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.

Putin met China’s leader, Xi Jinping, on Thursday in their first in-person meeting since Russia invaded Ukraine, and as Xi traveled 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 northeastern Ukraine, the two leaders struck discordant notes in their public remarks — and Xi made no mention of Ukraine at all.

“We highly appreciate the balanced position of our Chinese friends in connection with the Ukrainian crisis,” 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 Putin finds himself in nearly seven months into his invasion of Ukraine. On the battlefield, Russia has lost more than 1,000 square miles of territory this month, rendering the prospect of a decisive victory over a Western-armed Ukraine as remote as ever. At home, 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 Xi — who had pledged a friendship with “no limits” just three weeks before Russia invaded — conspicuously withhold any public support for 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.” To scholars who study the between-the-lines messaging of the Chinese government’s public remarks, it sounded like an implicit rebuke.

Advertising

More about Russia’s war on Ukraine

Sergey Radchenko, a professor 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.” Shi Yinhong, a longtime professor of international relations 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.”

Accentuating the dissonance, even as Xi said nothing on camera about Ukraine, Putin at Thursday’s meeting backed Beijing in its confrontation over Taiwan, where tensions rose last month amid a visit by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi to lend support for Taiwan’s resistance to pressure from Beijing, which claims the self-ruled island democracy.

Still, China continues to represent a critical lifeline for Russia as Moscow looks for new export and import markets amid the crush of Western sanctions over the war. China has increased its purchases of Russian energy, while selling Russia more cars and some other goods. That support is “very important for Russia,” said Alexander Gabuev, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, adding that he believed the Kremlin was “cleareyed” about the limits of China’s backing.

After their one-on-one talks Thursday, Xi and Putin also held a joint meeting with President Ukhnaagiin Khurelsukh of Mongolia, whose country is in talks about hosting a new natural gas pipeline that would allow Russia to sell more of its Siberian gas to China, rather than to Europe.

A Russian deputy prime minister, Alexander Novak, said Russia was close to reaching a deal to sell 50 billion cubic meters of gas per year to China through the planned pipeline — about the same volume as the capacity of the idle Nord Stream 2 pipeline linking Russia with Germany. Such a pipeline would, however, require years to complete.

Advertising

“We see completely eye to eye on the international situation,” Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said of the talks between Putin and Xi, describing the meeting as “wonderful.” He pledged that Russian and Chinese officials would coordinate closely at the U.N. General Assembly in New York next week.

Although Chinese state media have echoed Russian propaganda in recent months, there is much that China has not done to support Russia in the war and its conflict with the West — confrontations that Putin describes as existential for his country. China appears to have refrained so far this year from shipping weapons to Russia, forcing Moscow to ask Iran and North Korea for military equipment, according to U.S. officials. And it has done little to help Russia circumvent Western sanctions that prevent it from importing advanced Western technology.

“Access to Western technology, Western markets, Western money is of paramount importance” for China, Gabuev said, explaining why Xi was not prepared to support Russia in ways that could lead to Western sanctions against Beijing.

U.S. officials say that Russia and China see each other as useful in challenging the West, but also that Putin and Xi will only go so far to support the other. Russia is seeking material aid from China for its war efforts, State Department spokesperson Ned Price said Thursday at a news conference. But U.S. 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,” Price said. “It’s not surprising the PRC has such concerns. It is somewhat curious that President Putin would be the one to admit it.”

Radchenko, the professor, said Putin “has severely undercut his leverage with China” by cutting himself off from the West. The Chinese government, he said, appeared to see the war as a harmful development, in part because the resulting turmoil in global food and energy markets “created a kind of environment that is not conducive to China’s economic growth.”

“Putin is extremely reckless,” Radchenko said. “And he’s willing to take risks that China would not approve of.”