Russian President Vladimir Putin is seen in his office at Novo-Ogaryovo Residence during a bilateral meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping via video call in December 2021.

Mikhail Metzel | Mug | Getty Images

BEIJING — China’s Foreign Ministry spokesman declined to call the Russian attack an “invasion” at a press conference on Thursday.

Russian President Vladimir Putin announced an attack on Ukraine earlier today, and explosions in Kyiv and other Ukrainian cities followed. Ukraine’s military claimed to be engaged in fighting within its borders, and Ukrainian President Volodimyr Zelenskyy described the violence as an invasion aimed at destroying the country.

Within hours, leaders from the United States, Germany, the United Kingdom and elsewhere condemned the Russian attack.

Chinese Deputy Foreign Minister Hua Chunying was repeatedly asked by reporters whether she would characterize Russia’s attacks as an invasion, but she repeatedly avoided a yes or no answer.

In response to a reporter, Hua seemed to express his frustration with the question and said, “The United States fanned the flame, fanned the flame, how do they want to put out the fire?

This is according to an official translation of his Mandarin remarks.

Hua said Russia was a “great independent country” that could take its own steps. She repeatedly referred to Russian government statements on Ukraine, such as an assertion by the Moscow Defense Ministry that Russian armed forces do not strike Ukrainian cities.

“China is closely following the development of the situation. What you see today is not what we wanted to see,” Hua said. “We hope all parties can resume dialogue and negotiation.”

Earlier in the week, Putin formally recognized the independence of two breakaway regions in eastern Ukraine. The United States and Europe had tried to prevent an attack with a series of sanctions against Russian individuals, financial institutions and sovereign debt.

But on Thursday, the dreaded Russian invasion of Ukraine began, as explosions were reported in the capital Kyiv and other cities across the country.

“China is clearly sympathetic to the Russian outlook,” said Tong Zhao, a senior fellow in the nuclear policy program at the Beijing-based Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

‘China believes it was NATO expansion and other US-NATO threats’ that ultimately drove Russia to pursue ‘legitimate interests’, he said . “In other words, I think China feels that Russia feels compelled to do what it’s doing.”

“Because Russia is now the subject of widespread international condemnation and criticism, I think China wants to avoid being seen as part of this axis,” Zhao said.

But “when it comes to public statements, China has been very careful,” he said. “It is difficult for China to openly support this Russian behavior given these implications for China’s own security and China’s relationship with Taiwan.”

Beijing has repeatedly declared its intention to reunite with Taiwan. The island off mainland China is democratically self-governing but claimed by the People’s Republic of China.

As tensions rose earlier in the week, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi and US Secretary of State Antony Blinken discussed Ukraine in a phone call on Tuesday, according to official US statements. and China.

The call followed the closing of the Beijing Winter Olympics on Sunday. Just before the opening ceremony in early February, Putin met Chinese President Xi Jinping in Beijing.

“No limits” to cooperation with Russia

After the meeting, the two leaders issued a lengthy statement that did not mention Ukraine by name, but opposed “further enlargement” of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and said it there were “no limits” or “prohibited” areas of cooperation between Russia and China. .

Zhao said China is unlikely to make any significant changes to its stance on Russia, but will distance itself from a situation that Chinese experts had previously misinterpreted in a tight information control environment.

As late as Tuesday evening Beijing time, Wang Jisi, president of the Institute of International and Strategic Studies at Peking University, said: “China’s observation on this situation is that the action Russia’s military is probably not as imminent as that of the Americans. [observation].”

Wang was speaking on a rare trip to the United States, in a live chat with Scott Kennedy, chairman of the board of the Washington, DC-based Center for Strategic and International Studies.

“I think strategically China is getting closer to Russia and China-US relations are deteriorating,” Wang said. “but this could be a crucial moment for the three countries to readjust their relationship with each other.”