‘Dear friends’ Xi and Putin meet in Moscow as Ukraine war rages

Chinese President Xi Jinping (left) is the first leader to meet Russian President Vladimir Putin since the ICC issued an arrest warrant for him. PHOTO: AFP
China's President Xi Jinping disembarking at Moscow's Vnukovo airport on March 20, 2023. PHOTO: AFP
A motorcade transporting members of the Chinese delegation, including President Xi Jinping, in Moscow, Russia, on March 20, 2023. PHOTO: REUTERS

BEIJING - Chinese President Xi Jinping met his “dear friend” Vladimir Putin in Moscow on Monday, seeking both to deepen economic ties with an ally he sees as a useful counterweight to the West and to promote Beijing’s role as a potential peacemaker in Ukraine.

Mr Xi was the first leader to meet the Russian President since the International Criminal Court (ICC) issued an arrest warrant for him on Friday over the deportation of Ukrainian children to Russia since its invasion.

Moscow said the charge was among a number of “clearly hostile displays” and opened a criminal case against the ICC prosecutor and judges. Beijing said the warrant reflects double standards.

Russia is presenting Mr Xi’s trip, his first since securing an unprecedented third term this month, as evidence that it has a powerful friend prepared to stand with it against a hostile West.

The two men greeted one another as “dear friend” when they met in the Kremlin on Monday afternoon before a dinner. They will hold formal talks on Tuesday.

Mr Putin told Mr Xi he viewed China’s proposals for a resolution of the Ukraine conflict with respect and was also “slightly envious” of China’s rapid development in recent decades.

“China has created a very effective system for developing the economy and strengthening the state. It is much more effective than in many other countries,” he said.

For Mr Xi, the visit is a diplomatic tightrope.

China has released a 12-point proposal to solve the Ukraine crisis, while strengthening ties with Moscow.

“We are partners in comprehensive strategic cooperation. It is this status that determines that there should be close ties between our countries,” Mr Xi said on Monday, according to translated remarks carried by Russian state television.

Beijing has repeatedly dismissed Western accusations that it is planning to arm Russia but says it wants a closer energy partnership after boosting imports of Russian coal, gas and oil.

Western sanctions made Russian energy cheaper, saving China billions of dollars, but its top trade partners remain the United States and European Union.

Mr Xi also said he was convinced the Russian people would support Mr Putin in a presidential election due in 2024.

“Thanks to your strong leadership, Russia has made significant progress in achieving the prosperity of the country in recent years. I am sure that the Russian people will strongly support you in your good endeavours,” he told Mr Putin.

China’s President Xi Jinping, accompanied by Russian DPM Dmitry Chernyshenko, inspecting the honour guards during a welcoming ceremony at Moscow’s Vnukovo airport on March 20, 2023. PHOTO: AFP

Ukraine said China should press Russia to stop its invasion.

“We expect Beijing to use its influence on Moscow to make it put an end to the aggressive war against Ukraine,” Ukrainian Foreign Ministry spokesman Oleg Nikolenko said.

Ukraine and its Western allies say any truce would just buy Mr Putin time to reinforce ahead of a planned Ukrainian counter-offensive and that for Russia and China to uphold international law as they say they do, they must agree to Russia’s withdrawal.

White House national security spokesman John Kirby reiterated that call, adding that US President Joe Biden wanted to speak with Mr Xi to keep communication channels open.

Mr Putin signed a “no limits” partnership with Mr Xi last year, shortly before he sent tens of thousands of troops into Ukraine to end what he said was a threat to Russia from its moves towards the West.

The year-long war has killed tens of thousands of people, destroyed cities and forced millions to flee.

The Kremlin said Mr Putin would provide Mr Xi with detailed “clarifications” of Russia’s position, without elaborating.

Washington has noted that China has declined to condemn Russia and given it an economic lifeline.

Mr Putin said Russia was helping to build nuclear power reactors there and the two countries were deepening cooperation in space exploration and new technologies.

As Western pressure on Russia grows, Mr Putin’s administration has told officials to stop using Apple iPhones because of concerns the devices are vulnerable to Western intelligence agencies, a newspaper reported on Monday.

“Either throw it away or give it to the children,” the Kommersant daily quoted a participant of the meeting as saying.

Justice ministers from around the world will meet in London on Monday to discuss support for the ICC and several European Union countries are expected to sign an agreement in Brussels to buy 155mm artillery shells for Ukraine.

Ukraine has identified the shells’ supply as critical, with both sides firing thousands of rounds every day.

The first joint orders are not expected until the end of May, but EU officials hope the plan will encourage member states to send more of their stockpiles to Ukraine.

In Ukraine, fierce fighting continued in the eastern town of Bakhmut, with each side launching counter-offensives.

Ukrainian forces have held out in Bakhmut since last summer in the longest and bloodiest battle of the war.

Giving its regular morning round-up from the front, Ukraine’s military said defenders in Bakhmut, Lyman, Ivanivske, Bohdanivka and Hryhorivka – all towns in the Donetsk region – had repelled 69 Russian attacks in the past day.

“Bakhmut remains the epicentre of hostilities,” it said.

Ukrainian servicemen firing an M777 howitzer at Russian positions near Bakhmut, eastern Ukraine, on March 17, 2023. PHOTO: AFP

British intelligence said Ukrainian supply lines both west of Bakhmut and west of the town of Avdiivka, further south, were under pressure.

Ukraine’s military said that Russian forces were on the defensive in the Kherson and Zaporizhzhia regions to the south.

Russia’s Wagner mercenary group, which is spearheading the assault on Bakhmut and has suffered heavy losses, plans to recruit some 30,000 new fighters by the middle of May, its founder Yevgeny Prigozhin said at the weekend.

In January, the US assessed that Wagner had about 50,000 fighters in Ukraine, including 40,000 convicts Mr Prigozhin had recruited from Russian prisons with a promise of a pardon if they survived six months.

Ukrainian officials have said that some 30,000 of Wagner’s fighters have deserted or been killed or wounded, a figure that could not be independently verified. REUTERS

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