Putin reveals Chinese concerns over Ukraine, as Kyiv allies pledge support, arms

Russian President Vladimir Putin said on Thursday he understood China's Xi Jinping had concerns about the situation in Ukraine, a surprise acknowledgement of friction with Beijing over the war after a week of stunning Russian losses on the ground.

Chinese leader did not mention Ukraine in public remarks, amid meeting with Russian president

This composite image shows Russian President Vladimir Putin, left, and Chinese President Xi Jinping during their meeting Thursday on the sidelines of the Shanghai Co-operation Organization leaders' summit in Samarkand, Uzbekistan. Putin said he understood Xi had concerns about the situation in Ukraine, a surprise acknowledgement of friction with Beijing over the war. (Alexandr Demyanchuk/Sputnik/AFP/Getty Images)

Russian President Vladimir Putin said on Thursday he understood China's Xi Jinping had concerns about the situation in Ukraine, a surprise acknowledgement of friction with Beijing over the war after a week of stunning Russian losses on the ground.

Since Russia invaded Ukraine in February, China has trod a careful line, criticizing Western sanctions against Russia but stopping short of endorsing or assisting in the military campaign.

"We highly value the balanced position of our Chinese friends when it comes to the Ukraine crisis," Putin told Xi at their first meeting since the war began.

"We understand your questions and concern about this. During today's meeting, we will of course explain our position."

Xi did not mention Ukraine in his public remarks, nor was it mentioned in a Chinese readout of their meeting, which took place in Uzbekistan on the sidelines of a regional summit.

Pressure on Putin?

Beijing's support is widely seen as essential for Moscow, which needs markets for its energy exports and sources to import high-tech goods as it faces sanctions imposed by the West.

WATCH | Putin meets with China's Xi as dissent grows in Russia: 

Putin shores up support from China after losses in Ukraine

3 months ago
Duration 2:01
Russian President Vladimir Putin met with China’s President Xi Jinping at a summit in Uzebekistan in an attempt to strengthen relations with his remaining allies after a stunning week of losses in Ukraine, and amid growing dissent within his own country.

The Russian president's comments suggested a Chinese shift toward a more critical stance, in private at least. Ian Bremmer, political science professor at New York's Columbia University, said it was the "first public sign of Putin recognizing pressure to back down."

"Russia has become a pariah to the G7 because of their invasion. China wants no part of that," he wrote on Twitter, referring to the Group of Seven leading industrialized nations.

White House spokesperson John Kirby said China should reject Russia's invasion: "The whole world should be lined up against what Mr. Putin is doing," Kirby told CNN.

Ukrainian artillery members fire a self-propelled cannon on Thursday along part of the southern front line of the ongoing war against the Russian invasion. (Ihor Tkachov/AFP/Getty Images)

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov later told reporters that the talks behind closed doors with China had been excellent.

The last time Putin and Xi met, they signed a "no limits" friendship agreement between their two countries. Three weeks later, Russia invaded Ukraine.

Ukraine has accused Russian forces of targeting civilians and of war crimes, which Moscow denies.

The day after he made a surprise visit to the recaptured northeastern town of Izium, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said on Thursday that Ukrainian authorities found a mass grave there. He said more information should be made available on Friday.

Support from allies

Pope Francis on Thursday said it was morally legitimate for nations to supply weapons to Ukraine to help the country defend itself against Russian aggression.

"This is a political decision which it can be moral, morally acceptable, if it is done under conditions of morality," Francis said in an airborne news conference while travelling from a trip to Kazakhstan.

In Washington, U.S. officials said the United States will soon announce a new $600-million US weapons package for Ukraine's military.

European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen is seen with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy in Kyiv, ahead of a press conference on Thursday. (Sergei Supinsky/AFP/Getty Images)

Also on Thursday, Germany said it would supply two more multiple rocket launchers to Ukraine, and European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said Europe should support Ukraine with battle tanks as Ukrainians were proving they can defend themselves if they have the right military equipment.

Russian Foreign Ministry spokesperson Maria Zakharova said any decision by the U.S. to supply Ukraine with longer-range missiles for the U.S.-made HIMARS system would cross a "red line" and make the U.S. "a direct party to the conflict."

In Kyiv, von der Leyen held talks with Zelenskyy, where she told him Ukraine's accession process to the European Union was well on track. 

"It's impressive to see the speed, the determination, the preciseness with which you are progressing," she said.

Cars destroyed amid Russian attacks on Ukraine are seen lying on a street near apartment buildings in Kharkiv's Saltivka neighbourhood on Thursday. (Leo Correa/The Associated Press)

Ukraine became a candidate to join the EU in June.

Von der Leyen said that "you have your European friends by your side as long as it takes."

After a week of rapid Ukrainian gains, Ukrainian officials said Russian forces were fortifying defences and that it would be hard to maintain the pace of the advance.

Putin has yet to publicly comment on the setback suffered by his forces in northeastern Ukraine this month. Ukrainian officials say 9,000 square kilometres have been retaken, nearly equivalent to the size of the island of Cyprus. Russian troops have abandoned dozens of tanks and other armoured vehicles in haste.

Footage shot by Reuters on Thursday in the eastern town of Kupiansk, which Ukrainian forces recaptured last week, showed many buildings had been damaged or burned out.

"No electricity, no communications ... if there were communications we could least talk to family. If only there hadn't been all this bombing with everyone in their basements," one man said.

More challenges lie ahead

The speed of the advance has lifted hopes of further gains before the winter sets in.

But Serhiy Gaidai, governor of Ukraine's eastern Luhansk region, said it would still be a tough fight to wrest control of his region back from Russia, which recognizes it as an independent state controlled by separatists.

The remnants of an exploded shell are seen in Verbivka, Ukraine, as a cyclist passes by in the background on Thursday. (Sergey Bobok/AFP/Getty Images)

Throughout Thursday, Russians forces shelled towns in the Kharkiv, Kupiansk and Izium districts of the Kharkiv region, Gov. Oleh Synehubov said on Telegram, according to Reuters. Homes were destroyed and there were injuries, he said.

More than 90 missiles and artillery shells targeted a region on the border with Russia until 9 p.m. local time on Thursday, Dmytro Zhyvytsky, governor of Sumy region, said.

On the Russian side, Vyacheslav Gladkov, governor of Russia's Belgorod region, said the Ukrainian army shelled the town of Valuyki near the border.

"Anti-aircraft defences went into action but there is some destruction on the ground," he said on Telegram. This included a power substation put out of commission and private homes and vehicles set on fire.

Reuters was not able to verify battlefield reports.