As Russian forces suffer a string of stunning defeats in Ukraine, Moscow is playing up Beijing’s support for its invasion ahead of a key meeting between Russian President Vladimir Putin and Chinese leader Xi Jinping this week.
Russian troops were forced to flee the strategic city of Izium — their main bastion in northeastern Ukraine — on Saturday after a swift Ukrainian counteroffensive.
It was Moscow’s worst defeat since its retreat from Kyiv in March — and a sign that the war might be entering a new phase. Over the past week, Ukrainian forces have recaptured more than 3,000 square kilometers of territory — more than Russian forces have captured in all their operations since April.
Back in Russia, senior Russian and Chinese officials have put on a united front 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 Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
And according to the Russian Parliament, a senior Chinese leader has voiced explicit support for Russia’s war on Ukraine — claims that are not included in the statement from the Chinese side, and run contrary to Beijing’s previous efforts to maintain a veneer of neutrality.
On Thursday and Friday, China’s top legislator Li Zhanshu — a close ally of Xi and third-ranking leader of the Chinese Communist Party — met with Vyacheslav Volodin, chairman of Russia’s State Duma, and other Russian lawmakers in Moscow after attending an economic forum 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 that the United States and its NATO allies are expanding their presence near the Russian borders, seriously threatening national security and the lives of Russian citizens. We fully understand the necessity of all the measures taken by Russia aimed at protecting its key interests, we are providing our assistance,” Li was quoted as saying.
“On the Ukrainian issue, we see how they have 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 refer to it as a “war.” Instead, it has repeatedly laid the blame for the conflict on NATO and the United States.
That unequivocal supportive language is missing from the Chinese readout of the meetings. In fact, in the Chinese version, Li is not quoted as making any reference to Ukraine at all.