Xi calls Zelensky: What does it mean for the Russia-Ukraine War?

Learn more about Igor Khrestin .
Igor Khrestin
Bradford M. Freeman Managing Director, Global Policy
George W. Bush Institute

The President of China Xi Jinping held an almost-hour long conversation with his Ukrainian counterpart Volodymyr Zelensky this week, where the two leaders discussed bilateral relations and the Russo-Ukrainian war, including China’s announcement that it will send a special envoy to negotiate peace in Ukraine.

Why This Matters

The conversation between the Chinese and Ukrainian leaders is the first time the two spoke since Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine began on Feb. 24, 2022 and since Xi Jinping’s high-profile visit to Moscow last month, aimed at strengthening Sino-Russian ties. It also comes a day after controversial comments by Lu Shaye, China’s Ambassador to France, who contended in a live interview that post-Soviet nations like Ukraine did not have “effective status under international law,” sparking off furious condemnation across Europe. Beijing quickly walked back these ill-timed comments, but the damage was done, and possibly hastened the long-awaited contact between Presidents Xi and Zelensky.

Bottom Line

China’s role in Russia’s war against Ukraine has been the subject of great debate, and this call will only intensify the focus on Beijing’s future intentions with regard to this conflict. On the one hand, Russia’s military failure and the harsh economic sanctions imposed by the West have greatly deepened Russia’s reliance on China, undoubtedly to Beijing’s benefit as it seeks to curb U.S. global influence. On the other hand, China’s frequent incantations of being a responsible peacemaker in the conflict will now be put to the test, as most Western stakeholders consider China’s 12-point peace plan, released on the one-year anniversary of the war, to be nothing more than a thinly-veiled cover for supporting its junior partner in Moscow and creating distance between Europe, the United States, and the nations of the so-called “global South” that are less invested in the Russo-Ukrainian conflict and may see Beijing’s plan as a reasonable way to end it.

The U.S. and its allies should continue to reiterate to Beijing that more active Chinese involvement should only be to put pressure on their Russian “partners” to stop their brutal invasion and to withdraw their troops from Ukraine’s internationally recognized sovereign territory, including Crimea. While this scenario is unlikely, both Washington and Brussels should be upfront with Beijing about the possible economic and diplomatic consequences for China, should Xi Jinping choose to more actively side with Vladimir Putin in the near future.  Finally, the West should continue to arm Ukraine, so that Kyiv can prevail and restore its territorial integrity with or without Beijing’s cynical overtures.