Russian President Vladimir Putin and Chinese leader Xi Jinping met on the sidelines of the Beijing Winter Olympics Friday, in a show of solidarity amid a spiralling crisis over the Kremlin’s military buildup around Ukraine that could further complicate the diplomatic standoff.
In rambling joint statement, Moscow and Beijing espoused shared views on a range of geopolitical issues, but avoided mentioning the crisis by name, instead referencing opposition to “color revolutions” and “some forces representing a minority on the world stage” who “continue to advocate unilateral approaches to solving international problems.”
Just hours before their meeting, the United States warned China against helping Russia dodge potential sanctions related to the crisis in Ukraine.
Washington and its allies “have an array of tools” that can be deployed against “foreign companies, including those in China” that attempt to evade potential punitive measures against Russia, State Department spokesman Ned Price told reporters Thursday. He declined to offer specifics, but Western officials have floated penalties on Russian financial institutions, curbs on U.S. technology exports and personal sanctions against Kremlin leaders and their associates.
Putin is in China’s capital for the Opening Ceremonies of the Beijing Winter Olympics, which begin on Friday. His visit comes as U.S. officials allege that the Kremlin is considering filming a fake attack against Russian territory or Russian-speaking people by Ukrainian forces as a pretext to again invade its smaller eastern neighbor.
Xi called Putin’s visit, which fell on the fourth day of the Lunar New Year, a “good omen” that would add “vitality” to the bilateral relationship, according to Chinese Communist Party-controlled press.
Moscow has massed more than 100,000 troops near Ukraine’s borders, raising fears of further Russian aggression. The West has sought to deter an incursion into Ukraine by sending military supplies and troops to the region, as well as publicly flagging potential operations that may be attempted by the Kremlin to provide an excuse to send its forces into Ukraine.
China and Russia have grown closer in recent years. Beijing is frustrated by Western criticism of its human rights abuses against ethnic minorities and aggression toward Taiwan, while Moscow has been irked by the expansion of NATO into what Putin sees as Russia’s traditional sphere of influence. Diplomatic efforts to resolve the Ukraine crisis have been deadlocked over Russia’s ultimatum that NATO permanently bar Kyiv from entering the alliance; the West has refused to budge from its open door policy.
But Chinese support for Russia’s actions regarding Ukraine is not absolute, said Ryan Hass, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution who served in President Barack Obama’s National Security Council.
A crisis in Ukraine that triggers Western sanctions on Russia makes Moscow more dependent on China, giving Beijing more leverage, Hass wrote on Twitter, adding that it could also temporarily reduce U.S. pressure on China. But China also has good ties with Ukraine and fears a Russian attack on Kyiv would prompt the United States to beef up defenses in Asia, he said.
The last time China hosted the Olympics in 2008, Russia invaded Georgia, as Putin was in Beijing to watch the Opening Ceremonies. A similar move can’t be ruled out, analysts say, though the deepening of the China-Russia relationship since will make Putin warier about raining on the parade of his Chinese hosts.
The potential fabricated attack video that U.S. officials said Moscow was considering could include “graphic scenes of a staged false explosion with corpses.” Russian intelligence is intimately involved in the efforts, according to a senior Biden administration official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity under rules set by the administration. Defense Department press secretary John Kirby said the disinformation would be “right out of their playbook.” The Biden administration felt it was important “to call it out,” he said at a briefing Thursday.
Russian officials denied the alleged false flag operation. “We are not surprised by the new ‘creative’ scenario,” the Russian embassy in Washington said in a statement that also referenced the flawed intelligence presented by the George W. Bush administration in the run-up to the U.S. intervention in Iraq.
The Biden administration’s claims were met with pushback due to the lack of specificity and evidence. But Pentagon spokesman John Kirby told reporters the alleged Russian disinformation effort was “right out of their playbook.”
Price, the State Department spokesman, said that the Biden administration had called out the purported video plan publicly to prevent Russia from using it as a pretext to attack Ukraine.
In recent weeks, top Kremlin officials have claimed that Ukraine, emboldened by the West’s diplomatic support and arms shipments, could attempt to militarily seize back Crimea. Russia annexed Crimea in 2014 and supported separatists in Ukraine’s east.
Ukrainian leaders have said they seek to regain full control of Crimea and its contested eastern territories. Oleksiy Danilov, secretary of the National Security and Defense Council, said on Ukrainian television this week that Kyiv would “do everything” to achieve that goal, but he added that it was impossible to say how such a plan would be executed.
The U.S. allegations were backed by British Foreign Secretary Liz Truss, who wrote on Twitter that Washington has offered “shocking evidence of Russia’s unprovoked aggression.”
Diplomatic efforts to de-escalate the Ukraine crisis continued Thursday. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, in Kyiv to meet Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, repeated his offer to host peace talks. French President Emmanuel Macron, who spoke to Zelensky and Putin on Thursday, will visit Russia on Feb. 7 and Ukraine the next day, according to an Élysée Palace official.
U.S. officials meanwhile announced visa restrictions on Belarusian officials that they accused of “serious, extraterritorial counter-dissident activity.” They highlighted efforts to crackdown against Belarusian athletes who spoke out against President Alexander Lukashenko, a Putin ally who has been hosting Russian troops for a military exercise. Western officials fear that those same Russian troops could be part of an attack into neighboring Ukraine.
Jeong reported from Seoul. Rauhala reported from Brussels. Mary Ilyushina in Moscow, David L. Stern in Kyiv, Ukraine, Eva Dou in Washington, Amy Cheng in Seoul, and Rick Noack in Paris contributed to this report.