(Reuters)—Chinese President Xi Jinping arrived in Moscow on Monday, seeking both to deepen economic ties with an ally he sees as a useful counterweight to the West and promote Beijing's role as a potential peacemaker in Ukraine.
Xi will be the first leader to meet Russian President Vladimir Putin since the International Criminal Court (ICC) issued an arrest warrant for him on Friday over the deportation of Ukrainian children to Russia during its invasion of Ukraine.
Moscow said the charge was one of several "clearly hostile displays" and opened a criminal case against the ICC prosecutor and judges. Beijing said the warrant reflected double standards.
Russia is presenting Xi's trip, his first since securing an unprecedented third term this month, as evidence that it has a powerful friend in its standoff with a hostile West.
"We can feel the geopolitical landscape in the outside world undergoing drastic changes," Putin said in an article in China's People's Daily published on the Kremlin website, adding that he had high hopes for the visit of his "good old friend".
For Xi, the visit is a diplomatic tightrope.
China has released a broad 12-point proposal to solve the Ukraine crisis, while strengthening relations with Moscow.
Beijing has repeatedly dismissed Western accusations that it is planning to arm Russia but says it wants a closer energy partnership after boosting imports of Russian coal, gas and oil.
"Both sides are continuously strengthening political mutual trust, creating a new paradigm of relations between major powers," Xi wrote in an article published in Russia ahead of his trip.
Western sanctions made Russian energy cheaper, saving China billions of dollars, but its top trade partners remain the United States and European Union.
Russian state television showed Xi arriving at Moscow's Vnukovo airport on Monday afternoon. Informal talks and dinner with Putin are set to be followed by formal talks on Tuesday.
Xi said China's Ukraine peace proposal, released last month, reflects global views while acknowledging complications.
"Complex problems do not have simple solutions," he wrote in Rossiiskaya Gazeta, a daily published by the Russian government, according to a Reuters translation from Russian.
RUSSIA PROMISES 'CLARIFICATIONS'
Ukraine said China should press Russia to stop its invasion.
"We expect Beijing to use its influence on Moscow to make it put an end to the aggressive war against Ukraine," Ukrainian foreign ministry spokesperson Oleg Nikolenko said.
Ukraine and its Western allies say any truce would just buy Putin time to reinforce ahead of a planned Ukrainian counter-offensive and that for Russia and China to uphold international law as they say they do, they must agree to Russia's withdrawal.
White House national security spokesperson John Kirby reiterated that call, adding that U.S. President Joe Biden wanted to speak with Xi to keep communication channels open.
Putin signed a "no limits" partnership with Xi last year shortly before he sent tens of thousands of troops into Ukraine to end what he said was a threat to Russia from its neighbour's moves towards the West. The year-long war has killed tens of thousands of people, destroyed cities and forced millions to flee.
The Kremlin said Putin would provide Xi with detailed "clarifications" of Russia's position, without elaborating.
Washington has noted that China has declined to condemn Russia and has given it an economic lifeline.
Putin said Russia was helping to build nuclear power reactors in China and the two countries were deepening cooperation in space exploration and new technologies.
'THROW AWAY' IPHONES
As Western pressure on Russia grows, Putin's administration has told officials to stop using Apple iPhones because of concerns the devices are vulnerable to Western intelligence agencies, a newspaper reported on Monday.
"Either throw it away or give it to the children," the Kommersant daily quoted a participant of the meeting as saying.
Justice ministers from around the world will meet in London on Monday to discuss support for the ICC and several European Union countries are expected to sign an agreement in Brussels to buy 155 mm artillery shells for Ukraine.
Ukraine has identified the shells' supply as critical, with both sides firing thousands of rounds every day.
Fierce fighting continued in the eastern Ukrainian town of Bakhmut where Ukrainian forces have held out since last summer in the longest and bloodiest battle of the war.
Giving its regular morning roundup from the front, Ukraine's military said defenders in Bakhmut, Lyman, Ivanivske, Bohdanivka and Hryhorivka - all towns in the Donetsk region - had repelled 69 Russian attacks in the past day.
"Bakhmut remains the epicentre of hostilities," it said.
British intelligence said Ukrainian supply lines both west of Bakhmut and west of the town of Avdiivka, further south, were under pressure.
Ukraine's military said that Russian forces were on the defensive in the Kherson and Zaporizhzhia regions to the south.
Russia's Wagner mercenary group, which is spearheading the assault on Bakhmut and has suffered heavy losses, plans to recruit some 30,000 new fighters by mid-May.
In January, the United States assessed that Wagner hadabout 50,000 fighters in Ukraine, including 40,000 convictsits founder Yevgeny Prigozhin had recruited from Russian prisons with a promise of a pardon if they survived six months.
Ukrainian officials have said that some 30,000 ofWagner's fighters have deserted or been killed or wounded, afigure that could not be independently verified.
(Reporting by John Geddie, Katharine Jackson, Dan Peleschuk and Reuters bureaux; writing by Michael Perry and Philippa Fletcher; editing by Simon Cameron-Moore, Andrew Cawthorne and Tomasz Janowski)