Russia stresses China’s support as its forces withdraw in Ukraine

It was Moscow’s worst defeat since pulling out of Kyiv in March – and a sign the war may be entering a new phase. Over the past week, Ukrainian forces have reclaimed more than 3,000 square kilometers of territory – more than Russian forces have captured in all of their operations since April.

Back in Russia, senior Russian and Chinese officials stood together to pave the way for an expected meeting between Putin and Xi on the sidelines of a regional summit in Uzbekistan – their first face-to-face meeting since the invasion of Israel. Ukraine by Russia. .

And according to the Russian parliament, a senior Chinese leader has expressed explicit support for Russia’s war on Ukraine – claims that are not included in the Chinese side’s statement and run counter to previous efforts by Beijing to maintain a veneer of neutrality.

On Thursday and Friday, China‘s top lawmaker Li Zhanshu – a close ally of Xi and the third leader of the Communist Party of China – met Vyacheslav Volodin, chairman of Russia’s State Duma, and other Russian lawmakers in Moscow after attending at an economic forum meeting in the eastern city of Vladivostok.

According to a statement from the State Duma, Li assured its members that “China understands and supports Russia on issues that represent its vital interests, in particular on the situation in Ukraine”.

“We see the United States and its NATO allies expanding their presence near Russia’s borders, seriously threatening national security and the lives of Russian citizens. We fully understand the need for all measures taken by Russia aimed at protect its core interests, we are helping,” Li said.

“On the Ukrainian issue, we see how they put Russia in an impossible situation. And in this case, Russia made an important choice and responded firmly,” he added.

Beijing has firmly refused to condemn Russia’s invasion of Ukraine – or even to call it a “war”. Instead, he repeatedly blamed NATO and the United States for the conflict.

But previously, Chinese officials had not publicly endorsed the “necessity” of the Russian invasion, or admitted that Beijing was “providing assistance”.

This unequivocal supportive language is absent from the Chinese reading of meetings. In fact, in the Chinese version, Li is not quoted as referring to Ukraine at all.

According to the official Xinhua News Agency, Li expressed China’s willingness to “continue to work with Russia to firmly support each other on issues concerning each other’s core interests and major concerns.”

Li also criticized the sanctions against Russia, calling for greater cooperation with Moscow in the “fight against outside interference, sanctions and long-arm jurisdiction”, according to Xinhua.

While it is not uncommon for China to omit the content of high-level meetings from its official records, the stark discrepancy between Beijing’s and Moscow’s statements has caught the attention of experts.

“The Russian version went much further than any Chinese version. If they didn’t clarify this with Beijing, it could really irritate some people in Beijing,” wrote Brian Hartmember of the China Power Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

Bad news for China?

Moscow and Beijing have become closer partners in recent years as both face tensions with the West, with Xi and Putin saying the two countries had a ‘limitless’ partnership weeks before the invasion. Ukraine by Russia.

But Russia’s recent setbacks in Ukraine could create a serious dilemma for China, just weeks before Xi is widely expected to secure a third term in power at a key Communist Party meeting.

“Beijing cannot sit quietly and see Russia defeated in Ukraine because that will (at a minimum) lead to a badly weakened Russia that is a less useful ally and less able to distract Washington, and (at a maximum) could create instability in Moscow,” Hal Brands, professor of global affairs at Johns Hopkins University, wrote on Twitter.

At the extreme, Brands added, political instability in Moscow could create instability within the “strategic partnership” in which Xi has invested so much.

“You can bet that as Russia’s position deteriorates, Putin will seek increased Chinese support. If Beijing does not find a way to provide such support, we could see greater tensions in the Sino-Russian partnership. sooner than many analysts had imagined,” he wrote.

One may wonder to what extent China is willing to support Russia at the expense of its own strategic interests and goals. So far, Beijing has not provided direct military or financial aid to Moscow that could trigger sanctions from Washington.

Some experts view the growing relationship between China and Russia as a mostly pragmatic one, based on cost-benefit calculations that can easily change.

“The Sino-Russian relationship is not based on ‘shared values’ or a sense of respect/affection… It is primarily based on interests. And interests can change rapidly as dynamics change “, he added. wrote Hartthe CSIS expert.

“That does not mean that the Sino-Russian relationship is weak. Only that it is not necessarily sustainable,” he added.

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