The significance of Putin and Xi’s meeting on the eve of the Beijing Winter Olympics was not lost on the United States, and Daniel Kritenbrink, the top U.S. diplomat for East Asia, said that Moscow and Beijing have grown more closely aligned. But if Russia chooses to invade Ukraine again, the move could “embarrass Beijing” because “it suggests that China is willing to tolerate or tacitly support Russia’s efforts to coerce Ukraine,” he told reporters Friday.
Meanwhile, Kyiv will again welcome a string of diplomats and world leaders this week, including French President Emmanuel Macron, who will be in the Ukrainian capital on Tuesday, after his visit to Moscow on Monday. The French and German foreign ministers also are expected to be in Ukraine at the start of the week. British Prime Minister Boris Johnson and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan met with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky earlier in February.
Ukraine was not mentioned in a sweeping joint document issued by Moscow and Beijing on Friday that framed their geopolitical ambitions — experts suggest the omission means China will not give potential Russian aggression a blank check — but the statement complained about U.S.-led partnerships in the Asia-Pacific region.
The declaration also did not mention the “Quad” group of democracies — the United States, Japan, India and Australia. But Kritenbrink indicated that leaders of the four countries would address the Ukraine crisis at a summit this spring, “given the seriousness of the issue and the threat it poses to the rules-based global order.”
The war of words between the West and Moscow escalated further Friday. Earlier this week, the Biden administration warned that Russia was considering filming a fake attack against Russian territory or Russian-speaking people by Ukrainian forces as a pretext to invade its neighbor. The resulting propaganda footage could include “graphic scenes of a staged false explosion with corpses,” the Biden administration said.
The allegations — for which Washington has not provided substantial evidence — have drawn fierce denials from Moscow. On Friday, the Russian Embassy in Washington released a transcript of an exchange between Ambassador Anatoly Antonov and Newsweek in which the diplomat said the U.S. accusations could be used as an “alibi” for a possible Western-backed military operation in Ukraine’s contested Donbas region, where Moscow-backed separatists have been locked in a conflict with Ukrainian government forces for eight years.
“This lie is part of the information war against Russia,” Antonov said, without presenting proof. “Washington has been provoking the whole world for several months with statements that Ukraine is about to become a victim of ‘Russian aggression.’ ”
The Kremlin continues to deny that it has plans to attack Ukraine. The Russian Foreign Ministry on Friday attacked Western leaders such as Britain’s Johnson for issuing warnings about Russian aggression, saying that they “provoke acrid laughter and jokes” and are “impossible” to take seriously, the Russian news agency Tass reported.
Ukrainian officials, including Zelensky, also have taken issue with Washington’s saying an attack by Russia is “imminent” because it could cause panic and hurt Ukraine’s economy. They have denied that Russia has assembled the forces necessary to launch an attack. (White House press secretary Jen Psaki said Wednesday that the administration has stopped using that characterization of a possible attack.)
After combat training exercises Friday in a ghost town near the site of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster, Ukrainian Defense Minister Oleksii Reznikov said “the term ‘imminent invasion’ doesn’t work” — a direct jab at the language U.S. officials had been using.
Speaking near Ukraine’s border with Belarus, where thousands of Russian troops have massed ahead of military training exercises that U.S. officials fear could be used as a springboard for an attack from Ukraine’s northern border, Reznikov said he doesn’t believe Russian President Vladimir Putin has made a decision to invade. Latest estimates from military analysts have some 130,000 Russian troops massed around Ukraine as Moscow has continued redeploying forces westward.
“There are no [Russian] strike groups on the Ukraine-Belarus border,” Reznikov said. “I’m not concerned.”
Scholz, who took over from the crisis-tested Angela Merkel, is headed for the United States over the weekend and will meet President Biden on Monday. The two leaders will discuss their “shared commitment to both ongoing diplomacy and joint efforts” on Ukraine, Psaki said. Scholz is to visit Kyiv and Moscow in mid-February.
For the new chancellor, steering his country’s Russia policy has meant trying to helm a three-party coalition, negotiating with pro-Russian voices within his own party and navigating questions over the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline that would deepen Berlin’s reliance on Moscow for energy.
In a sign of close ties between senior members of Scholz’s left-of-center Social Democrats and the Kremlin, former chancellor Gerhard Schröder was nominated to join the board of Gazprom, a Russian state-owned energy giant, the company announced Friday.
“Germany’s Social Democrats have not ever come to terms with their position on Russia,” Mathieu von Rohr, a prominent German foreign affairs commentator, said on a recent Atlantic Council podcast. “The German position has been weak, indecisive from my point of view, and that has been a problem for the entire Western alliance.”
Germany has been reluctant to export arms to Ukraine, much to the consternation of Kyiv, though Scholz has recently indicated that “all options” — including the controversial Nord Stream 2 pipeline — are on the table for sanctions in the case of a renewed Russian invasion.
Cheng reported from Seoul.