China deepens ties with Russia as Biden rallies NATO over Ukraine
By Guy Faulconbridge and Nandita Bose
MOSCOW/WARSAW (Reuters) -China pledged to deepen cooperation with Russia on Wednesday while U.S. President Joe Biden discussed security with leaders of NATO's eastern flank, highlighting geopolitical tensions as the anniversary of Russia's invasion of Ukraine approaches.
Within Ukraine, schools took their classes online for the rest of the week for fear of an upsurge of Russian missile attacks a year on from Moscow's Feb. 24 all-out assault, which failed to topple the government and has long been bogged down.
Making the highest level visit to Russia by a Chinese official since the countries signed a "no limits" partnership weeks before the invasion, China's top diplomat Wang Li told President Vladimir Putin that Beijing was ready to enhance ties.
A time of crisis required Russia and China "to continuously deepen our comprehensive strategic partnership", Wang said.
Putin said he was looking forward to a visit to Moscow by Chinese President Xi Jinping and a deeper partnership.
Xi is expected to make a "peace speech" on Friday. Kyiv says there can be no talk of peace with Russian troops in Ukraine.
"This unprovoked and criminal Russian war against Ukraine, Europe and the democratic world must end with the cleansing of the entire Ukrainian land from Russian occupation and solid guarantees of the long-term security for our state, the whole of Europe and the entire world," President Volodymyr Zelenskiy wrote on the Telegram messaging app.
Russia is due to begin military exercises with China in South Africa on Friday and has sent a frigate equipped with new generation hypersonic cruise missiles. A Russian officer said on Wednesday Russia would fire artillery, but not the missiles, whose speed makes them difficult to shoot down.
Russian aggression in Ukraine has changed the security situation in Europe, Polish President Andrzej Duda told the Warsaw meeting of the Bucharest 9 countries with Biden, who said Washington was committed to defending every inch of NATO.
"You are the front line of our collective defence," Biden told the summit of countries which joined the Western military alliance after being dominated by Moscow during the Cold War.
Most are among the strongest supporters of military aid to Ukraine, and officials from countries in the group have said they will seek extra resources such as air defence systems.
NUCLEAR TREATY SUSPENDED
Putin has responded to the lack of progress in Ukraine with veiled threats to use nuclear weapons and suspended a nuclear arms control treaty on Tuesday, accusing Washington of turning the war into a global conflict by arming Ukraine.
Russia's foreign and defence ministries said later Moscow would continue abiding by the restrictions outlined in New Start (Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty) on the number of nuclear warheads it could have deployed and the number of nuclear missile carriers. Russia's lower house of parliament rubber-stamped the suspension of the treaty on Wednesday.
Tension over Ukraine had already halted inspections under the treaty, which calls for the United States and Russia to let each other check their nuclear arsenals.
Biden said however that by suspending the treaty, Putin had "made a mistake".
He underlined his support for Kyiv in a surprise visit to war-torn Ukraine on Monday and then rallied NATO allies in Poland, saying the invasion had tested the world but Washington and its allies had shown they would defend democracy.
He rejected Russia's assertion that Western allies were seeking to control or destroy Russia, and accused Moscow of crimes against humanity such as targeting civilians and rape. Russia denies committing war crimes or targeting civilians.
NATO allies and other supporters have sent Ukraine tens of billions of dollars worth of arms and ammunition. Since the new year they have promised modern battle tanks, though they have yet to offer Western fighter jets sought by Kyiv.
U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken has warned Beijing against supplying weapons to Moscow, prompting anger from China.
Russia suffered three major battlefield reverses in Ukraine last year but still controls nearly a fifth of the country. It has launched a massive offensive in recent weeks in eastern provinces, so far making only marginal gains despite some of the heaviest losses of the war.
Ukraine's military said Bakhmut city, the focus of Russian advances in the eastern region of Donetsk, came under shelling, along with 20 other settlements in the area.
The governor of the neighbouring Luhansk region said Ukraine had repelled intense Russian attacks around the town of Kreminna further north, destroying several of their tanks.
"The breakthrough failed, the situation stabilized," Serhiy Haidai said on Ukrainian television.
Two civilians were wounded in a Russian missile strike on Wednesday on industrial facilities in Kharkhiv, the biggest city in eastern Ukraine, local officials said.
Reuters was not able to independently verify the reports.
The biggest land war in Europe since World War Two has displaced millions, left cities, towns and villages in ruins and disrupted the global economy. The U.N. rights office has recorded more than 8,000 civilians killed, a figure it describes as the "tip of the iceberg".
(Additional reporting by Pavel Polityuk, Alan Charlish and Reuters bureaux; writing by Grant McCool and Philippa Fletcher; Editing by David Gregorio, Michael Perry, Peter Graff, William Maclean)