Will the deadlock in the Ukraine war be broken in Bakhmut or Beijing? At the moment, all eyes are focused on the much-trailed Ukrainian counter-offensive — which is likely to begin soon. But there are also significant developments on the diplomatic front.
Last week, Xi Jinping called Volodymyr Zelenskyy. On a recent visit to Kyiv, I was surprised by the eager anticipation — in both the president’s office and the foreign ministry — of that conversation with China’s leader. Now the Xi-Zelenskyy call has finally taken place and, according to the Ukrainian president, it was “long and meaningful”. Beijing later announced that it would appoint an envoy to work towards a peace settlement.
There are obvious reasons to be wary of China’s diplomatic efforts. Xi has repeatedly emphasised his regard for his “dear friend”, Vladimir Putin. China’s peace plan for Ukraine, released earlier this year, was vague and did not call for the withdrawal of Russian troops. There are clear propaganda benefits for Beijing to proclaim itself interested in “peace”, while doing not terribly much. Even if China is in earnest, it will be fearsomely difficult to bridge the gap between Kyiv and Moscow.
And yet, it is wrong to dismiss the idea that China could play a big role in ending this brutal conflict. For different reasons, Ukraine, Russia, the US, Europe and China itself all have a potential interest in Beijing’s involvement.
The Ukrainians understand that Xi has unique leverage over Putin — should he choose to use it. In the face of western sanctions, Russia is reliant on China to keep its economy afloat.
The Biden administration reckons that there is very little prospect of China exerting meaningful pressure on Russia, and some top officials still fear that Beijing will go in the opposite direction and supply Russia with weapons. But the Ukrainians are more hopeful. They thought they saw real signs of tension between Putin and Xi during the Chinese president’s recent visit to Moscow — and even claimed to me that Xi cut short his visit.
Why might Xi be losing patience with Putin? There is no doubt that the Russian and Chinese leaders are united in their hostility to US power. A swift Russian victory in Ukraine might have suited China well. But a prolonged war is turning into a strategic liability for Beijing. Rather than weakening the US-led alliance system, the war in Ukraine has pulled the US, Europe and Asian democracies closer together.
China has spent decades trying to build its influence in Europe. But its self-proclaimed “no limits” partnership with Russia has convinced many Europeans that Beijing is now a threat, too. Americans and Europeans are using the same language about “de-risking” their relationship with China by reducing economic dependencies. That matters to Beijing because the EU is China’s largest export market. Military ties between Japan, Europe and the US are also strengthening.
The best way for Beijing to rebuild its reputation in Europe would be to play a visible and positive role in ending the war. That kind of move would also have a global impact — supporting Xi’s preferred narrative that American power is in retreat and that China is a force for peace.
There is certainly evidence that Beijing is getting a taste for the peacemaking business. China is basking in the positive publicity gained from its role in normalising relations between Iran and Saudi Arabia. The Chinese recently chaired a conference in Samarkand on peace in Afghanistan. Beijing has even spoken of mediating in the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. (When I mentioned this in Washington, the news was greeted with a grin and a “good luck with that one”.)
Given the ever increasing rivalry between Washington and Beijing, it might be expected that the US would take a dim view of China getting involved in Ukraine. But, after some internal debate, the Biden administration has decided not to dismiss the Chinese peace initiative out of hand, but instead to try to mould it.
The Americans understand the dangers of appearing to be “anti-peace”. But it is not just that. The US is also increasingly keen to find a way of ending the war in Ukraine. Washington knows that the longer the conflict goes on, the harder it will be to maintain a western consensus on pouring billions in military and economic aid into Ukraine.
The mainstream view in Washington, and in many European capitals, is that the Ukrainians should be given as much support as possible, ahead of their counter-offensive. The Ukrainian goal is to win such a decisive victory that the Putin era is ended. But that is a long shot. A more likely outcome is that Ukraine strengthens its hand on the battlefield, ahead of peace talks.
There has been plenty of discussion of whether the western alliance would ever put pressure on Ukraine to negotiate. Less discussed, but probably more important, is who could force Russia to make meaningful concessions — including withdrawing from occupied territory and abandoning the effort to wreck Ukraine.
The only plausible answer to that question is China. Only Xi can offer a warm handshake to Putin in public — and a twisted arm in private. At some point, the Chinese leader could decide that it is in his country’s interests to do just that.