MUNICH — Vice President Kamala Harris declared on Saturday that the United States had formally concluded that Russia has committed “crimes against humanity” in its invasion of Ukraine, and warned China against providing any kind of support to Moscow’s war effort.
Her comments at the Munich Security Conference came just three days before President Biden was scheduled to commemorate the anniversary of the war with a speech in Warsaw, and just as Russia is stepping up a new offensive to break through what has devolved into a war of attrition, with horrific casualties on both sides.
Before Ms. Harris spoke, China’s top foreign affairs official mocked the U.S. response to a recent Chinese spy balloon overflight, calling the American actions “absurd and hysterical” and an effort “to divert attention from its domestic problems.”
The official, Wang Yi, the Chinese Communist Party’s senior member for foreign affairs, reiterated his government’s claim that the balloon, which flew over several U.S. states before Mr. Biden ordered it to be shot down, was a “civilian” craft blown off course by high winds.
American officials said they had completed the recovery of the Chinese balloon off the coast of South Carolina, and the Biden administration was considering making public some of its findings about the kind of surveillance equipment it contained in an effort to puncture China’s story.
The dueling speeches in Munich, delivered as members of Mr. Biden’s cabinet, his C.I.A. director and several dozen members of Congress from both parties jammed the halls with their European and Asian counterparts, underscored the degree to which the war has pressed nations to choose sides.
The United States and its European partners largely repeated that they would back Ukraine for as long as it takes — though their appetite for huge expenditures on arms and aid is clearly approaching some limits.
China is doing all it can to cast the United States as an aggressor, and Mr. Wang accused the United States of an “abuse of the use of force” in shooting down the Chinese balloon, even though it traversed the continent in American air space.
After Mr. Wang’s comments, he and Mr. Blinken met Saturday night — a testy resumption in diplomatic contact between Beijing and Washington and the first high-level diplomatic exchange between the two sides since Mr. Blinken canceled a trip to China over the balloon episode.
The State of the War
- Vuhledar: A disastrous Russian assault on the Ukrainian city, viewed as an opening move in an expected spring offensive, has renewed doubts about Moscow’s ability to sustain a large-scale ground assault.
- A Sea of Crosses: A bleak, snowy cemetery is filling with more and more dead soldiers from the Wagner mercenary forces, a sign of the huge casualties Russia is suffering in Ukraine.
- Bakhmut: With Russian forces closing in, Ukraine is barring aid workers and civilians from entering the besieged city, in what could be a prelude to a Ukrainian withdrawal.
- Arms Supply: Ukraine and its Western allies are trying to solve a fundamental weakness in its war effort: Kyiv’s forces are firing artillery shells much faster than they are being produced.
Over the past two weeks, what began as a curiosity — the appearance of a huge unmanned aerial surveillance system over Montana, then Kansas, then South Carolina — has turned American attention toward a broad range of Chinese surveillance efforts, from outer space to the upper atmosphere to Chinese-made apps, including TikTok.
In Munich, American officials have been sharing more intelligence about the Chinese balloon program, casting it as one that has already focused on 40 different nations.
Mr. Wang opened his remarks by speaking about Beijing’s desire for “peaceful coexistence” abroad, and reiterated familiar Chinese admonitions against interference in its internal affairs and its longstanding opposition to Taiwanese independence.
In words that the United States might find encouraging, Mr. Wang also said that “nuclear wars must not be fought,” a potential signal to Beijing’s ally, Moscow, that China will not tolerate the use of nuclear weapons in Ukraine, as Russian officials have at times threatened.
Mr. Wang added that nations “must jointly oppose the use of chemical and biological weapons under any circumstances.” U.S. officials have warned that Russia might also contemplate such attacks.
The Chinese diplomat added that the war in Ukraine “must not continue,” and said that his country would “put forth China’s position on the political settlement on the Ukraine crisis, and stay firm on the side of peace and dialogue.” Mr. Wang provided no further details.
Mr. Wang was vague about who might be responsible for the war, saying that “some forces might not want to see peace talks to materialize” and “might have strategic goals larger than Ukraine itself.” That language echoed Kremlin claims, rejected by the West, that Moscow is willing to engage in good-faith peace talks and that NATO aims to subjugate Russia.
Speaking on a panel later in the day, Mr. Blinken seemed dismissive of any Chinese initiative and warned of the false allure of proposed halts in fighting.
“Things like a cease-fire sound very attractive — who doesn’t want guns to stop firing?” he said. “Except we have to be incredibly wary of the kinds of traps that can be set.”
Mr. Blinken warned that Mr. Putin might call for a combat pause “because things are going badly for him” and to “freeze the existing lines in place.” Mr. Putin might then “use the time to rest, to refit, to rearm and to reattack,” Mr. Blinken said. “So we need to be very wary” of such a ploy, he added.
In her remarks at the conference, Ms. Harris reaffirmed America’s unwavering support for Ukraine, and directed her strongest comments at Russia, saying that it must be held responsible for its “barbaric” actions in the war.
Describing the Russian forces’ “gruesome acts of murder,” torture, rape and deportation, she sent a stark warning to Moscow, promising to hold to account “all those who have perpetrated these crimes and to their superiors who are complicit in these crimes.”
But having convictions and even making arrests could be a long and tedious process. The International Criminal Court, the principal international investigatory agency, can take years to issue an indictment and usually focuses only on high-ranking political and military figures.
The court also has no jurisdiction over Ukraine or Russia, in that neither is a party to the Rome Statute that established the body. The United Nations is also hamstrung, as Russia can veto any motion to establish an investigative commission.
Although the unity and resolve of the Western coalition have been main themes of the security conference, there is also keen interest in how the war might end. But when asked during a panel discussion how the United States might define victory, Mr. Blinken repeated previous demurrals by Biden officials. “Fundamentally, these are decisions for our Ukrainian friends to make,” he said.
According to Politico, Mr. Blinken told a group of Russia experts in a private video conference last week that a Ukrainian effort to retake the Crimea Peninsula, home to Russia’s Black Sea fleet, might cross a red line that could lead to a dramatic Russian response. U.S. officials have made similar comments over the past several months.
Mr. Blinken was asked in part about the fate of Crimea, but did not specifically address the subject, although he warned against any outcome to the conflict that “somehow vindicates the seizure by force of territory” — a definition that would seem to include Crimea.
The widespread interest in a possible endgame was reflected in comments by Ukraine’s foreign minister, Dmytro Kuleba, who joined Mr. Blinken on the panel.
Asked how Ukraine defines victory in the conflict with Russia, Mr. Kuleba replied that it was the third time he had been asked the question that day. He said Kyiv’s conditions include “full restoration of Ukraine’s territorial integrity,” compensation for damage inflicted by Russian attacks and accountability for perpetrators of war crimes.
Mr. Kuleba added that any peace can only endure once “Russia poses no threat” to Europe, and he echoed remarks by Mr. Blinken, who said the West must ensure that Ukraine is equipped “to make sure that Russia won’t simply repeat this exercise a year, five years later.”