Ukraine waits for its moment with China’s Xi but will Kyiv be heard?


Ukrainian servicemen head toward Bakhmut in a BMP infantry fighting vehicle, in eastern Ukraine on March 22, 2023.

Aris Messinis | AFP | Getty Images

Ukraine was uncharacteristically tight-lipped about Chinese President Xi Jinping’s high-profile visit to Moscow this week, watching on as Russia rolled out the red carpet for China’s leader and waiting for its turn to have an audience with Xi.

Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelenskyy and the Chinese president were reportedly set to have a telephone call after the Sino-Russian meeting but there has been no further updates on this and, when asked Tuesday about a possible call between the leaders, Zelenskyy said “nothing specific [has been decided]; we don’t yet have a confirmation.”

China has been looking to position itself as a peace broker between Russia and Ukraine for a while, offering to mediate a cease-fire early in the conflict and recently issuing a 12-point peace plan that called for a de-escalation of tensions. China’s proposals were discussed by Xi and President Vladimir Putin in Moscow and, unsurprisingly, they both endorsed Beijing’s plan in a joint statement that was tacitly critical of the West.

Putin tried to posit Ukraine and the West as standing in the way of peace, however, saying that there were provisions in China’s plan that “can be taken as the basis for a peaceful settlement” when Kyiv and the West are ready for it. “However, so far we see no such readiness from their side,” Putin said after talks.

Having been uncharacteristically tight-lipped about Putin and Xi’s meeting, Zelenskyy responded Tuesday by saying that Kyiv had “invited” China to participate in a Ukrainian-devised peace formula to end the war, but that it was still waiting for a reponse.

“We offered China to become a partner in the implementation of the peace formula. We passed over our formula across all channels. We invite you to dialogue. We are waiting for your answer,” Zelenskyy told a press conference Tuesday, adding: “We are receiving some signals, but there are no specifics yet.”

The Kremlin said Wednesday that Ukraine’s “peace formula” had not been discussed by Xi and Putin.

Russian President Vladimir Putin and China’s President Xi Jinping leave after a reception following their talks at the Kremlin in Moscow on March 21, 2023.

Pavel Byrkin | Afp | Getty Images

Some analysts think Ukraine would be better off focusing on its existing Western allies than trying to win over a China that’s overtly aligned with Russia on an ideological, economic and military level.

“After his visit to Moscow, we don’t need to speak with him [Xi] right now,” Oleksandr Musiyenko, a military expert and head of the Centre for Military and Legal Studies in Kyiv, told CNBC Wednesday.

“I do not see an importance for Kyiv and for President Zelensky to have an audience or any conversations with Xi Jinping and China at all right now, because we can see that after Xi’s visit to Moscow … [there has been a] strengthening of autocracy between Putin and Xi. China has chosen a side, the side of Russia,” Musiyenko added.

“I’m not confident that China’s plans, and 12-point peace plan, is good for Ukraine — I think that this is a very bad deal for Ukraine, and that this is a plan for Russia. I do not see a possibility and importance of talking,” he said.

A peace deal Ukraine can’t accept

Ukraine probably isn't going to accept anything less than retaking all its territory from Russia

As such, analysts say Ukraine is being boxed into a corner in which Russia appears willing to discuss China’s peace deal while knowing that Ukraine will never accept anything less than the full restoration of its territorial integrity.

“Putin has told the Chinese he’s willing to accept discussion of a China-promoted ceasefire in full knowledge that Ukraine opposes it,” Ian Bremmer, founder and president of the Eurasia Group, said this week.

“There’s nothing in this for the Ukrainians, who have no interest in accepting a ceasefire when roughly 13% of their territory is occupied and they’re planning a major counteroffensive in the coming weeks (which they expect to be at least somewhat successful, especially now that their near-term ammunition problem has largely been solved by the United States and its allies).”

Bremmer believes it was notable that Xi announced his visit to see Putin before his expected Zelenskyy call was set up, noting that “Ukraine has been slow rolling getting a final date because they want it to be clear that Beijing is firmly on Russia’s side of the conflict.”

Still, he noted, “when it eventually happens, Ukraine will be careful not to take on China directly — with Ukraine’s foreign minister reaffirming the ‘One China’ principle in a phone call with his Chinese counterpart last week and congratulating China on brokering the Iran-Saudi breakthrough.”

Russia needs China, does Kyiv?

Xi’s visit mattered to Putin as he looked for support from China, one of Russia’s last remaining powerful allies, but China matters to Kyiv whether it likes it or not: Xi is not only one of the most powerful men in the world but he is also among the few people who could, perhaps, influence Putin and alter the course of the war in Ukraine.

Atlantic Council CEO on the high stakes Xi-Putin meeting

Ukraine’s desire to keep the door open to Chinese diplomacy and support could be seen from Zelenskyy and his closest officials holding back on any public criticism of Xi’s visit to Moscow. Whether Ukraine has something to offer China in return, and whether it’s a price worth paying, is questionable.

Analysts note Ukraine has little tangible to offer China in return for any support while Russia has essentially opened itself to being exploited by Beijing in return for its geopolitical support, with potentially long-term Chinese access to discounted Russian resources, and potential future military support, likely to be a part of the bargain.

Summarizing that imbalance, Fred Kempe, the chief executive of the Atlantic Council, told CNBC this week that China and Russia’s talks demonstrated “Putin’s desperation meeting Xi’s opportunism.”

Whether China can seriously help bring about a peace in Ukraine — although it would like the kudos for doing so — is largely uncertain given China’s current “pro-Moscow neutrality stance,” as geopolitical analysts Andrius Tursa and Gabriel Wildau at consultancy Teneo Intelligence said Wednesday.

Xi may well follow up his Moscow trip with a call to Zelenskyy to propose a settlement of the war, they noted, but said at this point “China’s current proposals are too general to merit serious consideration.”

“Given its leverage over Russia, Beijing could in theory help Ukraine extract concessions from Moscow. However, it remains unclear whether China would be willing to exercise this leverage to broker a deal. Moreover, Ukraine and its Western supporters continue to regard any proposal that leaves Ukrainian territory in Russian hands as a non-starter,” they said in an analysis note.

Musiyenko said Ukraine was better off sticking with its Western allies, and trying to encourage more support from the likes of India, than chasing China’s favor.

“For us in Ukraine right now it’s better to strengthen our Western coalition, with our allies and partners in the West,” he added, saying he believed the visit of Japan’s prime minister to Kyiv earlier this week, while Xi was in Russia, was very important.

“We can see that the Western coalition also unites Asian countries like Japan, and probably in the future we expect and want it to also include India, and that it supports democracies and Western civilization. I think Kyiv needs to be on this side,” he said.

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