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Thursday, June 20, 2024 | Back issues
Courthouse News Service Courthouse News Service

Russia pounds Kharkiv front, Putin and Xi deepen ties in fight against Western-led order

As the war in Ukraine rages on, Russian President Vladimir Putin went to Beijing to strengthen his relationship with Chinese President Xi Jinping in their struggle with the West.

(CN) — With his troops opening new fronts and advancing on the front lines in Ukraine, Russian President Vladimir Putin deepened ties with Chinese President Xi Jinping on Friday as the two leaders hardened their alliance against the Western-led world order.

Putin, accompanied by top figures in his government, arrived in Beijing on Thursday for two days of talks that included signing an agreement to develop “strategic cooperation,” promote a “multipolar world” and oppose “unilateral hegemony,” a term they use to refer to U.S. global dominance.

It was Putin's first foreign trip since he was sworn in for a new six-year term earlier this month and underscored how Moscow and Beijing have grown closer since the war in Ukraine broke out in February 2022 and drew the world into what many experts view as a new Cold War.

Putin was received with full military honors at the Great Hall of the People next to Tiananmen Square on Thursday and he spent most of Friday with Xi.

From Moscow's perspective, Putin's welcome in Beijing highlighted the Russian leader's success over the course of a war that has raged for 814 days.

Far from being shunned, Xi and leaders of other major developing nations have refused to condemn Putin. It even can be said his position has been strengthened globally with other major developing countries joining BRICS, an organization seeking to counter the U.S.-led economic and political system. Russia is a leading BRICS member.

Meanwhile, Russia's economy has weathered the barrage of Western sanctions and it's even rebounding strongly. Since the invasion, Russia has increasingly depended on China for technology and some consumer imports while exporting cheap energy to China. Trade between the two countries increased to $240 billion last year.

Russian President Vladimir Putin, right, and Chinese Vice President Han Zheng, left, visit the Russian-Chinese EXPO in Harbin, northeastern China's Heilongjiang Province, on Friday, May 17, 2024. (Sergei Bobylev, Sputnik, Kremlin Pool Photo via AP)

Putin's support outside the West was confirmed Friday as China and South Africa announced they would not participate in a peace summit in Switzerland next month. The summit will be built around a peace plan proposed by Ukraine that effectively calls for Russia's capitulation in the war. It demands Russia withdraw its troops from all the Ukrainian territory it has occupied, including Crimea, and pay reparations.

For Moscow, the proposal is ridiculous — especially now that it has the clear advantage on the battlefield.

Evidence shows that Russian troops, artillery, drones and aircraft are disproportionately pounding Ukrainian defenses and forcing Ukrainian troops to retreat in numerous spots along the front line.

Since capturing the strategic town of Avdiivka in February, Russia has not made any new major breakthroughs. However, it appears Moscow's strategy has long been not so much about seizing territory but rather about wearing down its adversary.

In the third year of war, Ukraine is struggling with a lack of soldiers, ammunition, equipment and air defenses. For months, Western and Ukrainian leaders and military analysts have depicted the situation as dire for Kyiv's forces, though Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy and his Western backers insist the tide can turn as U.S. military aid arrives in greater amounts after Congress recently approved a $61 billion arms package.

The situation may become even worse for Ukraine in the coming weeks as it becomes more apparent that Russia, with its far superior firepower and troop levels, has begun to go on the offensive.

Over the past week, Russian troops opened a new front by attacking Ukrainian defenses near Kharkiv, the country's second-largest city.

In a matter of days, Russian troops seized several villages and are threatening to advance on Kharkiv, though on Friday Putin said his goal was not to occupy the city.

An attack on Kharkiv could leave the city in ruins and cause massive casualties on both sides. In March, Putin talked about the need to create a “buffer zone” in Kharkiv to stop Ukraine from launching attacks on territories inside Russia close to the border.

On Thursday, Zelenskyy appeared near the battlefield in Kharkiv to shore up morale, meet with generals and encourage his troops to hold the line. The Kharkiv advance has been an embarrassment for Ukraine with accusations that commanders in that sector failed to lay defenses.

With about 50,000 Russian troops believed to be involved on Kharkiv front, Ukraine has brought in units, including elite forces, from other sectors along the front lines, raising the risk this maneuver may leave gaps.

Russia is applying greater pressure elsewhere too with increased attacks in Sumy, a region northwest of Kharkiv, and in Kherson, a southern region on the Black Sea.

The most intense fighting continues to take place in the eastern regions of Donetsk and Luhansk, an area known as the Donbass. Fighting has raged in these two regions with large Russian-speaking populations ever since war first broke out in 2014 following the overthrow of Viktor Yanukovych, a pro-Russian president who sought to steer Ukraine away from an economic deal with the European Union.

The meeting between Xi and Putin was watched closely not just for its symbolism but also because the grandiose event may portend the opening phase in new actions by both superpowers against their Western rivals.

Shortly before launching the Ukraine invasion, Putin was hosted by Xi on the eve of the Beijing Winter Olympics and the leaders issued a similar statement, declaring a “no-limits partnership.”

This meeting took place with the conflict between the West and Russia and China intensifying and expanding, potentially even into direct armed conflict.

On Tuesday, U.S. President Joe Biden ratcheted up tensions even further by slapping massive tariffs on Chinese electric vehicles, advanced batteries, solar cells, steel, aluminum and medical equipment.

“Today’s world is still plagued by Cold War mentality,” Putin and Xi said in a joint statement. “Aspirations to securing a unilateral hegemony, bloc-based confrontation and power politics pose a direct threat to peace and security for all countries around the world.”

In a clear attack on Washington, the statement also said that “no country should seek its own security at the expense of others' security." Both China and Russia accuse the United States of undermining their security by seeking to bring Ukraine and Taiwan under American power.

On Friday, Putin praised the growth in bilateral trade while touring a China-Russia Expo in the northeastern city of Harbin. He met students at the Harbin Institute of Technology, known for its defense research and its work with the People’s Liberation Army.

Harbin, capital of China’s Heilongjiang province, was once home to many Russian expatriates. It retains some of that history in its architecture, such as the central St. Sophia Cathedral, a former Russian Orthodox church.

Underscoring the personal nature of the relationship, Putin said the Harbin institute and his alma mater, St. Petersburg State University, will open a joint school for 1,500 students.

“I’m sure that it will become a flagship of the Russian-Chinese cooperation in science and education,” he said, as reported by the Associated Press.

Speaking to reporters, Putin praised his talks with Xi as “substantive,” saying that he'd spent “almost a whole day, from morning till evening” with the Chinese leader and other officials in Beijing the previous day. As he departed Beijing, the two leaders embraced.

Courthouse News reporter Cain Burdeau is based in the European Union.

Follow @cainburdeau
Categories / International, Politics

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