The White House dismissed a Friday meeting between Chinese President Xi Jinping and Russian President Vladimir Putin in which the leaders unveiled a strategic alliance geared against the U.S.
“What we have control over is our own relationships and the protection of our own values and also looking for ways to work with countries even where we disagree,” White House press secretary Jen Psaki told reporters during her briefing.
In the meeting, Xi endorsed Putin’s demands to end NATO expansion and get security guarantees from the West, issues that have led to Russia’s standoff with the United States and its allies over Ukraine. Meanwhile Moscow voiced its support for Beijing’s stance that Taiwan is an inalienable part of China.
The two leaders met at Beijing’s Diaoyutai State Guesthouse Friday afternoon, according to China’s state broadcaster CCTV, hours before the beginning of the Beijing Winter Olympics, which diplomats from the U.S., Britain and other countries are boycotting over human rights abuses.
The broadcaster did not provide details of the meeting, but Xi and Putin, both of whom have been criticized by the U.S. for their foreign and domestic policies, issued a joint statement underscoring their displeasure with “interference in the internal affairs” of other countries.
The joint statement proclaimed a new China-Russia strategic “friendship” that “has no limits” and no “forbidden areas of cooperation.”
Stacie Goddard, the Mildred Lane Kemper Professor of Political Science who teaches great power rivalries at Wellesley College, says the move is designed to counter Washington’s narrative that Moscow and Beijing are acting aggressively on Ukraine and Taiwan, by claiming that it is the U.S. that is interfering in their spheres of influence.
“What they’re saying is that the United States is attempting to change the status quo,” Goddard told VOA. “They’re portraying themselves in many ways as standing up to a revisionist and aggressive United States.”
Goddard added that in the past Beijing has been reluctant to appear to be acting directly in concert with Russia. “This is really a step towards making it clear, they are acting together,” she added.
China’s expressions of support for Russia come as Moscow’s dispute with Ukraine threatens to escalate into armed conflict.
U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken spoke by phone Friday with Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba to discuss Russia’s military buildup along Ukraine’s border.
He affirmed “the United States’ unwavering support for Ukraine’s sovereignty” and made clear the United States is willing to “impose swift and severe consequences on Russia if it chooses to escalate” the situation, according to a State Department statement.
Blinken also met Friday with Polish Foreign Minister Zbigniew Rau in Washington for bilateral talks. In remarks at the start of the talks, he stressed the importance of the relationship between the two countries and thanked Poland for its leadership on NATO’s eastern flank.
He said, “We strongly prefer that Russia choose the path of diplomacy and dialogue, but if it does not, we are fully prepared for the alternative.”
On Thursday, a senior Biden administration official said the U.S. has information indicating that Russia has developed a plan to stage a false Ukrainian military attack on Russian territory and leverage it as a pretext for an attack against Ukraine.
Fabricating a video of such an attack is one of several options the Kremlin is formulating to give it an excuse to invade Ukraine, the official said.
“The video will be released to underscore a threat to Russia’s security and to underpin military operations,” said the official, who requested anonymity.
“This video, if released, could provide Putin the spark he needs to initiate and justify military operations against Ukraine,” the official added.
The official said the Biden administration is disclosing specifics about Russia’s alleged plans to “dissuade” Russia from carrying out such plans.
In an interview Thursday with MSNBC, U.S. deputy national security adviser Jonathan Finer said, “We don’t know definitively that this is the route they are going to take, but we know that this is an option under consideration.”
NATO welcomes more US troops
The Biden administration disclosed the intelligence after NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg on Thursday welcomed U.S. plans to deploy more troops to Europe and said NATO is considering sending additional battle groups to the southeastern part of its alliance amid tensions along the Russia-Ukraine border.
The U.S. on Wednesday announced plans to dispatching 2,000 more troops to Europe, most of them to Poland, and move 1,000 troops from Germany to Romania to bolster NATO’s eastern flank countries.
Stoltenberg told reporters that while NATO is preparing for the possibility that Russia may take military action, NATO remains ready to engage in “meaningful dialogue” and find a diplomatic resolution to the crisis.
“NATO continues to call on Russia to de-escalate. Any further Russian aggression would have severe consequences and carry a heavy price,” he said.
Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov told reporters Thursday that the U.S. deployment is heightening tensions in the region.
The United States and other Western allies have been preparing economic sanctions to level against Russia in hopes of persuading Russian President Vladimir Putin to pull back the more than 100,000 troops Russia has near the border with Ukraine. Russia has denied it plans to invade.
Stoltenberg said Thursday there has been a “significant movement of Russian military forces into Belarus,” Ukraine’s northern neighbor, where they are taking part in joint military drills that began Thursday instead of later this month as originally planned.
“This is the biggest Russian deployment there since the Cold War,” Stoltenberg said, referring to what he said were 30,000 troops, fighter jets and missile systems.
Russia has not disclosed how many troops or the amount of military hardware it has in Belarus.
Thursday’s exercises, which are expected to continue until February 20, involved live fire, according to images released by the Belarusian defense minister. They also showed fighter jets in the sky and tanks firing and maneuvering.
Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu witnessed the exercises after arriving in Minsk Thursday, and he also met with Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko.
Russia has demanded that NATO pull back troops and weapons deployed in eastern European member countries, and to make clear that Ukraine cannot join the 30-member military alliance.
NATO and Ukraine have rejected those demands, saying countries are free to pick their allies.
But Stoltenberg said Thursday that NATO is ready to talk to Russia about relations between the two sides, and about risk reduction, increased transparency and arms control.
EU plans united response
European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said Thursday the 27-nation bloc is planning a response to letters Russia sent earlier this week to several EU members about its demand for security guarantees.
During a visit to Helsinki, von der Leyen told reporters, “We are united in the European Union and therefore it is clear that the response will mirror, will reflect that unity.”
In Kyiv, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy said Thursday he welcomed Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s offer to mediate the crisis and to host peace negotiations. Zelenskiy’s comments came after the two leaders signed a free trade deal and other agreements while meeting in Kyiv.
Erdogan previously suggested Turkey, a NATO member that also has good relations with Russia, could act as a mediator.
Erdogan’s visit to Ukraine is the latest in a series of visits to Kyiv by world leaders and diplomats to show support for Ukraine and try to advance a peaceful resolution to the crisis.