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The Xi-Zelensky Phone Call: a Case of ‘Too Little, Too Late’?

On April 26, 2023, more than a year after the outbreak of the Russia-Ukraine conflict in February 2022, Chinese president Xi Jinping held his first interaction with Ukrainian president Zelensky by way of an hour long telephonic conversation.

Both sides are reported to have discussed the crisis in Ukraine, with president Zelensky saying that he had a long and meaningful call with Xi. However, for a country of China’s standing that is seeking to play a major role in upholding the institution of global governance, the Xi-Zelensky phone call could be a classic case of too little, too late. Besides, being lost no time in clarifying that the conversation was requested by the Ukrainian side. In contrast, since the outbreak of the Ukraine crisis, President Xi has had several virtual and in-person meetings with President Putin, most recently in March 2023 when he visited Russia.
Lately, China has been trying to project an image of itself as a global mediator. On February 24, China proposed a 12-point peace plan for resolving the crisis in Ukraine. Ironically, till that time, President Xi had not had a single interaction with its Ukrainian counterpart – a fact that was increasingly creating murmurs even among countries of the global south. However, it is not just China’s inordinate delay in communication with the Ukrainian leadership that is the issue here, but rather Beijing’s questionable neutral position on the Russia-Ukraine conflict.

One may recall that just a few weeks before Russian troops entered Ukraine, President Putin met President Xi in Beijing on February 4, 2022. It was a time when Russia had already amassed a huge build-up on Ukraine’s borders. Instead of dissuading Russia from impinging on Ukraine’s sovereignty, President Xi went ahead and pledged a no-limits cooperation with Moscow. If China wanted to don the mantle of peace broker, that was the time to effectively do so. Instead, Beijing proceeded to provide a blanket reassurance to Russia, thereby further emboldening it to act against Ukraine.

Since the onset of the Russia-Ukraine conflict, Beijing has maintained that it is a responsible power and a neutral party. Yet, over the course of the last year, China has stepped up its political, diplomatic,
economic and strategic support to Russia – all but stopping short of providing direct military assistance to the latter. China has been blocking UN resolutions criticizing Russia for its actions in Ukraine and has also extended Moscow an economic lifeline amidst wide-ranging economic sanctions. During President Xi’s recent visit to Moscow (March 20-22, 2023), both sides further renewed their pledges of strategic and economic cooperation.

China and Russia also have robust defence relations and have conducted several joint military exercises, even after the outbreak of the Russia-Ukraine conflict. In February 2023, reports were rife about China’s plans to provide lethal miliary support to Russia in Ukraine. While this has been vehemently dismissed by Beijing and has, so far, not been confirmed, it is suspected that China is looking for ways to increase assistance to Moscow without tarnishing its own image. Some of the ways adopted by Beijing to avoid sanctions and reputational cost include supplying dual use equipment to Russia, operating through the cover of private companies, or even routing supplies through a third country. Over the last year, Chinese companies have provided assault rifles and body armour to Russia apart from navigating equipment, satellite imagery, vehicle and jet fighter parts, electronic jamming technology, and electronic parts for anti-aircraft missile radars. Such actions, for someone, could do not qualify Beijing as a credible mediator.

Again, for all of Beijing’s diplomatic language about sovereignty and territorial integrity, the startling remarks made by Lu Shaye, China’s Ambassador to France, questioning the sovereignty of former soviet states, gives a peek into Beijing’s actual worldview. Responding to a question on whether Crimea belong to Ukraine, Ambassador Lu had stated that ex-Soviet countries don’t have an effective status in international law because there was no international agreement to materialize their status as sovereign countries. This essentially disputes Ukraine’s sovereignty over Crimea and other Russian occupied areas. This is also not a very comforting statement from the emissary of a country professing to establish an alternative ‘global security’ order based on respect for sovereignty.

Though the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs was prompt to distance itself from Lu’s comments, it is hard to believe that the statements of a hand-picked ‘wolf warrior’ like Lu Shaye, do not somewhere reflect the inner thinking of the Chinese Communist Party. More concerning is the fact that Lu is echoing what Moscow itself has been saying on Ukraine. As pointed out by Lithuanian Foreign minister Gabrielius Landsbergis, this is the Russian propaganda on Ukraine, and now its being sent out by another country, which is in our eyes an ally of Moscow. Once again, this does not position Beijing very well as an impartial mediator in the Russia-Ukraine conflict. Some like Czech president Petr Pavel have even assessed that it may actually be in China’s interest to prolong the status quo in Ukraine since it would allow Beijing to continue ‘pushing Russia to a number of concessions’ while also keeping the West occupied.
Apart from Beijing’s interest in resolving the Ukraine crisis, the other question that arises is its actual ability to do so. On April 27, the Russian Foreign Ministry commenting on the Xi-Zelensky call said that it had ‘noted’ Beijing’s willingness to put in place a negotiation process and welcomed any attempt to end the Ukrainian conflict ‘on its own terms.’ However, less than a day later on April 28, Russia resumed missile attacks on civilian targets in Ukraine, resulting in more than twenty casualties, including three minors. This is a clear message from Kremlin that it is not in a mood to be reined in by Beijing or anybody.

The only situation in which Russia may allow China to broker a peace on its behalf would be if it finds itself in an irrecoverable position of weakness, and needs to either buy time to fortify itself or to find a way out of Ukraine without losing face. China’s interest in mediating the Ukraine crisis throws up two scenarios: one is where China merely wants to gain some moral ground by posturing as a ‘mediator’ without changing anything on ground between Russia and Ukraine. The second and more concerning one is if China is posturing as a ‘neutral’ party trying to broke a ‘peace deal,’ but is actually acting as a proxy on behalf of Russia. This would change the nature of the conflict by providing Moscow tactical and strategic military advantages over Ukraine.

Following his call with President Xi, President Zelensky had remarked that it would act as a ‘powerful impetus’ to their bilateral relationship. Notably, he did not make any comment on how ‘meaningful’ or otherwise the talks might have been for resolving the Russia-Ukraine conflict, per se. It is clear that Kiev has no illusions about the optics involved in China projecting itself as a mediator in the Ukraine crisis.