Belarusian leader visits China amid Ukraine tensions

FILE - Russian President Vladimir Putin, right, and Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko pose for a photo prior to their talks at the Novo-Ogaryovo state residence, outside Moscow, Russia, Feb. 17, 2023. Lukashenko, a close ally of Russian leader Putin, is due in Beijing to begin a three-day state visit Tuesday, Feb. 28, 2023, as geopolitical tensions rise over Russia's invasion of Ukraine. (Vladimir Astapkovich, Sputnik, Kremlin Pool Photo via AP, File) (Vladimir Astapkovich)

BEIJING – Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko, a close ally of Russia, arrived in Beijing on Tuesday for a state visit that will be watched for hints about China's attitude to Moscow's invasion of Ukraine.

China claims neutrality in the war, but U.S. officials have warned recently that it is considering sending military assistance to Russia. Beijing has called the U.S. allegations a smear campaign, and said it is committed to promoting peace talks.

China has long had a close relationship with Lukashenko. But his trip also illustrates the depth of Beijing’s ties to Russian leader Vladimir Putin and his allies.

Lukashenko's government has strongly backed Moscow and allowed Belarus' territory to be used as a staging ground for the initial invasion of Ukraine a year ago. Russia has maintained a contingent of troops and weapons in Belarus and the two neighbors and allies conducted joint military drills.

This stance left Lukashenko even more isolated in Europe, where his country faces sanctions from the European Union over both its role in the war and his repression of domestic opposition.

In a recent interview with Chinese media, Lukashenko said that now is “a unique situation ... to put a stop to the conflict.” The interview was first released last week, but parts of it were shared online again on Monday night by Belarusian state media.

Beijing on Friday issued a proposal calling for a cease-fire and peace talks between Ukraine and Russia, but has also said it has a “no-limits friendship” with Russia and has refused to criticize Moscow’s invasion, or even to call it an invasion. It has accused the U.S. and NATO of provoking the conflict and condemned sanctions leveled against Russia and entities seen as aiding its military effort.

Last week, those sanctions were expanded to include a Chinese company known as Spacety China, which has supplied satellite imagery of Ukraine to affiliates of Wagner Group, a private Russian military contractor owned by a close associate of Putin. A Luxembourg-based subsidiary of Spacety China was also targeted.

“The U.S. has no right to point fingers at China-Russia relations. We will by no means accept the U.S. pressure and coercion,” Foreign Ministry spokesperson Mao Ning said Monday at a daily briefing.