing and Moscow aligned against. “We jointly stand for the formation of a just, democratic and multipolarworld order based on international law and the central role of the UN, and not on some rules that someone has come up with and is trying to impose on others,” Putin told Xi.
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. Three weeks later, Russia invaded Ukraine. Putin’s comments suggested a Chinese shift towards a more critical stance, in private at least. Ian Bremmer of Columbia University said they were the “first public sign of Putin recognising pressure to back down”. “Russia has become a pariah to the G7. China wants no part of that,” he tweeted. White House spokesman John Kirby said China should reject Russia’s invasion: “The whole world should be lined up against what Mr Putin is doing. ”

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