Chinese President Xi Jinping spoke with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky on Wednesday for the first time since the start of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, continuing a months-long push to position Beijing as a potential peacemaker in the conflict.
Mr. Zelensky said they had a “long and meaningful phone call.” Writing on Twitter, he said the call would, along with the appointment of a new Ukrainian ambassador to China, provide “a powerful impetus to the development of our bilateral relations.”
A Chinese readout, meanwhile, said Mr. Xi told Mr. Zelensky that “dialogue and negotiations are the only viable way out for the Ukraine crisis, and no one wins a nuclear war,” a reference to Russian threats to use weapons of mass destruction.
It wasn’t clear which side had initiated the call, though Mr. Zelensky has made it plain for months that he was hoping to hear from Mr. Xi, who has been in regular contact with Russian President Vladimir Putin. The Chinese leader is seen as one of the few figures on the international stage to hold sway over the Russian ruler.
While the call had symbolic importance, Beijing gave no sign afterward that it was considering modifying its 12-point peace plan, which Kyiv views as heavily tilted in Moscow’s favour because it calls for an immediate ceasefire that would leave Russian troops in control of about 15 per cent of Ukrainian territory.
Later Wednesday, Mr. Zelensky made it clear that Ukraine’s position also remained unchanged.
“No one wants peace more than the Ukrainian people,” he wrote on his Telegram channel, adding that any peace “must be just and sustainable, based on the principles of international law and respect for the UN Charter. There can be no peace at the expense of territorial compromises.”
Russian Foreign Affairs Ministry spokesperson Maria Zakharova praised China’s efforts at peacemaking while criticizing Ukraine’s “rejection of any sensible initiatives aimed at a political and diplomatic settlement.”
White House national security spokesperson John Kirby welcomed the phone call as “a good thing” but said it was too soon to say if it could give momentum to any kind of genuine push for peace.
The last time Mr. Xi and Mr. Zelensky spoke was in January, 2022, when they celebrated the 30th anniversary of diplomatic relations between Ukraine and China. After Russia launched its invasion the following month, Beijing repeatedly stated its neutrality while simultaneously providing tacit support to Russia.
China has abstained from Ukraine-related votes at the United Nations and has boosted Moscow’s propaganda about the war through its own state media. Increased trade with China has also allowed the Russian economy to survive an unprecedented series of Western sanctions.
While giving Mr. Zelensky the cold shoulder over the past 14 months, Mr. Xi has spoken to Mr. Putin multiple times, most recently during a trip to Moscow in March, shortly after the International Criminal Court issued a warrant for Mr. Putin’s arrest. The two men referred to each other as “dear friends” during the visit, and Mr. Xi praised the Russian President’s “strong leadership.”
But China’s support for Russia has also given Beijing unprecedented influence over its northern neighbour.
At the start of the war, many Western leaders saw China as the only country that could potentially broker a deal to end it. Even as it became clear that Beijing was not prepared to intervene in a tangible way, many in Europe did not give up hope, with French President Emmanuel Macron lobbying Mr. Xi to do more during a recent trip to China.
Kyiv, too, has tried to keep China on side. Ukraine is part of Mr. Xi’s signature Belt and Road Initiative, a huge trade and infrastructure project spanning much of the world, and before the war China was Ukraine’s largest trading partner and second-largest arms supplier. When Beijing unveiled its peace plan, Mr. Zelensky called it an “important signal” – though he qualified that praise by calling on China to live up to its own stated respect for the sovereignty and territorial integrity of other countries and once again invited Mr. Xi to speak with him.
Drew Thompson, a senior fellow at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy in Singapore, said the relationship with Ukraine was important to Beijing, providing China with key technologies, including jet engines, for its military modernization efforts.
But he was skeptical about Beijing truly playing a role in any eventual peace process. “I think it would be naive to think China would drive that process or be an honest broker,” Mr. Thompson said.
Rather than looking to Beijing to make peace, Mr. Zelensky likely sought assurances that China will not provide Russia, which is believed to be running low on some types of weapons, with armaments.
“There’s a major fear, both in Kyiv and among the Western powers, of possible military supplies to Russia, which may become a critical factor,” said Sergiy Solodkyy, an international relations expert at the Kyiv-based New Europe Center. Ukraine’s overarching goal in engaging with China, Mr. Solodkyy said, was to convince Beijing to maintain its neutrality and use its leverage to moderate Mr. Putin’s behaviour.
“Ukraine understands that China has influence on Putin, and there is a certain hope – maybe only a slight one – that the Chinese leadership may somehow influence the decision-making in Moscow.”
After Wednesday’s call, China’s Foreign Affairs Ministry announced that Li Hui, a former ambassador to Russia, will act as special representative to Ukraine, charged with trying to find a settlement to the crisis. Mr. Zelensky in turn named former cabinet minister Pavlo Riabikin as Ukraine’s new envoy to Beijing – the first Ukrainian ambassador to China since February, 2021, when Serhii Kamyshev died of a heart attack while in the post.