As India joins China in distancing from Russia, Putin warns of escalation

Underlining Russia’s widening isolation on the world stage, Prime Minister Narendra Modi of India told President Vladimir Putin on Friday that it is no time for war — even as the Russian president threatened to escalate the brutality of his campaign in Ukraine.

The televised admonishment by Modi at a regional summit in Uzbekistan came a day after Putin acknowledged that Xi Jinping, China’s leader, had “questions and concerns” about the war.

Taken together, the distancing from Putin by the heads of the world’s two most populous countries — both of which have been pivotal to sustaining Russia’s economy in the face of Western sanctions — punctured the Kremlin’s message that Russia was far from a global pariah.

“I know that today’s era is not of war,” Modi told Putin at the beginning of their meeting, describing global challenges like the food and energy crises that were hitting developing countries especially hard. “Today we will get a chance to discuss how we can move forward on the path of peace.”

The implicit criticism of Putin underscored that he now faces perhaps his most challenging moment of recent months, suffering not just these diplomatic setbacks but also retreats on the battlefield and intensifying questions back home over how he has conducted the war.

But Putin’s own next steps remain a mystery, and Western officials believe that he could still drastically escalate the intensity of Russia’s assault if he is confronted with further defeats.

In a news conference Friday after the summit of Asian leaders, Putin described recent Russian cruise missile attacks on Ukrainian civilian infrastructure as “warning strikes” that could portend an even more vicious campaign.

At the same time — apparently mindful of the unease among key partners like China and India — Putin insisted that he was ready for talks without naming any preconditions and that his war aims did not necessarily extend to all of Ukraine. He made no mention Friday of the broader goals of “demilitarizing” and “denazifying” Ukraine that he announced when he started the war in February — terms that were widely seen as Putin declaring his intention to achieve political control over the entire country.

He said that the “main goal” of his invasion was limited to capturing the Donbas — the eastern Ukrainian region where Russia has recognized as independent two Kremlin-backed statelets but where Ukraine still controls several key cities and towns.

But Putin claimed that Ukraine was attempting to carry out “terrorist acts” inside Russia and that Moscow was poised to retaliate.

“We are, indeed, responding rather restrainedly, but that’s for the time being,” Putin said. “If the situation continues to develop in this way, the answer will be more serious.”

Ukraine has acknowledged attacks on military targets on the peninsula of Crimea, which Russia annexed in 2014 in violation of international law, but the government in Kyiv says it does not attack civilians.