China calls for Russia-Ukraine ceasefire over ‘grave’ conflict

South China Morning Post

Posted at Mar 12 2022 09:44 AM | Updated as of Mar 12 2022 09:52 AM

The situation in Ukraine is grave and China is deeply concerned, Chinese Premier Li Keqiang said on Friday, as confrontations between Russia and the West persisted with no sign of easing.

Doubling down on an invasion that the West says has been losing momentum, Russian President Vladimir Putin gave the green light for thousands of volunteers from the Middle East to be deployed alongside Russian-backed rebels in Ukraine.

The move, just over two weeks since Putin ordered the invasion, allows Russia to deploy battle-hardened mercenaries from conflicts such as Syria without risking additional Russian military casualties.

At a meeting of Russia's Security Council, Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu said there were 16,000 volunteers in the Middle East who were ready to fight alongside Russian-backed forces in the breakaway Donbas region of eastern Ukraine.

Also on Friday, the European Union proposed doubling financing for military aid to Ukraine, adding another Euro500 million (US$551 million) to help Kyiv's forces.

China, meanwhile, has repeatedly called for the crisis to be resolved through diplomatic means, but Beijing's ties with Moscow - described by the two nations as "without limits" - has raised suspicions in the West.

On Friday at a press conference capping the national legislative gathering for the year, Li called for ceasefire talks between Ukraine and Russia, warning that the West-led sanctions could hurt the world economic recovery.

"The current situation in Ukraine is indeed worrying, and every effort should be made to support the Russian and Ukrainian sides in overcoming difficulties to negotiate a peaceful outcome," Li said, without using the term "invasion".

"We support and encourage all efforts conducive to a peaceful resolution of the crisis.

"The pressing task now is to prevent tension from escalating or even getting out of control."

Repeating Beijing's calls to respect the territorial integrity and security concerns of all countries, Li also said China had made its own assessment of the situation and "will work with the international community to play a positive role for the early return of peace".

China has avoided condemning Russia for the invasion, instead singling the US out for blame in the conflict.

It has also opposed US and European sanctions on Moscow, raising speculation that China could help Russia offset the economic impact of those sanctions.

On Friday, Li sidestepped this question, saying only that sanctions could hurt everyone.

"The current world economy is already struggling from the impact of the pandemic and other effects, and the sanctions in question will have a knock-on effect on the world economic recovery, to the detriment of all parties," he said.

Since Russian forces went into Ukraine, commodity prices have surged to record highs, raising fears of weaker global economic growth and even a recession.

On Thursday, Kristalina Georgieva, managing director of the International Monetary Fund, said the IMF would lower its global growth forecast next month, citing the conflict, sanctions on Russia and persistent inflation.

Georgieva also told CNBC that the duration of the war was the main uncertainty for the global economy.

Hopes of a quick end to the Russian offensive remain dim, with reports on Friday of Russian strikes near airports in the western Ukrainian cities of Ivano-Frankivsk and Lutsk.

The Russian Defence Ministry confirmed the attacks, saying a high-precision, long-range attack was launched against two military airfields in the two cities.

Russian troops were also pushing towards Kyiv from the northwest and east. Reuters cited an anonymous US defence official as saying that Russian forces moving towards Kyiv had advanced about 5km (about 3 miles) in the previous 24 hours, with some elements as close as 15km from the city.

Meanwhile, US President Joe Biden is expected to announce that the United States, together with the European Union and Group of Seven nations, will move to revoke Russia's "most favoured nation" trade status.

The move would pave the way for the US and its allies to impose tariffs on Russian imports as part of efforts to ratchet up pressure on the Russian economy, which is already in a near recession.

But Putin seems undeterred.

Addressing government members on Thursday, the Russian leader said sanctions imposed against the country would rebound against the West and Moscow would solve its problems and become stronger.

"The prices there (for energy carriers in the EU countries) are growing, but not through our fault. This is the result of their own miscalculations. They should not blame us for this," Putin said, according to state news agency Tass.

"The same applies to the surge in prices for oil and petroleum products in the US. They announced that they were closing the import of Russian oil to the American market, prices there are high, inflation is unprecedentedly high, probably reached all-time highs.

"They are trying to shift blame for the results of their own mistakes on us."

Additional reporting by Reuters and Agence France-Presse

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