Russian president Vladimir Putin has acknowledged Chinese “concerns” about the war in Ukraine at his first in-person meeting with President Xi Jinping since the invasion.
Putin’s comments in a meeting with Xi in Uzbekistan on Thursday were the first public admission of differences between Beijing and Moscow over the war in Ukraine.
“We highly value the balanced position of our Chinese friends when it comes to the Ukraine crisis,” Putin told Xi, according to a video shared by the Russian state Zvezda news channel. “We understand your questions and concerns about this. During today’s meeting, we will of course explain our position.”
Beijing has struggled to present itself as neutral on the Ukraine war. Last week, China’s third top-ranking official, Li Zhanshu, was quoted by the Russian Duma as saying Beijing “fully understand[s] the necessity of all the measures taken by Russia . . . we are providing our assistance.”
Putin and Xi were in Samarkand, Uzbekistan for a summit of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation, a regional security body. At their last in-person meeting in Beijing, 20 days before the launch of Moscow’s offensive in Ukraine, the pair announced a “no limits” partnership in response to what they said was the US-led expansion of Nato.
Putin arrived in Uzbekistan just as a counter-offensive by Ukrainian forces recaptured important territory in the north-east of the country, and changed the battlefield dynamics in the Donbas region, a key area for Putin’s forces.
The US and EU have stepped up pressure on other countries to crack down on Russian sanctions evasion. Beijing has declared its willingness to help Russia resist sanctions. Li last week proposed sharing experience with Russia on “legislation regarding fighting against external interference, sanctions and long-arm jurisdiction”.
Putin also told Xi on Thursday that Russia condemned US “provocations” over Taiwan. “We firmly adhere to the One China principle in practice. We condemn the provocations of the United States and its satellites in the Taiwan Strait,” Putin said.
On Wednesday, the US Senate foreign relations committee passed a bill that would directly fund the provision of weapons to Taiwan for the first time, and also trigger sanctions against major Chinese state-owned banks in the event of a “significant escalation in aggression”.
The summit is Xi’s first trip abroad since the start of the pandemic and marks a renewed attempt to gather allies in the face of tightening US sanctions against China.
Xi met with the leaders of Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan on Wednesday. The summit is also being attended by the leaders of India and Turkey.
Indian prime minister Narendra Modi is also widely expected to meet Putin and Xi at the summit. He is due to arrive in Samarkand on Thursday evening, Indian officials said.
With additional reporting from Maiqi Ding in Beijing