China to play key role in Ukraine war as West braces for counteroffensive

The EU, NATO and the U.S. have a skeptical view of Xi’s call to Zelensky. The next steps in the conflict will serve as the basis for defining a strategy to bring an end to the war waged by Russia

Xi Jinping, Vladimir Putin
Chinese President Xi Jinping and his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin, on March 21 at the Kremlin Palace in Moscow.Contributor / getty

The world is awaiting the major Ukrainian counteroffensive that is expected to be launched in May or June. The outcome on the battlefield, the territory that Kyiv might be able to reconquer and the state of the Russian occupation will determine whether the war waged by the Kremlin 14 months ago could be resolved through a negotiated settlement in the medium term. While the West is supporting the besieged country through military aid, China has stepped into the diplomatic arena so as not to be kept out of the international political action that will dictate the future of the conflict. Chinese President Xi Jinping entered the scene on Wednesday after a telephone conversation with his Ukrainian counterpart, Volodymyr Zelensky. The call, the first since the invasion began, lasted around an hour and was arranged on Zelensky’s “invitation”, according to the official accounts published by Beijing. These accounts usually highlight the details of who dials the number and who picks up the receiver. “Dialogue and negotiation are the only viable solution”, Xi assured his counterpart. He also warned of the risks of conflict, portrayed China as an impartial country and appealed for restraint. “There are no winners in nuclear war.”

During the conversation, the Chinese president stressed the importance of “mutual respect for sovereignty and territorial integrity represents the political basis for Sino-Ukrainian relations,” a statement that would seem to be intended to calm the diplomatic turmoil sparked the previous week by China’s ambassador to France. In a television interview, the diplomatic official questioned the sovereignty of the former Soviet republics, as well as that of the Baltic countries and Ukraine, and Crimea’s belonging to the country. Crimea was unlawfully annexed by Russia in 2014.

An ever-growing number of international rumblings suggest that the loss of Crimea is now an inevitable prerequisite to Russia’s willingness to sit down at the negotiating table. Brazil President Lula da Silva is championing the idea of an alliance of countries to reach a diplomatic solution to the war and believes Beijing would play a key mediating role. In an interview with EL PAÍS on Thursday, he stated that the end of the conflict will depend on Ukraine regaining its territorial integrity and Russia retaining its territory. “Russia has been in Crimea for a long time, Russia has invaded other territories. I do not know what Zelensky will settle for in terms of an agreement, nor Vladimir Putin. Putin is not going to allow NATO to settle on his borders. Zelensky is not going to want outsiders to remain in Ukraine. Only those on the outside can help engineer a way to stop this war,” he said.

In Brussels, Xi’s call to Zelensky is regarded with some skepticism. The European Commission has defined the conversation as an “important first step” although a somewhat “delayed” one from Beijing. Meanwhile, all eyes are on the expected Ukrainian counteroffensive, or a stepped-up Russian offensive, which will pave the way for subsequent developments and the strength of each side. Until this occurs, there will be no dialogue initiative, according to several allied sources. France’s President Emmanuel Macron and Ursula von der Leyen, the head of the EU Commission, set this conversation with Zelensky as a condition for Xi to shape Europe’s future relations with the Asian powerhouse. This is at a time when the EU is reassessing whether the terms used to define China (partner, competitor and systemic rival) should be changed within the relationship or, rather, the order in which they are classified.

A group of European countries, including France, believe that China remains a key player to do business with. Others, such as the Baltic states and Sweden, view Beijing and the EU’s dependence on its products with enormous suspicion, and lean closer to Washington’s position, which is engaged in a trade war with the giant Asian nation. The first group includes those who believe that Xi could have an influence on Putin, with whom he maintains a healthy relationship — although increasingly inclined towards Beijing’s dominance — and with whom he is seeking to move towards a “new era” free from the West’s predominance. This influence is likely to bring about a move by Moscow that would facilitate dialogue, while at the same time offering Kyiv certain security guarantees in exchange for some concessions.

However, the main stumbling block is that none of the participants in the war intends to renounce its military objectives: Russia’s primary aim is to conquer the entire territory of the provinces unilaterally annexed in September — even without the recognition of the international community — and Ukraine’s stance requires the immediate departure of the occupants from its land.

Beijing Representative

Xi conveyed to Zelensky his intention to send the Chinese government’s special representative on Eurasian Affairs “to visit Ukraine and other countries, to engage in comprehensive discussions with all parties on the political settlement of the Ukrainian crisis.” The designated representative is Li Hui, a diplomat with a distinguished career, who served from 2009 to 2019 as Chinese ambassador to Russia, a 10-year period marked by the reconciliation between the two powers. Beijing’s state-run press has leapt to the defense of China’s mediation efforts, which come after the Asian giant’s recent positioning as a potential dialogue facilitator: first, in February, with the presentation of a document (not a peace plan) for the “political solution to the crisis” (Beijing never calls the conflict a “war”); second, by playing the role of mediator in the never-ending quagmire of the Middle East, enabling the restoration of diplomatic relations between Iran and Saudi Arabia in March.

The Asian giant is seeking to demonstrate that it exercises an increasingly important role in the geopolitical theater, and that it is also in control of the timing: in early April, during the visit to Beijing of European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, Xi assured her that he would call Zelensky “when the conditions and the time” were “right.” A frantic diplomatic offensive, in which Xi has met with Putin and several EU chiefs, has led the Chinese leader to pick up the phone.

In the call, the Chinese president discussed with his Ukrainian counterpart the need to take advantage of a “juncture” at which there are more and more “rational reflections and voices” seeking a “political solution.” From the Chinese perspective, something has indeed shifted. “For a long time, the conditions for peace talks have not existed,” said Xu Poling, director of the Russian Economic Office of the Institute for East European, Russian and Central Asian Studies within the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences. In his opinion, the unfolding of the conflict has been “controlled by the United States” and its support for Ukraine to continue fighting.

Distrust in the EU and NATO

In the light of the lessons learned from Russia’s war in Ukraine, after years of European pragmatism towards the Kremlin, Xi’s steps are widely distrusted in the EU and even more so in NATO. According to EU sources, China also has its own interests in terms of geopolitics, its image and even in the reconstruction of Ukraine after the conflict. “Let’s not forget that Beijing has not condemned the invasion,” pointed out a Western diplomat, who stressed that China has not distanced itself from the idea that its stance — and its position paper on the war — is much closer to that of Russia. Kyiv has not lost support in the EU, not even the crisis of Ukrainian grain entering the bloc without tariffs — which caused the first rifts due to protests from Eastern countries over the commercial impact on their markets — has fragmented unity. However, it is increasingly difficult to enforce sanctions against Russia. Additionally, there are mounting delays in the delivery of promised ammunition to Kyiv and the Union has lost leverage to continue to take major decisions.

“The West has begun to question whether to continue the war and support Ukraine,” argued Xu. Xi’s initiative also comes at a time when China has emerged from the lethargy of the pandemic and the zero Covid-19 policy with global aspirations. “With China’s growing power and scale and the transformation of the world into a multipolar dynamic, [Beijing] has stepped up its efforts to uphold the world order and resolve regional geopolitical issues through increased participation and responsibility,” concluded Xu.

Sources close to the office of Valeriy Zaluzhnyi, commander-in-chief of the Ukrainian Armed Forces, told this newspaper in March that they have detected a progressive lack of interest in the war among European public opinion since last summer. The same sources pointed out that this situation may prompt the EU governments to start pressing for the opening of diplomatic channels. The problem may become even greater because disengagement from the conflict is also apparent among the Ukrainian population located at a distance from the frontline. This is what Zelensky himself has warned of in several speeches, but it was also observed on April 21 during the Kharkov Security Conference held by Denys Ganzha, political scientist and founder of the Ukrainian Public Diplomacy Platform.

Lowering expectations

Despite the growing exhaustion of the population, there will be no significant diplomatic steps in Kyiv’s allied countries until the spring counteroffensive begins. Since January the Ukrainian Armed Forces have been mounting what is to be their biggest offensive operation of the war. For this operation they have reserved the best armament received from the ranks of NATO countries along with their best troops.

Nevertheless, Kyiv’s allies have doubts about the extent of the success of this offensive because Russia’s defenses are now much more robust. This was underlined by secret Pentagon documents leaked this month, which confirmed that there are fears in the United States that progress “will come far short” of expectations. Last week, POLITICO reported that there are more and more calls in the White House for a negotiating plan to be drafted if the counteroffensive proves unsuccessful.

The U.S. State Department has refrained from officially reacting to the revelations of these documents and has stuck to the official position: “The United States will continue to support our Ukrainian partners and help them defend their territorial integrity and sovereignty for however long is necessary.”

Regarding the possibility of negotiations, U.S. diplomacy indicates that “President Zelensky himself has been unequivocal that this will ultimately have to end through a negotiated solution, but that it has to be on the Ukrainians’ terms.” “It is irresponsible to put these two countries, Russia and Ukraine, on the same level. One is trying to remove the borders of the other, and the other is trying to fight for its life,” according to Vedant Patel, State Department spokesman.

The U.S. government skeptically welcomed the peace plan outlined by China last month, and the official stance has once again been voiced by the National Security Council spokesman, John Kirby: “The only agreement that we feel is worthwhile is the one that President Zelensky believes to be.”

The Ukrainian government is fully aware that its partners’ credit may run out. Its foreign minister, Dmytro Kuleba, warned in March in The Financial Times that it was necessary to lower expectations regarding the counter-offensive because it could transmit the message to the international community that after this operation, little more will be achieved by military means. Defense Minister Oleksii Reznikov reiterated the same sentiment on Thursday: “There is too much enthusiasm regarding expectations about the counteroffensive.”

Authorities in Kyiv do not want to back down now in the face of attacks against its population and its territory, strongly condemned by the United Nations and the vast majority of the international community. Nobody in Ukraine advocates negotiating anything with Russia that does not first require the withdrawal of its troops from the invaded territories. However, Kuleba pointed out in an interview with EL PAÍS in July 2022 that there are other options on the table. This time, the Foreign Minister assured that it is conceivable that Ukraine will one day join the EU with Russia still occupying part of its territory, as is the case with Cyprus, a member of the European Union despite its territorial sovereignty being under military dispute with Turkey.

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