As India joins China in distancing from Russia, Putin warns of escalation in Ukraine

Indian PM Narendra Modi (left) and Russian President Vladimir Putin at the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation summit in Uzbekistan on Sept 16, 2022. PHOTO: REUTERS

SAMARKAND, Uzbekistan - Underlining Russia's widening isolation on the world stage, Prime Minister Narendra Modi of India told President Vladimir Putin on Friday that it is no time for war - even as the Russian president threatened to escalate the brutality of his campaign in Ukraine.

The televised admonishment by Mr Modi at a regional summit in Uzbekistan came a day after Mr Putin acknowledged that Mr Xi Jinping, China's leader, had "questions and concerns" about the war.

Taken together, the distancing from Mr Putin by the heads of the world's two most populous countries - both of which have been pivotal to sustaining Russia's economy in the face of Western sanctions - punctured the Kremlin's message that Russia was far from a global pariah.

"I know that today's era is not of war," Mr Modi told Mr Putin at the beginning of their meeting, describing global challenges like the food and energy crises that were hitting developing countries especially hard. "Today, we will get a chance to discuss how we can move forward on the path of peace."

The implicit criticism of Mr Putin underscored that he now faces perhaps his most challenging moment of recent months, suffering not just these diplomatic setbacks but also retreats on the battlefield and intensifying questions back home over how he has conducted the war.

Your move, Vladimir

But Mr Putin's own next steps remain a mystery, and Western officials believe that he could still drastically escalate the intensity of Russia's assault if he is confronted with further defeats.

In a news conference Friday after the summit of Asian leaders, Mr Putin described recent Russian cruise missile attacks on Ukrainian civilian infrastructure as "warning strikes" that could portend an even more vicious campaign.

At the same time - apparently mindful of the unease among key partners like China and India - Mr Putin insisted that he was ready for talks without naming any preconditions, and that his war aims did not necessarily extend to all of Ukraine.

He made no mention Friday of the broader goals of "demilitarising" and "denazifying" Ukraine that he announced when he started the war in February - terms that were widely seen as Mr Putin declaring his intention to achieve political control over the entire country.

He said that the "main goal" of his invasion was limited to capturing the Donbas - the eastern Ukrainian region where Russia has recognised as independent two Kremlin-backed statelets but where Ukraine still controls several key cities and towns.

But Mr Putin claimed that Ukraine was attempting to carry out "terrorist acts" inside Russia, and that Moscow was poised to retaliate.

"We are, indeed, responding rather restrainedly, but that's for the time being," Mr Putin said. "If the situation continues to develop in this way, the answer will be more serious."

Ukraine defiant

Ukraine has acknowledged attacks on military targets on the peninsula of Crimea, which Russia annexed in 2014 in violation of international law, but the government in Kyiv says it does not attack civilians.

Inside Ukraine, the consequences of Russia's war have already been devastating. A cruise missile salvo Wednesday damaged a dam in the southern Ukrainian city of Kryvyi Rih and raised fears of flooding.

A man surveys a flooded street after cruise missiles damaged a dam and sent water gushing downstream. PHOTO: NYTIMES
Workers repair a hydraulic structure damaged by a Russian missile strike in Kryvyi Rih on Sept 15, 2022. PHOTO: REUTERS

In the north-eastern city of Izyum, which Ukrainian forces liberated in recent days, the authorities said they found a burial site holding a mass grave and 445 fresh individual graves.

An adviser to President Volodymyr Zelensky of Ukraine, Mr Mykhailo Podolyak, said Friday Russian forces brought "rampant terror, violence, torture and mass murders" to the territory they occupied in Ukraine, and he rejected the possibility of negotiating a compromise to end the war.

"We have no right to leave people alone with the Evil," Mr Podolyak said on Twitter. "'Conflict resolution' is extremely simple. Immediate withdrawal of Russian troops from the entire territory of Ukraine."

Ukrainian investigators work at a mass grave site in a pine forest near Izyum on Sept 16, 2022. PHOTO: NYTIMES

Anteing up

Yet, Mr Putin has repeatedly warned that Russia's assault could still intensify - a threat now weighing on US officials, who believe Mr Putin could increase the size of Russia's forces deployed to Ukraine or could mount attacks against the Nato countries providing Ukraine with arms.

The officials also say Russia could mount a new push in Ukraine's east or south, or step up a campaign to target the Ukrainian leadership.

Expanding his capacity to fight the war, however, would require Mr Putin to build up his military. So far, Mr Putin has been unwilling to announce a widespread full military mobilisation, and many US officials believe that is off the table because of the political repercussions domestically.

But former US officials said Mr Putin could take a smaller, less politically destabilising step: calling up more reservists and returning military veterans to service.

"We are not fighting with our full army," Mr Putin said Friday, while asserting that his military's plan for the invasion needed no "adjustment".

"The main goal is the liberation of the entire territory of Donbas," Mr Putin said. "This work continues despite these counter-offensive attempts by the Ukrainian army. The general staff considers some things important, some things secondary, but the main task remains unchanged, and it is being implemented."

Unhappy: China and India

But when he sat down with Mr Modi, the Indian Prime Minister, Mr Putin was markedly more demure.

Along with China, India has emerged as a pivotal financier for Moscow during the war, including by purchasing Russian energy at a discount. Both countries have also provided Mr Putin relief at the United Nations, abstaining from votes critical of Russia's aggression.

So, when Mr Modi told Mr Putin on camera Friday that "today's era is not of war", it was a signal that a country that the Kremlin has billed as friendly was now trying to distance itself.

Mr Putin claimed to the Indian leader that it was Ukraine's fault that the war continued because Kyiv was not suing for peace, but he acknowledged Mr Modi's displeasure.

"I know your position on the conflict in Ukraine, your concerns that you constantly express. We will do our best to stop this as soon as possible," Mr Putin said. "Only, unfortunately, the opposing side, the leadership of Ukraine, announced its abandonment of the negotiation process."

In his news conference, Mr Putin offered another oblique acknowledgment that China's government, too, is unhappy over the war in Ukraine - in part, analysts say, because the resulting turmoil in global food and energy markets has threatened China's economic growth.

"There were also issues related to crises," Mr Putin told reporters, describing his meeting with Mr Xi the previous day. "These issues were also discussed in a well-meaning, but principled manner." NYTIMES

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