The United States warned China of severe repercussions if it sent supplies to back Russia's invasion of Ukraine, as Kyiv's senior general visited the frontline town of Bakhmut, where Ukrainian defenders were enduring relentless assaults.
Washington and its NATO partners are scrambling to prevent China from supplying military aid to Moscow's conflict, making public statements based on their assumption that Beijing is contemplating providing lethal weaponry, including drones.
At a time when Moscow's forces are struggling to seize critical targets in eastern Ukraine and Kyiv is preparing a counteroffensive with powerful Western weapons, including battle tanks, there are fears in the West that China will arm Russia.
"Beijing will have to make its own decisions about how to proceed and whether to provide military assistance," White House national security adviser Jake Sullivan told CNN's "State of the Union" programme. "If China chooses this path, it will incur high costs," he added.
Sullivan stated in a separate appearance on ABC's "This Week" that while China had not yet provided this assistance, it had not ruled out the possibility either.
Beijing has declined to denounce Russia's attack on Ukraine, most notably on Saturday during a Group of Twenty (G20) meeting in India. On Friday, the anniversary of Russia's invasion of Ukraine, it presented a ceasefire plan, which was welcomed with suspicion by Ukraine's Western partners.
"When I hear reports - and I don't know whether they are true - according to which China may be planning to supply kamikaze drones to Russia while at the same time presenting a peace plan, then I suggest we judge China by its actions, and not its words," German Defense Minister Boris Pistorius told Germany's Deutschlandfunk public broadcaster on Sunday.
In an interview aired on Sunday, CIA Director William Burns stated that the U.S. intelligence agency was "confident that the Chinese leadership is considering the provision of lethal equipment."
"We also don't see that a final decision has been made yet, and we don't see evidence of actual shipments of lethal equipment," Burns stated on the CBS program "Face the Nation."
The Chairman of the U.S. House Homeland Security Committee is Republican Representative Michael McCaul. The Foreign Affairs Committee of the House of Representatives noted rumours that drones were among the weaponry China was considering providing to Russia.
Next week, Chinese leader Xi Jinping will travel to Moscow for a meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin, according to McCaul.
Putin characterized the Ukraine conflict, which he refers to as a "special military operation", as a struggle with the West that endangers the survival of Russia and its people.
Putin said Rossiya 1 in an interview that aired on Sunday but was filmed on Wednesday, "They have one goal: to disband the former Soviet Union and its fundamental part - the Russian Federation,"
NATO and the West refute this claim, stating that their goal in sending weaponry and other assistance to Kyiv is to assist the country in defending itself against an unjustified attack.
However, Putin's framing of the fight as a threat to Russia's very existence gives the Kremlin chief additional latitude about the types of weaponry he could one day employ, including nuclear weapons.
The former Russian president and Putin ally Dmitry Medvedev stated in statements released on Monday that the delivery of Western armaments to Kyiv posed a risk of a worldwide nuclear disaster.
Commander visits front
On the frontlines, the commander of the Ukrainian ground forces, Colonel General Oleksandr Syrskyi, visited the eastern city of Bakhmut, which has been the target of Russia's attacks for months as it attempts to seize control of the industrial region of Donbas.
During the weekend, Ukrainian forces staged several counterattacks and repelled Russian forces surrounding the town of Yahidne after the Wagner mercenary organization claimed to have captured Yahidne and Berkhivka.
On Sunday, the Russian Ministry of Defense stated that its forces had eliminated Ukrainian "sabotage and reconnaissance groups," notably in the vicinity of Yahidne. In contrast, the Russian news agency TASS reported that the Ukrainian troops blew up a dam north of Bakhmut.
Reuters could not independently verify the reports.
According to the Ukrainian military, Syrskyi visited Bakhmut to bolster morale and discuss tactics with forces defending the town and nearby settlements.
The Ground Forces stated on the Telegram chat app that he "listened to the unit commanders tackling urgent problems, provided assistance in solving them, and supported the servicemen"
Sunday, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy removed a top commander leading the struggle in the east, but he did not provide a rationale for the action.
In a single-line proclamation, Zelenskiy dismissed Eduard Moskalyov as commander of the Ukrainian armed forces now engaged in conflict in the Donbas.