SAMARKAND, Uzbekistan - President Vladimir Putin acknowledged Thursday that China had "questions and concerns" about Russia's war in Ukraine, a notable, if cryptic, admission that Moscow lacks the full backing of its biggest, most powerful partner on the world stage.
Mr Putin met China's leader, Mr Xi Jinping, in their first in-person meeting since Russia invaded Ukraine, and as Mr Xi travelled abroad for the first time since the start of the pandemic.
But rather than put on a show of Eurasian unity against the West as Russia struggled to recover from last week's humiliating military retreat in north-eastern Ukraine, the two leaders struck discordant notes in their public remarks - and Mr Xi made no mention of Ukraine at all.
"We highly appreciate the balanced position of our Chinese friends in connection with the Ukrainian crisis," Mr Putin said in televised remarks at the start of the meeting. "We understand your questions and concerns in this regard."
It was a moment, on the sidelines of a regional summit in Uzbekistan, that showed the daunting political straits Mr Putin finds himself in nearly seven months into his invasion of Ukraine.
On the battlefield, Russia has lost more than 2,500 sq km of territory this month, rendering the prospect of a decisive victory over a Western-armed Ukraine as remote as ever.
At home, Mr Putin is facing unusual criticism from some supporters over his slow military progress.
And internationally, as the West continues to ratchet up sanctions against the Kremlin, the Russian president on Thursday saw Mr Xi - who has pledged a friendship with "no limits" just three weeks before Russia invaded - conspicuously withhold any public support for Mr Putin's war.
Instead, in a statement issued after the leaders' meeting, China said it was "willing to work with Russia to demonstrate the responsibility of a major country, play a leading role and inject stability into a turbulent world".
US officials say that Russia and China see each other as useful in challenging the West, but also that Mr Putin and Mr Xi will only go so far to support the other. Russia is seeking material aid from China for its war efforts, State Department spokesman Ned Price said on Thursday at a news conference.
But US officials said this week that they have not seen China give any such aid yet.
“What’s striking is Putin’s admission that President Xi has concerns about Russia’s war against Ukraine,” Mr Price said.
To scholars who study the between-the-lines messaging of the Chinese government's public remarks, it sounded like an implicit rebuke.
Professor Sergey Radchenko, at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, said the statement appeared to telegraph "a reproach to the Russians, that they're not acting like a great power, that they are creating instability".
Professor Shi Yinhong, at Renmin University in Beijing, said it was "the most prudent or most low-key statement in years on Xi's part on the strategic relationship between the two countries". NYTIMES