Very little in Chinese diplomacy happens by accident. Certainly not when it comes to phone calls that President Xi Jinping could have made at any point in the past 14 months.
So, in analyzing Mr. Xi’s long-awaited phone call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky on Wednesday – it’s not yet clear who called whom – it’s useful to ask: Why now?
The timing contained a gift and a coded warning for both sides in Russia’s war against Ukraine. To Russia, Mr. Xi bestowed the gift of again raising his 12-point peace plan, a vision viewed as a non-starter in Kyiv and the West because it calls for an immediate ceasefire that would leave Russian troops in control of about 15 per cent of Ukrainian territory. The 12 points do not say if or when Russian forces would be required to withdraw from the territories they seized in the early days of the invasion.
In finally accepting Mr. Zelensky’s months-old invitation to talk – while Mr. Xi has been in regular contact with Russian President Vladimir Putin, he hadn’t spoken to Mr. Zelensky since before the start of the invasion in February, 2022 – the Chinese President also did so at a moment that could work in Moscow’s favour.
Ukrainian troops are in the final stages of preparations for a counteroffensive they hope will lead to the liberation of parts of southern and eastern Ukraine that are currently under Russian occupation. Now that counteroffensive will look, to some, like an aggressive move, as though Ukraine rebuffed a chance to talk peace and instead chose to continue the war.
That’s nonsense, of course. Ukrainian officials rightly point out that Russia can end the war at any moment simply by withdrawing its troops and ending its missile attacks on Ukrainian cities. But there are large parts of the globe, notably in the BRICS alliance countries – Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa – where Moscow’s narrative holds sway.
It also helped the Kremlin that Mr. Xi’s conversation with Mr. Zelensky overshadowed Wednesday’s other Russia-related news: new trumped-up “terrorism” charges against Russian opposition leader Alexey Navalny that could keep him behind bars for life.
But Mr. Xi’s call wasn’t entirely timed to Moscow’s liking. Nor was the messaging from Beijing afterward.
Of all the days that Mr. Xi could have spoken to Mr. Zelensky, he chose April 26, the anniversary of the 1986 disaster at the Chernobyl nuclear reactor. It’s a date blazed into the memory of everyone – including Mr. Putin and Mr. Zelensky – who grew up in the Soviet Union, and no one living in the former USSR would think Mr. Xi chose the date at random.
Mr. Putin has repeatedly hinted that Russia could resort to using its nuclear arsenal if Ukraine and its allies cross Moscow’s “red lines” in the conflict – language that some interpret as a warning about any attempt to retake the Crimean Peninsula, which Russia illegally seized and claimed to have annexed in 2014.
Mr. Putin’s warnings about using weapons of mass destruction have grown quieter in recent months. At the same time, under heavy Western sanctions, Russia’s economic reliance on China has grown. With its stocks of some types of weapons believed to be dwindling, Moscow is hoping Beijing will supply it with the kind of military assistance that the West has been providing to Ukraine.
By choosing the Chernobyl anniversary to finally speak with Mr. Zelensky, Mr. Xi was further clarifying his own red line in the war. China stands with Russia – but with an unambiguous caveat: no use of nuclear weapons. “Dialogue and negotiations are the only viable way out for the Ukraine crisis,” said a Chinese readout of the conversation between the two leaders Wednesday. “And no one wins a nuclear war.”