MOSCOW: Chinese President Xi Jinping met his "dear friend" Vladimir Putin in Moscow on Monday (Mar 20), seeking both to deepen economic ties with an ally he sees as a useful counterweight to the West and to promote Beijing's role as a potential peacemaker in Ukraine.
Putin said he welcomed Beijing's plan to settle the "acute crisis" in Ukraine, at the start of talks with Xi at the Kremlin.
Putin told Xi, who arrived in Moscow earlier on Monday to kick off a three-day state visit, that he was ready to discuss China's Ukraine peace proposal.
"We are always open to negotiations," Putin told Xi. "We will certainly discuss all these issues, including your initiatives which we treat with respect, of course."
Washington denounced Xi's visit, saying the timing showed Beijing was providing Moscow with "diplomatic cover" to commit further crimes.
Xi was the first leader to meet the Russian president since the International Criminal Court (ICC) issued an arrest warrant for him on Friday over the deportation of Ukrainian children to Russia during its year-old invasion of Ukraine.
Moscow said the charge was one of several "clearly hostile displays" and opened a criminal case against the ICC prosecutor and judges. Beijing said the warrant reflected double standards.
Russia is presenting Xi's trip, his first since securing an unprecedented third term this month, as evidence that it has a powerful friend in its standoff with a hostile West.
Moscow denies illegally deporting children from Ukraine, saying it has taken in orphans to protect them. It opened a criminal case against the court's prosecutor and judges. Beijing said the warrant reflected double standards.
The West says the warrant should make the Russian leader a pariah.
“That President Xi is travelling to Russia days after the International Criminal Court issued an arrest warrant for President Putin suggests that China feels no responsibility to hold the Kremlin accountable for the atrocities committed in Ukraine," US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said.
"Instead of even condemning them it would rather provide diplomatic cover for Russia to continue to commit those grave crimes,” he added.
Russia, China and the United States are not among the 123 countries that are ICC members, obliged to arrest Putin if he arrives on their territory.
Xi and Putin greeted one another as "dear friend" when they met in the Kremlin on Monday afternoon before a dinner, to be followed by formal talks on Tuesday.
Putin told Xi he viewed China's proposals for a resolution of the Ukraine conflict with respect, and was also "slightly envious" of China's "very effective system for developing the economy and strengthening the state".
Xi, for his part, praised Putin and predicted Russians would re-elect him next year.
"Under your strong leadership, Russia has made great strides in its prosperous development," he said.
Speaking through an interpreter, Xi also thanked Putin for what he said was his support for China, and said that Beijing should have close relations with Moscow.
For Xi, the visit is a diplomatic tightrope.
China has released a broad 12-point proposal to solve the Ukraine crisis, while strengthening relations with Moscow.
Beijing has repeatedly dismissed Western accusations that it is planning to arm Russia but says it wants a closer energy partnership after boosting imports of Russian coal, gas and oil.
"Both sides are continuously strengthening political mutual trust, creating a new paradigm of relations between major powers," Xi wrote in an article published in Russia ahead of his trip.
Western sanctions made Russian energy cheaper, saving China billions of dollars, but its top trade partners remain the United States and European Union.
Ukraine said China should press Russia to stop its invasion.
"We expect Beijing to use its influence on Moscow to make it put an end to the aggressive war against Ukraine," Ukrainian foreign ministry spokesperson Oleg Nikolenko said.
Xi said China's Ukraine peace proposal, an unspecific document released last month, reflects global views.
"Complex problems do not have simple solutions," he wrote in Rossiiskaya Gazeta, a daily published by the Russian government, according to a Reuters translation from Russian.
Ukraine and its Western allies say any truce would just buy Putin time to reinforce ahead of a planned Ukrainian counter-offensive and that for Russia and China to uphold international law as they say they do, they must agree to Russia's withdrawal.
White House national security spokesperson John Kirby reiterated that call, adding that US President Joe Biden wanted to speak with Xi to keep communication channels open.
Putin signed a "no limits" partnership with Xi last year shortly before he sent tens of thousands of troops into Ukraine to end what he said was a threat to Russia from its neighbour's moves towards the West. The year-long war has killed tens of thousands of people, destroyed cities and forced millions to flee.
The Kremlin said Putin would provide Xi with detailed "clarifications" of Russia's position, without elaborating.
Washington has noted that China has declined to condemn Russia and has given it an economic lifeline.
Putin said Russia was helping to build nuclear power reactors in China and the two countries were deepening cooperation in space exploration and new technologies.
As Western pressure on Russia grows, Putin's administration has told officials to stop using Apple iPhones because of concerns the devices are vulnerable to Western intelligence agencies, a newspaper reported on Monday.
"Either throw it away or give it to the children," the Kommersant daily quoted a participant of the meeting as saying.
Justice ministers from around the world met in London on Monday to discuss support for the ICC, whose chief prosecutor Karim Khan called on Russia to repatriate the Ukrainian children to prove it is acting in their best interests as it says it is.
Several European Union countries agreed in Brussels to jointly buy 155 mm artillery shells for Ukraine, which sees them as critical as both sides fire thousands of rounds every day.
Fierce fighting continued in the eastern Ukrainian town of Bakhmut where Ukrainian forces have held out since last summer in the longest and bloodiest battle of the war.
Giving its regular morning roundup from the front, Ukraine's military said defenders in Bakhmut, Lyman, Ivanivske, Bohdanivka and Hryhorivka - all towns in the Donetsk region - had repelled 69 Russian attacks in the past day.
British intelligence said Ukrainian supply lines both west of Bakhmut and west of the town of Avdiivka, further south, were under pressure.
Ukraine's military said that Russian forces were on the defensive in the Kherson and Zaporizhzhia regions to the south.