It was a week of highs and lows for Russian President Vladimir Putin.
On Monday, he posed for pictures in Moscow with visiting Chinese President Xi Jinping, one of few world leaders who will still be photographed with him. But by then, Putin was a wanted man, indicted by the International Criminal Court (ICC) in The Hague for allegedly deporting Ukrainian children to Russia.
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On the battlefield, Russia’s winter offensive in eastern Ukraine appeared to be stalling as Ukrainian forces continued to hold off the fall of the city of Bakhmut.
China may be Russia’s lifeline
Despite China’s statements that it reserved the right to help Russia militarily, it has so far offered Russia only diplomatic cover.
Russia and China issued a joint statement on Ukraine, in which Russia supported China’s “objective and unbiased” position and supported China as a potential peacemaker in the Ukraine crisis.
China last month issued a 12-point position on the Ukraine war, which supported elements of both the Russian and the Western approaches. For example, it opposed sanctions, which have been imposed by the West, but also opposed nuclear escalation, which Russian officials have threatened on several occasions.
Its statements this week warned against hostilities reaching “an uncontrollable phase”, which could be interpreted as a warning of nuclear confrontation.
The Chinese-Russian joint statement on Tuesday also called for an “end to all steps that contribute to the escalation of tension”, suggesting that it is not Russia’s continuing invasion but Western military aid to Ukraine that is causing the escalation.
China proposed a ceasefire and peace talks but has not called for a withdrawal of Russian troops from Ukrainian territory.
“We are grateful for the balanced line of the PRC [People’s Republic of China] in connection with the events taking place in Ukraine,” Putin wrote in an opinion piece in the China People’s Daily newspaper.
Russia has claimed that NATO’s expansion eastwards has given it no choice but to wage war pre-emptively.
China’s position is that “the security of a region should not be achieved by strengthening or expanding military blocs. The legitimate security interests and concerns of all countries must be taken seriously.”
Underlying the diplomacy are economic interests. Putin is keen to replace lost sales of Russian oil and gas to the EU with sales to China, and Xi is eager to buy that energy cheaply as Russia’s buyers dwindle.
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken has dismissed Sino-Russian solidarity as a marriage of convenience, but Xi and Putin said that a rare geopolitical realignment was taking place.
As Xi departed Moscow, he told his host, “Right now, there are changes the likes of which we haven’t seen for 100 years, and we are the ones driving these changes together.”
“I agree,” Putin said as the two men shook hands in the Kremlin doorway.
The ICC indicted Putin on Friday for being “allegedly responsible for the war crime of unlawful deportation of population (children) and that of unlawful transfer of population (children) from occupied areas of Ukraine to the Russian Federation”.
The court said there were “reasonable grounds to believe” Putin committed the crimes jointly with others or allowed the crimes to be committed in areas under his control.
Maria Lvova-Belova, Russia’s commissioner for children’s rights, was also indicted.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said the indictments did not affect the Russian president because Russia is not a signatory to the court, but ICC President Piotr Hofmanski told Al Jazeera that it was “completely irrelevant” that Russia had not ratified the court’s charter, the Rome Statute.
“According to the ICC statute, which has 123 state parties, two-thirds of the whole international community, the court has jurisdiction over crimes committed in the territory of a state party or a state which has accepted its jurisdiction,” he said. “Ukraine has accepted the ICC twice – in 2014 and then in 2015.”
This means that the ICC has jurisdiction over anyone who committed crimes in the territory of Ukraine from November 2013 onwards, regardless of nationality, Hofmanski said, so Putin and Lvova-Belova could be arrested if they travel to any of the 123 countries that are signatories to the statute.
Putin ally Dmitry Medvedev, who is deputy chairman of the powerful Russian Security Council, said any attempt to arrest the Russian president would amount to a declaration of war against Russia, and he raised the spectre of nuclear war – something he has done repeatedly during the war in Ukraine.
“Let’s imagine – obviously this situation will never be realised, but nevertheless, let’s imagine that it was realised – the current head of the nuclear state went to a territory, say Germany, and was arrested,” Medvedev said.
“What would that be? It would be a declaration of war on the Russian Federation,” he said in a video posted on Telegram. “And in that case, all our assets – all our missiles, etc – would fly to the Bundestag, to the chancellor’s office.”
Days earlier, Medvedev had threatened to strike the ICC with a missile. He said on Monday: “It’s quite possible to imagine a hypersonic missile being fired from the North Sea from a Russian ship at The Hague courthouse.”
“The circle is narrowing around Putin,” Ukrainian military intelligence spokesman Andriy Yusov said. “He is becoming more and more toxic and, of course, both for the outside world and inside.”
Within the Kremlin, he said, there is more and more dissatisfaction with what is happening.
“An increasingly gloomy awareness of the prospects, namely, a geopolitical catastrophe, [hangs over] Putin’s regime, and so there is talk of finding a successor, and it is not Putin who is looking for him,” Yusov said.
Russia ‘running out of steam’ in Bakhmut
Throughout the week, Russian forces continued to attack the city of Bakhmut in Ukraine’s eastern region of Donetsk, making marginal gains but failing to complete an encirclement of the city.
Ukrainian forces staged a counterattack on Sunday, and geolocated footage appeared to suggest they had succeeded in recapturing territory near Ivanivske, 6km (4 miles) west of Bakhmut. Russian military bloggers speculated that Ukraine was preparing for a counteroffensive, posting photographs of a Ukrainian column of vehicles 22km (14 miles) west of Bakhmut.
Ukraine’s ground forces commander, Colonel General Oleksandr Syrskyi, said on Thursday that Russian forces in Bakhmut were largely spent and a spring counteroffensive was not far off.
Russian forces “are losing considerable strength and are running out of steam”, Syrskyi said on Telegram. “Very soon, we will take advantage of this opportunity as we did in the past near Kyiv, Kharkiv, Balakliya and Kupiansk,” he said.
Russia’s first major setback in the war was its failure to capture Kyiv. The other three cities were marked by major battles that led to Ukraine recapturing most of the northern Kharkiv region.
Russian forces have fought for Bakhmut for months but have managed to claim only the eastern half of the city.
An assessment by the Washington-based Institute for the Study of War found that Russia had now committed all 300,000 troops it had mobilised in September and October.
“If 300,000 Russian soldiers have been unable to give Russia a decisive offensive edge in Ukraine, it is highly unlikely that the commitment of additional forces in future mobilisation waves will produce a dramatically different outcome this year,” the institute said.
“Ukraine is therefore well positioned to regain the initiative and launch counteroffensives in critical sectors of the current frontline,” it wrote in a war assessment.
Ukraine’s deputy head of military intelligence, Vadym Skibitskyi, said on Friday that Russia was preparing for combat in Crimea, suggesting that the Russian military leadership is not confident it can keep pushing forward.
“There are about 90 combat aircraft, 60 combat helicopters,” Skibitskyi said. “A defence group was created, which carries out measures for the arrangement of fortifications and defence lines. They are preparing for defensive actions on the territory of the peninsula.”
A representative of Ukraine’s military intelligence also said Russian forces had “chosen the most dangerous areas where a naval landing operation could be carried out, and now they are preparing defensive lines there.”