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Johnson confronts China’s Xi over support for Russia in Ukraine

Nato leaders have called on Beijing to ‘abstain’ from backing the Kremilin’s war effort.

25 March 2022

Boris Johnson has confronted China’s President Xi Jinping in a “frank and candid” discussion over the situation in Ukraine amid concern among Western powers at Beijing’s stance on the conflict, Downing Street has said.

The contact came after Nato leaders urged China to “abstain” from supporting Russia’s war effort and to refrain from any actions that would help it circumvent sanctions.

In a terse readout following the 50-minute telephone call, a No 10 spokesman said they had discussed “a range of issues of mutual interest” including the situation in Ukraine.

“It was a frank and candid conversation lasting almost an hour. They agreed to speak again soon,” the spokesman said.

In a statement following Thursday’s emergency Nato summit in Brussels, alliance leaders expressed concern about comments by Chinese officials and called on them “to cease amplifying the Kremlin’s false narratives”.

They include unsubstantiated Russian claims – strongly denied by the US – that the United States is financing biological weapons laboratories in Ukraine, while China has resisted calls to condemn the invasion.

US President Joe Biden, who spoke last week to Mr Xi, said he had pointed out that US and other foreign corporations were already pulling out of Russia because of President Putin’s “barbaric” behaviour.

Chinese President Xi Jinping
Chinese President Xi Jinping (Shuji Kajiyama/AP)

“I made no threats, but I made sure he understood the consequences of him helping Russia,” Mr Biden told a news conference on Thursday at Nato headquarters.

“I think that China understands that its economic future is much more closely tied to the West than it is to Russia.”

Meanwhile, in the besieged city of Mariupol, authorities said about 300 people died in a Russian airstrike earlier this month on a theatre where hundreds of people were sheltering.

If confirmed, it is likely to lead for renewed calls for Western powers to step up military support for the Ukrainian forces.

A man rides a bicycle as black smoke rises from a fuel storage tank following a Russian attack on the outskirts of Kyiv
A man rides a bicycle as black smoke rises from a fuel storage tank following a Russian attack on the outskirts of Kyiv (Rodrigo Abd/AP)

At the same time there were signs that Vladimir Putin is being forced to rethink his war aims as his forces remain stalled in the face of unexpectedly fierce resistance from the Ukrainians.

The defence ministry said that having accomplished the “first phase” of their military operations, Russian forces would concentrate on “liberating” the Donbas region which is part-held by Moscow-backed separatist rebels.

Western officials said it was a recognition that Russian forces were overstretched and may have to “pause” operations around Kyiv and other cities while they focus on the east of the country.

“It is clear that Russia is recognising that it can’t pursue its operations on multiple axes simultaneously,” one official said.

Russian invasion of Ukraine
(PA Graphics)

“Therefore it is having to concentrate its force, particularly its logistics supply and its firepower, on a more limited number of approaches.”

The latest intelligence assessment from the UK Ministry of Defence said Ukrainians were continuing to push pack against Russian forces advancing on the capital.

“Ukrainian counter-attacks, and Russian forces falling back on overextended supply lines, has allowed Ukraine to reoccupy towns and defensive positions up to 35 kilometres (22 miles) east of Kyiv,” it said.

Western officials said that Russians continued to suffer heavy losses, including a brigade commander deliberately killed by his own troops.

Nato has estimated that in four weeks of fighting, between 7,000 and 15,000 Russia troops have been killed in combat – compared the 15,000 they lost in 10 years in Afghanistan.

One Western official said the of the 115 to 120 battalion tactical groups the Russians had at the start of the operation, 20 were no longer “combat effective”.

“After a month of operations to have somewhere in the region of a sixth, maybe even a fifth, of the forces being no longer effective, that is a pretty remarkable set of statistics,” the official said.

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