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With Ukraine war at critical junction, China takes bigger role

Russia’s assault on Ukraine is turning into a war of attrition and the defenders are facing a critical problem – they are firing more artillery shells than Ukraine or its allies can produce. Which means industrial capacity is becoming as important as combat soldiers are.

Along much of a 600-mile front in the east and south, the combatants face each other from trenches reminiscent of World War I. The similarities of the horrifying conditions are so startling that scenes from an Oscar-winning movie set in the 1914-1918 war (All Quiet on the Western Front) look like video taken in Ukraine yesterday.

While Russia’s supplies are also shrinking, its inventory was much larger to begin with and Ukraine’s shortage is more critical, military experts estimate. On average, the opposing armies fire around 30,000 shells at each other every day.

To get this in perspective, one of the biggest ammunition factories in the United States, the Scranton Army Ammunition Plant, produces roughly 11,000 shells per month. Capacity at this and other plants in the US and its allies is planned to increase substantially but the process will take months.

The present stalemate has raised fears that China, Moscow’s closest ally, would step into the breach and draw from its ample arsenal of 122 mm and 152 mm shells to help out Russian forces for whom this is the standard calibre.

US officials have repeatedly warned China that providing lethal aid to Russia would have serious consequences and made clear that President Xi Jinping’s visit to Moscow, beginning on Monday, would be watched with very close attention.

The visit will go down in history even if it ends without any notable agreements. Xi Jinping arrives to pomp and circumstance just three days after the International Criminal Court in The Hague issued a warrant for the arrest of Russian President Vladimir Putin for war crimes in Ukraine.

The warrant is based on the ICC’s finding that Russian forces, with the blessing of Putin and one of his cabinet ministers, forcefully deported hundreds of Ukrainian children to Russia from areas seized after the 2022 invasion.

In theory, Putin could be arrested in any of the 123 countries which signed the treaty establishing the court. In practice, it is a symbolic move, given that Russia does not recognise the court and it cannot try a defendant in absentia.

Another historical first: Putin, a president accused of war crimes and facing an arrest warrant plays host to another president, Xi Jinping, who has been accused by the United States and several other countries of committing genocide against China’s Uyghur population and other Muslim ethnic groups in the Xinjiang region.

The Chinese leader’s visit comes a week after Putin hosted President Bashar al-Assad of Syria, where Russian air power turned the tide in a 12-year civil war killed nearly half a million people and displaced almost half the country’s pre-war population.

Among the weapons Assad’s government forces used to stay in power was the nerve agent Sarin and chlorine gas used to kill civilians in opposition strongholds, according to the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons. They are forbidden under the Geneva Conventions on the conduct of armed conflict.

Putin’s welcoming, in quick succession, of leaders who scoff at international conventions, democracy and the rule of law brings to mind the old adage “birds of a feather flock together.”

A Chinese government statement announcing Xi Jinping’s visit left no doubt about his ambition to become the dominant figure on the world stage, surpassing the role US presidents have played since the end of World War II.

“As the world enters a new period of turbulence and change, as a permanent member of the UN Security Council and an important power, the significance and influence of China-Russian relations go far beyond the bilateral scope,“ the statement said.

The visit was aimed, it added, at deepening the Chinese-Russian friendship “for generations.”

Xi Jinping arrived in Moscow fresh from a diplomatic triumph in the Middle East, where the United States has been the dominant power broker for decades. But in a surprise move on March 10, Saudi Arabia and Iran agreed to restore diplomatic relations after four days of secret talks in Beijing.

It was stark evidence of China’s rising power and influence on the global diplomatic stage. Saudi Arabia and Iran, both oil-rich nations, have long been rivals for Middle Eastern dominance and China’s role in their rapprochement drew applause from the United Nations.

Last month, the Chinese government published a 12-point position paper on how to end the war in Ukraine which will be a topic of discussion during the Chinese leader’s visit. The plan is part of an effort by China to portray itself as neutral in the conflict — despite its repeated refusal to condemn the invasion in UN General Assembly votes.

The proposal pointedly omitted a call for the withdrawal of Russian troops from Ukrainian territory they occupy, a move Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky sees as a precondition for any negotiations on halting the bloodshed. He has, however, said he is open to talks that might follow Xi’s Moscow visit.

The Chinese plan calls for an immediate ceasefire, an idea that has run into vocal opposition from the United States, which has been leading a Western coalition of 50 countries to arm and finance Ukraine’s fight against the Russians.

“A ceasefire now would amount to the ratification of Russian conquest,” John Kirby, spokesman of the White House National Security Council, said on the eve of Xi Jun Ping’s Moscow visit.

“Russia would be free to use a ceasefire to only further entrench their positions in Ukraine, to rebuild, refit and refresh their forces so they can restart attacks on Ukraine at the time of their choosing.”

All wars end eventually, but the prospect of the guns soon falling silent in this conflict appear very remote. Both sides are preparing for spring offensives.

Source: Bernd Debusmann for WION

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