Thu. Oct 6th, 2022
Ukrainian flag in blue and yellow, wrapped over sky and grain

Things to understand today.

China and the US meet today, and Biden and Xi are expected to discuss the situation in Ukraine.

Reuters reports that Biden is expected to tell Xi Jinping on Friday that Beijing will pay a price if it supports Russia’s military operations in Ukraine, a warning that comes at a time of deepening conflict between the nations. Biden and Xi will speak by phone, scheduled for 9 a.m. Eastern time (1300 GMT), and Washington has already threatened lower-level Chinese government officials privately and publicly that greater support for Russia risks isolation for Beijing.

The conversation between Biden and Xi, their first since November, will be loaded with tension. Biden “will make clear that China will bear responsibility for any actions it takes to support Russia’s aggression, and we will not hesitate to impose costs,” U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said on Thursday. “We’re concerned that they’re considering directly assisting Russia with military equipment to use in Ukraine.” Washington is also concerned that China could help Russia circumvent economic sanctions imposed by Western nations. China has denied such plans.

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has added a new front in the contentious U.S.-Chinese relationship, deflating Biden’s initial hopes of easing a wide range of disputes by using a personal connection with Xi that predates his term in office. Biden greeted Xi warmly during the first moments of a video conference in November. Xi called Biden an “old friend.” However, U.S. officials increasingly view relations with Beijing through the prism of inherent competition, even though they want to avoid a ‘cold war’ or a direct confrontation between the rival powers.

Washington sees China growing even closer to Russia after Xi and Russian President Vladimir Putin last month announced a “no-limits” strategic partnership last month. China has refused to condemn Russia’s action in Ukraine or call it an invasion, and it has censored online content in China that is pro-West or unfavourable to Russia.

Beijing, while saying it recognizes Ukraine sovereignty, has also said Russia has legitimate security concerns that should be addressed, and has urged a diplomatic solution to the conflict.

While Biden’s administration has threatened unspecified counter-measures if China helps Russia’s effort in Ukraine, officials have grown more resigned to that likelihood. The United States and its allies have not yet decided on precisely what steps to take against China, according to one person involved in those conversations.

Targeting Beijing with the sort of extensive economic sanctions imposed on Russia would have potentially dire consequences for the United States and the world, given that China is the second largest economy and largest exporter.

A seven-hour meeting in Rome on Monday between lower-level aides to Biden and Xi were described as “tough” and “intense” by officials.

Biden’s administration has not yet offered evidence of the claim that China has signalled a willingness to help Russia. Moscow has denied asking China for military assistance, and China’s foreign ministry called the idea “disinformation.”

Russian Finance Minister Anton Siluanov said this week the country was counting on China to help it withstand the blow to its economy from punishing Western sanctions aimed at isolating Russia’s economy from the rest of the world.

China’s muted response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has hardened views within the Biden administration that President Xi Jinping may be moving closer to supporting Moscow as the conflict continues, according to several people familiar with the matter.

Even as the Chinese government publicly voices some support for the Ukrainian people and calls for a peaceful solution, top American officials see signs that China is seeking ways to soften the blow of sanctions imposed on Russia by the U.S. and its allies, according to the people, who say they have knowledge of deliberations in Beijing.

The people, who asked not to be identified because of the sensitivity of the matter, did not offer details on how China might be able to offset the economic consequences of the sanctions. They also declined to elaborate on U.S. sources of information about China’s government and its interactions with the Kremlin. Some of the people said China is also considering supplying Russia with weapons such as armed drones.

Beijing denies that it has tacitly backed the invasion and Chinese officials have rejected U.S. reports that Russia asked China for financial and military assistance shortly after touching off the war, labelling them disinformation.

The European war is not the only challenging topic on the agenda for Biden and Xi. There’s Taiwan as well.

The two leaders are also expected to compare notes on the Iran nuclear talks, North Korea’s missile launches and Taiwan. China and the United States are also engaged in separate trade talks. With regard to Taiwan, China appears to have taken deliberately provocative action before today’s talks. It sailed an aircraft carrier through the sensitive Taiwan Strait on Friday, shadowed by a U.S. destroyer, a source with direct knowledge of the matter said, just hours before the Chinese and U.S. presidents were due to talk.

China claims democratically ruled Taiwan as its own territory, and has over the past two years stepped up its military activity near the island to assert its sovereignty claims, alarming Taipei and Washington. The source, who was not authorised to speak to the media and spoke on condition of anonymity, told Reuters the carrier Shandong sailed close to the Taiwan-controlled island of Kinmen, which sits directly opposite the Chinese city of Xiamen.

The source described the timing of the Shandong’s movement so close to that call as “provocative”, and that it was unusual it sailed during daylight hours, with previous missions happening at night.

Taiwan is already in a heightened state of alert due to the Ukraine war, wary of China taking advantage of the situation to make a move of its own, though there have been no signs Beijing is about to mount any kind of military strike.

Lo Chih-cheng, a senior lawmaker from Taiwan’s ruling Democratic Progressive Party who sits on parliament’s defence and foreign affairs committee, called the Shandong’s transit a “very provocative message” when countries in the region are already alarmed by the war in Ukraine and hours before the Biden-Xi call.

“Tensions across the Taiwan Strait won’t rise sharply because of this, but it will likely cause neighbouring countries to raise their military alert level,” he told Reuters.

China says Taiwan is the most sensitive and important issue in its relations with the United States. Washington has no formal diplomatic ties with Taipei, but is Taiwan’s most important international backer and arms supplier. Taiwan rejects China’s sovereignty claims and has repeatedly vows to defend its freedom and democracy.

Russia and the UN

The U.N. Security Council will no longer vote on Friday on a Russian-drafted call for aid access and civilian protection in Ukraine as Russia’s U.N. envoy accused Western countries of a campaign of “unprecedented pressure” against the measure. Russia could find no co-sponsors for its resolution, with both India and China, which have so far been supportive, abstaining.

Diplomats said the Russian move would have failed with most of the 15-member council likely to abstain from a vote on the draft resolution because it did not address accountability or acknowledge Russia’s invasion of its neighbour nor did it push for an end to the fighting or a withdrawal of Russian troops.

“Many colleagues from many delegations tell us about unprecedented pressure by Western partners, that their arms are being twisted, including blackmail and threats,” Russia’s U.N. Ambassador Vassily Nebenzia said on Thursday.

Speaking at a council meeting on Ukraine’s humanitarian situation, requested by Western council members, Nebenzia said: “We do understand how difficult it is for those countries to withstand this kind of onslaught.”

U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Linda Thomas-Greenfield told Reuters after the meeting: “The only people who do arm-twisting around here are the Russians and they have to if they want to get anybody to support them.”

Nebenzia said that Russia had instead requested the council meet on Friday – when the vote had been scheduled – to discuss “U.S. bio-laboratories in Ukraine using the new documents we obtained in the course of the special military operation.”

At a U.N. Security Council meeting on the same issue last week, also requested by Russia, Thomas Greenfield said the there are no Ukrainian biological weapons laboratories supported by the United States. The United Nations also said it had no evidence Ukraine had a biological weapons program.

The U.N. human rights agency has recorded 726 deaths, including 52 children, and 1,174 people injured, including 63 children, between Feb. 24 and March 15, U.N. political affairs chief Rosemary DiCarlo told the Security Council on Thursday. The “actual number is likely much higher,” she said, without specifying who was to blame.

“Most of these casualties were caused by the use in populated areas of explosive weapons with a wide impact area. Hundreds of residential buildings have been damaged or destroyed, as have hospitals and schools,” DiCarlo said.

“The magnitude of civilian casualties and the destruction of civilian infrastructure in Ukraine cannot be denied. This demands a thorough investigation and accountability,” she said.

Meanwhile, the World Health Organization has verified 43 attacks on healthcare in Ukraine that have killed 12 people and injured dozens more, including health workers, WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus told the Security Council.

“In any conflict, attacks on healthcare are a violation of international humanitarian law,” Tedros told the council, without specifying who was to blame.

Pentagon Assessment: Reuters report.

The true nature of China’s relationship with Russia in light of the war in Ukraine was tackled in an assessment of global threats released Thursday by the Pentagon’s Defense Intelligence Agency. It found that “China is closely managing its messaging on the conflict, generally backing Russia’s characterization as a conflict ultimately caused by U.S.-driven NATO expansion and disregard for Russia’s security interests.”

However, it also said that “Beijing is likely reluctant to fully back Russia in order to preserve its own economic relations with Europe and the U.S. No doubt, China is also keenly observing how the Russian campaign is conducted and how combat against determined resistance unfolds.”

Before the Rome meeting, there had been a fluid debate within the administration over whether to use the crisis in Ukraine to try to drive a wedge between China and Russia, who together declared shortly before the invasion that there were “no forbidden areas” in their friendship. 

U.S. officials have expressed dismay that China has amplified some Russian disinformation, including claims that the Ukrainians were developing biological weapons with American assistance — statements regarded by the White House and NATO as a Kremlin attempt to create a pretext for a possible chemical or biological attack of its own.

Chinese officials, in turn, have dismissed U.S. allegations that Russia sought military assistance from Beijing, including armed drones, shortly after the invasion began. Both the Kremlin and China have denied that any such request was made. 

Interpreting Beijing

It would be uncharacteristic of China to respond to a Russian request for weapons with an outright “no,” complicating interpretations of Beijing’s intentions, according to a European intelligence official with knowledge of the U.S. assessment. That official said it would make little sense for China to provide significant weaponry.

But U.S. officials currently don’t know China’s true intentions toward Russia and Ukraine, according to diplomatic correspondence seen by Bloomberg. China could regard the war as an opportunity to exploit Russia’s growing economic dependence, such as by buying up strategic assets or making other efforts to damage the West’s leverage. Beijing’s position is ambiguous and contradictory, and recent exchanges with U.S. officials — including Yang’s Rome meeting with Sullivan — have produced little clarity, according to the correspondence.

The Biden administration has also warned Chinese firms not to try to get around Russian trade restrictions the U.S. has imposed on key technologies. Still, it’s not clear exactly what type of China-Russia economic activity would prompt the U.S. to impose sanctions on Beijing.

China also represents a potential financial lifeline for Russia’s government and its banks — many of which now operate under Western sanctions, virtually cutting them off from the dollar. After Visa Inc. and Mastercard Inc. suspended operations in the country, some Russian lenders sought to use China’s UnionPay system, which could allow for continued overseas payments.

Biden’s aides have long said that in general, the best way to clear up U.S. confusion about China’s intentions is for Biden and Xi to speak directly. China has its own strategic priorities, including keeping its domestic economy stable ahead of the Communist Party Congress later this year. 

The relationship between the world’s two economic titans is fraught, and the Ukraine crisis has highlighted the mistrust between them. The U.S. and China now find themselves drawn into a conflict provoked by a country, Russia, that once was so close to the Western world as to host the Group of Eight, but that has for years been drifting into Beijing’s orbit. 

China’s role in spreading the Russian disinformation on Ukrainian biolabs, plus unspecified intelligence that Beijing is weighing Moscow’s request for arms, has helped tilt the internal administration debate toward the position of officials at Sullivan’s National Security Council, who have favoured a more hawkish approach toward Beijing.

Officials at the State Department had previously seen more opportunity to split Beijing and Moscow over the war, arguing that Beijing’s equivocal statements on the crisis pointed to discomfort at Moscow’s actions. Sullivan publicly speculated in a CNN interview on Sunday that Putin “lied” to China’s leaders and they may not have understood the full extent of his plans in Ukraine.

The Biden administration’s high-level engagement with Beijing has been limited. An early meeting in Anchorage, Alaska, ended with Yang — China’s top diplomat — lecturing Sullivan and other American officials over what he said were human rights violations in the U.S. 

Biden and Xi last spoke in November, when they met virtually for nearly four hours — a videoconference that officials said covered the breadth of issues between the countries but resulted in no real breakthroughs. 

The White House has yet to articulate a promised strategy toward China and has put on hold a number of economic actions it planned to take against Beijing, in part due to the ongoing crisis in Ukraine, according to people familiar with internal deliberations.

And what’s happening in Ukraine right now?

Russian missiles struck an area near the airport of the western Ukrainian city of Lviv, the mayor said, while Japan and Australia imposed new sanctions on Russian entities as punishment for the invasion.

More than 350,000 people are sheltering in the besieged southern port of Mariupol, officials said, while Russia’s defence ministry said separatists with help from Russia’s armed forces were “tightening the noose” around the city. Rescuers are combing the rubble of a theatre in Mariupol bombed on Wednesday for survivors. Russia denies striking it. Italy said it will rebuild it.

The governor of the northern Chernihiv region said 53 civilians had been in killed in the past 24 hours. The dead included a U.S. citizen as he waited in a bread line, his family said. Russia denies targeting civilians.

The governor of Ukraine’s eastern Luhansk region said frequent and widespread shelling by Russian forces was preventing the safe evacuation of civilians from towns and villages on the front line. Luhansk governor Serhiy Gaidai said 59 civilians had been killed in the region since the start of the war, which he said had entirely destroyed some residential areas.

“There is not one community that hasn’t been under fire,” he said on national television, naming the towns of Severodonetsk, Rubizhne and Popasna as particular hotspots.

Efforts to evacuate civilians have been hampered by the fighting, but the local authorities hope a temporary ceasefire can be agreed for Saturday to allow trucks to distribute food, medicine and other aid to people most in need. Bordering Russia, Luhansk lies in Ukraine’s coal-rich Donbass region that has been partly controlled by Russia-backed separatists since 2014. Governor Gaidai is the head of the region’s Ukrainian administration.

Has the invasion stalled?

Russia’s invasion has largely stalled on all fronts in recent days amid heavy losses, British military intelligence and the Ukrainian armed forces said. Russian President Vladimir Putin shows little desire to compromise, they said, while Ukraine wants to retain sovereignty over areas occupied since 2014 by Russia and pro-Russian forces.

What’s happening in Russia?

Russia is cracking down on dissent. Reuters reports that President Vladimir Putin on Wednesday delivered a stark warning to Russian “traitors” who he said the West wanted to use as a “fifth column” to destroy the country. The Kremlin leader assailed Russians who he said were more mentally in tune with the West than Russia, and said the Russian people would quickly be able to tell the difference between traitors and patriots.

“Of course they (the West) will try to bet on the so-called fifth column, on traitors – on those who earn their money here, but live over there. Live, not in the geographical sense, but in the sense of their thoughts, their slavish thinking,” he told government ministers, three weeks into Russia’s war with Ukraine. “Any people, and especially the Russian people, will always be able to distinguish the true patriots from the scum and the traitors, and just to spit them out like a midge that accidentally flew into their mouths.”

The venomous tone was striking even for Putin, who has for years been cracking down on domestic opponents and delivering bitter tirades against the West. Russian opposition politician Mikhail Kasyanov, who served as Putin’s first prime minister in the early 2000s, condemned the remarks on Twitter.

“Putin is intensifying his actions to destroy Russia and is essentially announcing the start of mass repressions against those who don’t agree with the regime,” he said. “This has happened in our history before, and not only ours.”

Putin said the West was trying to divide Russia and provoke civil confrontation with the help of its “fifth column.” And there is one aim – the destruction of Russia,” he said, adding that Russia would repel such efforts. “I am convinced that this natural and necessary self-cleansing of society will only strengthen our country, our solidarity, cohesion and readiness to meet any challenge.”

Russia experts said the message was chilling.

“Putin in an Orwellian way has divided the citizens of Russia into clean and unclean,” wrote Andrei Kolesnikov, a Moscow-based political analyst.

Since the Feb. 24 invasion of Ukraine, dissent in Russia has become even more dangerous. A law passed on March 4 makes public actions aimed at “discrediting” Russia’s army illegal, and bans the spread of fake news, or the “public dissemination of deliberately false information about the use of the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation”.

Thousands of people have been detained while protesting against the war, which Russia calls a special military operation to demilitarise and “denazify” its democratic neighbour. Several leading independent media organisations have suspended their operations.

Russia has opened at least three criminal cases against people for spreading what it calls fake news about the Russian army on Instagram and other social media, the Investigative Committee law enforcement agency said on Wednesday.”

Anecdotal evidence suggests that since Putin’s speech there has been an uptick in aggression against people identified by their neighbours as harbouring anti-war views.

Reuters reports that graffiti warnings daubed on the doors of activists in Moscow. A food blogger has been threatened with up to 15 years in jail for “discrediting” Russia’s army, and there has been a call to sack a senior former official for “treachery” for opposing the war in Ukraine.

Within hours of Putin’s speech, Dmitry Ivanov, a Moscow-based activist, said his mother found a graffiti message on the door to their apartment landing: “Don’t betray the motherland, Dima”.

The graffiti bore several of the “Z” signs used to drum up support for what Moscow calls its “special military operation” to disarm and “denazify” Ukraine. The motif is from markings on Russia’s armoured vehicles and tanks. read more

Ivanov, who has protested against the war, said he had no idea who was behind the graffiti, but that he knew of at least three other people, including activists and a journalist, whose doors had been defaced in the same way on Wednesday evening.

“I don’t know their aims: to frighten, not to frighten, or just to spoil your mood. It’s hard to scare us with such actions: we’re used to this kind of attention,” the 22-year-old told Reuters. “It’s possible this action was to complement Putin’s speech, I think that’s possible. Especially considering how shoddily, and cheaply these markings were done. It was done in a hurry,” he said.”

So where does that leave us?

We are very dependent on the result of talks between the US and China. Russia is depending heavily on China’s support; without it, it will find it difficult to maintain liquidity in world markets and supplies at home. Putin’s speech, a translated version of which I have read in full – it ran to 20 pages – shows a beleaguered president trying to rally domestic opinion nd promising that the country can survive. It is significant that China would not support the UN resolution put forward by Russia, and it is perhaps significant that there are (unconfirmed) reports which suggest that Sergei Lavrov’s plane was turned back from the Chinese border yesterday at about the same time as Xi agreed to talk to Biden, and China refused to support the UN resolution. However, as always with China, one never knows which way it will jump until it jumps: we have to wait and see.

Meanwhile, repression in Russia looks set to increase; it is also perhaps a measure of the level of anger about the war in Russia, that Putin is attempting to mobilise public opinion so strongly against dissenters.

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