China Treads Lightly on Condemning Putin for Taking Ukraine Territory

Following Russian President Vladimir Putin's announcement that he will annex four regions from Ukraine, China has continued to tread lightly and has avoided both condemning or issuing support for Moscow.

On Friday, Putin announced that the Donetsk People's Republic, the Luhansk People's Republic, and the regions of Zaporizhzhia and Kherson will now be under Russian control. While the move has prompted criticism from a number of Western nations, such as the U.S., China called for peace between the two sides, but did not take an explicit stance.

"China's position on the Ukraine issue is consistent and clear. We believe that all countries deserve respect for their sovereignty and territorial integrity, that the purposes and principles of the U.N. Charter should be observed, that the legitimate security concerns of any country should be taken seriously, and that support should be given to all efforts that are conducive to peacefully resolving the crisis," Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson Mao Ning said during a press conference on Friday. "China stands ready to work with members of the international community to continue to play a constructive part in de-escalation efforts."

Since Russia first invaded Ukraine in February, China has appeared to maintain a neutral stance. On Friday, Max Bergmann, the director of the Europe Program for the Center for Strategic and International Studies, told Newsweek that China's stance on the Russia and Ukraine conflict is "probably one of the great disappointments to Russia."

Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping
Russian President Vladimir Putin and China's President Xi Jinping walk during the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation leaders' summit in Samarkand, Uzbekistan, on September 16. Following Russia's annexation of Ukrainian territories, China has continued to tread lightly, neither explicitly condemning nor supporting Russia. SERGEI BOBYLYOV/SPUTNIK/AFP/Getty Images

Bergmann cited the "no limits" relationship that Putin and Chinese President Xi Jinping had agreed upon prior to Russia's invasion, saying, "Well, it looks like there's a lot of limits on their relationship."

"The Chinese reaction is not to come and bail the Russians out, not to violate U.S. and European sanctions," Bergmann said. "I think the Chinese, they are very pragmatic, very cold and it's why autocratic states don't, often times, serve as good allies because they're gonna pursue their own interests, and what they see here is Russia flailing and potentially failing, and they don't want to be complicit in that."

Elizabeth Wishnick, a senior research scientist at the CNA nonprofit organization, also told Newsweek that China's recent statement on the annexed territories "was typically ambiguous."

"As in previous statements, the PRC Foreign Ministry spokesperson said that Beijing respects the territorial integrity and sovereignty of all states, upholds the U.N. Charter, and respects the legitimate security interests of all states," Wishnick, who has an M.A. in Russian and East European Studies from Yale University, told Newsweek.

Wishnick also noted that the "legitimate" portion of China's statement is "key" and said that "since official PRC media portray the war on Ukraine as instigated by the U.S. and NATO, that's a clue, but, on the other hand, Beijing always claims to uphold the principles of territorial integrity and sovereignty because of its own concerns over Taiwan."

In addition to the recent statement issued by the Chinese foreign ministry, Putin and Xi met earlier this month, when the Kremlin leader said that he appreciated China's stance on the war in Ukraine.

"We highly appreciate the well-balanced position of our Chinese friends in connection with the Ukrainian crisis," Putin said, according to the Associated Press.

Newsweek reached out to the Chinese foreign ministry for comment.

Correction 10/7/22, 9:07 a.m. ET: An earlier version of this story included an incorrect title for Elizabeth Wishnick.