Zelensky’s Gambit Puts China’s Xi on the Spot

Volodymyr Zelensky has spent 13 months waiting for Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping to pick up the phone. Vladimir Putin, by contrast, had Xi’s ear long before Russia’s invasion began.

Publicly, Ukraine’s president has given China the benefit of the doubt, choosing to see the positives in Beijing’s competing peace proposal and solacing himself with the fact that Chinese arms haven’t yet poured onto the battlefield from the other side to backstop the war of attrition.

In mid-March, before Xi traveled to Moscow for his first meeting of the year with Putin, a Wall Street Journal report said the Chinese leader was likely to finally speak with Zelensky thereafter. Two weeks later, Zelensky said the call was still impending..
“We are ready to see him here,” he told the Associated Press on Tuesday. “I want to speak with him. I had contact with him before full-scale war. But during all this year, more than one year, I didn’t have.”
Apart from the occasional meeting of foreign ministers, communication between the capitals largely happens at embassy and consulate level, according to those in the know.

On Thursday, Dmytro Kuleba, Ukraine’s top diplomat, said China’s official response was that “they’re carefully examining the request” for a call and visit.

A direct conversation between the two leaders could conceivably lend some credibility to China’s role as a peacemaker in Europe after a recent success in the Middle East. But it remains an open question whether it really wants to engage itself in intractable challenges beyond its borders.

In spite of Beijing’s deepening alignment with Moscow, Kyiv’s own hedge on the topic has put Xi on the spot; nothing China’s president has said or done so far has dissuaded Zelensky from actively seeking dialogue with Putin’s most important quasi-ally.
Zelensky’s repeated public and private attempts are an invitation for Xi to prove he’s serious about mediating a dispute with global consequences, whose outcome, if positive, would doubtless elevate China’s international standing and demonstrate its readiness to accept the responsibilities that come with being a major power.
“Politically and diplomatically, it’s a good move by our president: invite Xi to Ukraine in order to give him a chance to prove his sincerity about his ‘peace plan,'” said Oleksandr Merezhko, a member of Ukraine’s parliament and chair of its foreign affairs committee.

“Since Xi has already met Putin two times and visited Moscow since February 24, 2022, it would be fair to come to Kyiv. It would prove that China is really ‘neutral,’ at least diplomatically,” Merezhko told Newsweek.

“When Xi is eager to go to Putin but doesn’t want to come meet Zelensky, it’s a clear sign that China is on the side of Russia. I doubt that Xi will come to Ukraine,” he said.
Like roughly two-thirds of the world’s economies, Ukraine counted China as its largest trading partner before the war. The 31-year relationship also involved the understated transfer to China of Ukrainian defense industry hardware and know-how.

Two-way trade between the countries fell 60 percent in 2022, while Beijing’s economic turnover with Moscow grew nearly 35 percent year-on-year as China underwrote the Kremlin’s losses by buying cheaper oil and gas.

Having led his country through a year of war, Zelensky is now showing Ukraine’s public, including the millions stranded abroad, that he’s willing to exhaust every avenue, however unlikely, to peace. Ultimately, Kyiv says, its 10-point “peace formula” is the way.

“Zelensky has one aim overall: to win the war, and to bolster Ukrainian security for whatever comes after the war. His overarching priority is to do whatever serves those purposes and to do nothing that could harm those purposes,” said Sam Greene, a director at the Center for European Policy Analysis in Washington and a professor of Russian politics at King’s College London.
“Xi is somebody that Zelensky will want to take seriously, but he can’t afford to be sentimental about any of this. There’s no incentive for him to go out of his way to be nice to Xi. There’s also no purpose to be served simply by needlessly antagonizing China,” Greene told Newsweek.

He said: “The message has been: ‘We are happy to have conversations with you, and if you are able to bring Russia to its senses, then wonderful. But at the end of the day, Ukraine cannot afford to compromise on questions of its sovereignty and territorial integrity.'”
Yurii Poita, who heads the Asia section of the Kyiv-based New Geopolitics Research Network, said Zelensky’s government remains hopefully that China can play a constructive role in resolving the conflict.

“I believe their expectations are much, much lower than they were one year ago, or even a few months ago, and gradually diminishing,” he told Newsweek. “But it’s better to talk than to be silent.”

Kyiv is playing “good cop, bad cop” in pursuit of demonstration value, he said. Zelensky is putting the ball in China’s court with each proposal. When Beijing doesn’t react, it invites pressure.

“China should constantly be put in an inconvenient position outside of its comfort zone,” said Poita. “If Zelensky talks to Xi, I believe he could again throw the ball to China to show that the Chinese position isn’t clear or according to international law. China would be forced to respond and explain itself.”

Merezhko, the lawmaker who represents Zelensky’s Servant of the People party, added: “Zelensky would raise the issue that China could stop the Russian aggression if it really wanted to, and would perhaps ask Xi to use his influence over Putin to make him stop the aggression and to withdraw Russian troops from the territory of Ukraine.”
“We have one major goal now: to stop Russian aggression,” Merezhko said.

Mao Ning, a spokesperson for China’s foreign ministry, said Beijing was in touch “with all relevant parties, including Ukraine.” She had no information about upcoming leader-level talks and was “not aware” of Zelensky’s invitation to Xi, she said on Wednesday.
Guesstimating Putin

Xi’s high-profile trip to Moscow marked the beginning of his third term as president of China. Zelensky congratulated him on the occasion, China’s state media said, although his real authority over the country had already been cemented at a major Communist Party event last October.

Beijing’s own 12-point peace proposal to end the war, and news of possible talks with Zelensky, effectively cushioned Xi’s face time in the Kremlin, subject-matter experts argue. Putin, meanwhile, was quick to reaffirm the Russia-China tandem as a partnership “without limitations or taboos.”
Zelensky’s Gambit With China’s Xi Jinping
President Vladimir Putin of Russia, right, meets with President Xi Jinping of China at the Kremlin in Moscow on March 21, 2023. Trade between the two nations has grown since the start of the Russia-Ukraine war.

“It was well choreographed. Even after the International Criminal Court’s arrest warrant for Putin, many were willing to overlook such a negative moment because of Xi’s potential mediating role. But it is my impression that whenever these two get together, bad things happen. Russia invaded Ukraine 19 days after the Xi-Putin meeting in Beijing,” Theresa Fallon, the director of the Center for Russia Europe Asia Studies in Brussels, told Newsweek.

“China wants to be courted as a mediator; that’s an attractive position for them to be in. Beijing wants to convince the world that they are neutral, but they lean towards Moscow. They have had multiple meetings and calls with Putin but none with Zelensky since the war began—13 months—so I think it does raise a red flag about whether Beijing can really be considered a neutral mediator,” she said.

“It’s wishful thinking that Xi has influence on Putin. My impression is that they’re working together because they have common objectives. Xi needs to keep Putin close, even though he may not be 100 percent thrilled with what Putin is doing. But there are other benefits for Beijing because it distracts U.S. attention and economic and military bandwidth from Asia,” said Fallon.

“In addition, a weakened Russia that is more dependent on China and offers Beijing more leverage over the Kremlin and an opportunity to negotiate for bigger asks from their wish list, which might include access to Arctic bases and more advanced Russian technology previously withheld.” she said.

Zelensky sees Xi’s lack of enthusiasm for Putin’s nuclear sabre-rattling as a sign that there are limits to China’s otherwise “rock-solid” relations with Russia. At the same time, Kyiv will be aware of its own finite capacity to influence Beijing.

“We believe that one of the key reasons of the last visit of President Xi to Russia was actually to test the ground and to see whether Russia is ready to make any changes in its current behavior, and whether there are ways to make Russia change its behavior,” Drunk, Ukraine’s foreign minister, told a virtual panel hosted by London’s Chatham House.

Beijing’s alignment with Moscow and its reluctance to alienate crucial economic partners in the West mean its Ukraine policy has been a high-wire act from the start.

China is the only other major power to offer conditions that might bring Russia’s yearlong war to a close. From Kyiv’s persecutive, however, the proposal’s failure to demand the unconditional withdrawal of Moscow’s forces is a fatal flaw.

But Ukraine has ways to reject China’s views on the right path to peace without explicitly saying so. When appropriate, it also has the luxury of allowing its committed Western backers, including U.S. President Joe Biden, to speak on its behalf.

“We notice that other nations are also putting forth their own initiatives. We appreciate their focus on a problem that jeopardizes global security. However, I would like to emphasize that the Ukrainian people will accept peace only if it guarantees the cessation of Russian aggression in full, the complete withdrawal of Russian troops from Ukrainian territory, and the restoration of our state’s territorial integrity within internationally recognized borders,” Kuleba said on Tuesday.

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken, who was hosting Kuleba and other diplomats at this year’s Summary for Democracy forum, said: “I think we all have to be very much aware and beware of what may seem to be well-intentioned efforts, for example, to call for cease-fires, which would potentially have the effect of freezing in place the conflict, allowing Russia to consolidate the gains that it’s made.”

“And so what seems to be appealing on the surface—who wouldn’t want the guns to be silent?—can also be a very cynical trap that we have to be very, very careful of,” Blinken said.

Vedant Patel, a State Department spokesperson, said Wednesday that it was “up to Ukraine” to accept China’s peace plan. “A proposal that is going to allow Russia to refit its forces, or something that’s going to lead to a further assault, certainly would be a nonstarter for us.”


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