Russia launched a swarm of drones into Ukraine overnight, killing at least four people near Kyiv in a display of force as China’s President Xi Jinping left Moscow with promises of friendship but little public mention of the war.
Sirens blared across the capital and swathes of northern Ukraine and the military said it had shot down 16 of 21 Iranian-made Shahed suicide drones. Two accommodation blocks and an educational facility in the riverside town of Rzhyshchiv south of the capital had been partially destroyed, the State Emergency Service said on the Telegram messaging app.
Four people were killed there and others buried under the rubble. More than 100 workers and 28 vehicles were deployed to the scene, and that the search for survivors was continuing.
“Over 20 Iranian murderous drones, plus missiles, numerous shelling incidents, and that’s just in one last night of Russian terror against Ukraine,” President Volodymyr Zelenskiy said on Twitter.
In an apparent reference to the Chinese leader’s visit, he added: “Every time someone tries to hear the word ‘peace’ in Moscow, another order is given there for such criminal strikes.”
Hosting Xi this week was Putin’s grandest diplomatic gesture since he launched the war a year ago and became a pariah in the West. Xi and Putin referred to each other as dear friends, promised economic cooperation and described their countries’ relations as the best they have ever been.
The two leaders “shared the view that this relationship has gone far beyond the bilateral scope and acquired critical importance for the global landscape and the future of humanity,” said a statement released by China.
As Xi departed he told Putin: “Now there are changes that haven’t happened in 100 years. When we are together, we drive these changes.”
“I agree,” Putin said, to which Xi responded: “Take care of yourself dear friend, please.”
Xi did not specify the changes and had little to say in public about the Ukraine war beyond saying that China’s position was “impartial”.
The White House urged Beijing to pressure Russia to withdraw from Ukraine to end Europe’s biggest conflict since World War Two. Washington also criticised the timing of the trip, just days after the International Criminal Court issued an arrest warrant for Putin on war crimes charges for deporting Ukrainian children. Moscow says it has taken in children for protection.
China proposed a peace plan for Ukraine last month, which the West has largely dismissed as vague at best, and at worst a ploy to buy time for Putin to regroup his forces.
“A ceasefire right now, freezing the lines where they are, basically gives him the time and space he needs to try to re-equip, to re-man, to make up for that resource expenditure,” White House national security spokesperson John Kirby said.
Putin praised Xi for the plan, and blamed Kyiv and the West for rejecting it. Kyiv, for its part, has cautiously welcomed the Chinese proposal while urging Beijing to consider Ukraine’s own peace plan. Zelenskiy has called on Xi to speak to him.
Ukraine says there can be no peace unless Russia withdraws from occupied land. Moscow says Kyiv must recognise territorial “realities”, referring to Russia’s claim to have annexed a fifth of Ukraine.
Major waves of Russian air strikes on targets far from the front like Wednesday’s took place roughly weekly in late 2022, but have become less frequent in recent weeks, with Western countries saying Moscow is running low on missiles and drones.
After Ukraine recaptured territory throughout the second half of 2022, Moscow has launched a massive winter offensive using hundreds of thousands of freshly called-up reservists and convicts recruited as mercenaries from jail.
Despite the bloodiest fighting of the war, which both sides describe as a meat grinder, the front line has barely moved for four months.
Russia’s only notable gains have been around the small city of Bakhmut in the east, but Kyiv has decided in recent weeks not to withdraw there, saying its defenders were inflicting enough losses on the Russian attackers to justify holding out.
In an intelligence update, Britain’s ministry of defence said Moscow’s Bakhmut assault could be running out of steam. A Ukrainian counterattack in recent days west of Bakhmut was likely to relieve pressure on the threatened supply route to the city, the Wednesday update said.
There was still a risk the Ukrainian garrison could be surrounded, but there was now “a realistic possibility that the Russian assault on the town is losing the limited momentum it had obtained”.
Britain also rejected accusations from Moscow that supplying Ukraine with ammunition made from depleted uranium created a risk of “nuclear collision”. Britain on Monday confirmed it was supplying Ukraine with such shells, used by many militaries to penetrate armour due to the metal’s high density.
“There is no threat to Russia, this is purely about helping Ukraine defend itself,” Foreign Secretary James Cleverly said.