Public admonishments of Russian president Vladimir Putin by the leaders of China and India over his invasion of Ukraine signal a shift in global perceptions of the war, western officials have said, amid efforts by Europe and the US to erode the Kremlin’s international support.
The chiding of Putin by Indian prime minister Narendra Modi and the Russian leader’s acknowledgment of concerns raised by Chinese president Xi Jinping last week were signs of discomfort with Moscow, three western officials said. The remarks, at a summit in Uzbekistan, came days after a Ukrainian attack forced Russia’s army to surrender more than 3,000 sq km of territory.
The comments were “a genuine and clear signal” of annoyance, one senior European official said, adding that India and China could now adjust their actions towards both Russia and the west.
A senior European minister told the Financial Times they interpreted the comments as “actual criticism”.
“From Modi especially. I don’t think that he likes this,” the minister added. “It was way better to be in a position of ambiguity where you can be friendly with both sides. And benefit from being friends with both.”
Modi told Putin that “today’s era is not an era of war”. The Russian leader told his counterpart: “We will do our best to stop this as soon as possible,” citing “concerns that you constantly express”.
That came after Putin also acknowledged Xi’s “concerns” over the war in public remarks at the event.
The exchanges at the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation gathering in Samarkand mark the most public recognition of disquiet over the war in Ukraine by the two largest economies not to impose sanctions on Moscow.
The comments underscored how Putin “is only further isolating himself from the international community”, John Kirby, top US National Security Council spokesman, said on Friday. “Even countries who were not vociferous and strident in opposing him are beginning to question what he’s doing in Ukraine.”
China and India’s apparent disquiet is a potential obstacle to Putin’s goal of deepening ties with non-western countries.
A week before the meeting in Samarkand, Putin made a speech in Vladivostok where he said countries such as China were able to make up for Russia’s lost trade with Europe.
“It went beyond just a change of partners or orientation. He envisions rival political and economic blocs,” a western diplomat in Moscow said.
Though China has taken advantage of a discount to increase its purchases of Russian commodities, the risk of secondary US sanctions means its companies have been wary to fill the hole the sanctions have left in Russia’s defence and technology sectors.
“They expected more from China,” another western diplomat in Moscow said. “Chinese companies have either been told not to be active or they need high level permission to do it.”
The Kremlin said Russia’s relationship with China remained strong. In comments broadcast on Sunday, Putin’s spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, told Russian state TV that Moscow and Beijing had “total affinity in our approach to all kinds of provocative actions stemming from the United States and the unacceptability of such destructive behaviour”.
Peskov acknowledged that potential secondary western sanctions for deepening China’s trade relationship with Russia were “complicating factors” that had a “negative effect”, but said they were “not able to have a significant effect, because the general tendency is still very much towards growth”.
Analysts pointed out that while the message may have been clear, neither Xi nor Modi referenced Ukraine directly or voiced support for Kyiv. Both have increased their purchases of Russian energy exports and continued trading with Moscow since the full-scale invasion began almost seven months ago.
“Modi’s statement achieved what he wanted to achieve: send a message to the west that he’s not standing with Putin,” said Sushant Singh, a senior fellow with the Centre for Policy Research in New Delhi.
Singh noted that Modi’s remarks did not raise any “contentious issues” around Ukraine’s sovereignty or territorial integrity, but rather focused on issues around the war’s impact on areas such as food security, fuel and fertiliser supplies.
Nonetheless, western officials saw Modi’s and Xi’s concerns as a challenge to Putin’s narrative that western sanctions on Russia were to blame for the economic fallout from the war.
Josep Borrell, the EU’s chief diplomat, wrote in an article published on Sunday in the French newspaper Journal du Dimanche that Ukraine’s recent battlefield victories exposed the weakness and lack of motivation of the Russian troops. These events “show that even if Ukraine has not yet won the war, Russia is without a doubt losing it”, he wrote.
Although Borrell warned that the war was far from over, he said it was time to start thinking about a peace process.
Additional reporting by Leila Abboud in Paris and Felicia Schwartz in Washington