You might have expected US officials to seem concerned about reports that Chinese President Xi Jinping is planning to speak with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky after Xi’s likely trip to Russia next week. After all, Xi, who leads the country the US views as its greatest strategic threat, is feeling stronger than ever. In the past few days, the most powerful Chinese leader since Mao Zedong secured an unprecedented third presidential term and, in a blow to US influence in the Middle East, Xi helped broker a diplomatic agreement between bitter rivals – Iran and Saudi Arabia.
Now, emboldened by that success, Xi may try to bring peace to Ukraine. If he can find a formula that stops the bloodshed in Ukraine without allowing Russia’s aggression to pay off, Xi will deserve the plaudits. Zelensky, the Ukrainian people, as well as the US and its allies would welcome such an outcome. But this is all a big if. Given the potential – and other less obvious but also important outcomes that could follow from the meeting – it’s not surprising that Washington seems rather pleased by the news. National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan hailed the idea, saying the US has been trying to convince Xi to speak with Zelensky. Zelensky, too, has wanted to talk to Xi, one of the few major global players with whom he has not had a chance to have a conversation since the war began.
Zelensky has good reason to trust his powers of persuasion, and by now the US has also learned that Zelensky can be a very convincing advocate for his country. Although the meeting – which would be a call, according to the Wall Street Journal – has not been confirmed, it would allow Xi to raise his status as a global statesman and peacemaker. Both Zelensky and the Biden administration also hope that the conversation would give Xi a different perspective. Crucially, they hope it will help prevent China from deciding to provide arms to Russia. China denies it plans to arm Moscow, but several western governments have suggested Beijing is seriously considering it. If Xi moves to bolster Russia’s arsenal, it could turn the tide of a war that has largely been disastrous for Russia, and could make for a much deadlier, long-lasting and geopolitically dangerous conflict.
China has been trying to convince the world that it can offer an alternative to US power. A real attempt to broker peace in Ukraine, even an unsuccessful one, can help promote the image of responsible statesmanship. From the US perspective, the effort has the potential to start loosening the ties in the “no-limits” friendship between Xi and Putin which, as I argued before, should be a goal of US foreign policy. It’s a bit of jujitsu, with China’s success in the Middle East potentially helping US aims elsewhere, by encouraging Xi to try his hand in Ukraine – opening the possibility that it could put distance between him and Putin. And yet, a conversation between Xi and Zelensky – which would come just after Xi visits Putin – could be risky.
Xi and Putin – the autocracy brothers – have much in common, from their wish to see the United States and the western alliance weakened, to their disdain for democracy and their autocratic practices at home. It’s fair to say Xi would prefer the war to end without a Russian defeat.
In the call, Xi could warn Zelensky that Putin might start receiving Chinese weaponry unless Ukraine agrees to territorial concessions. Xi might be willing to do that even if sending weapons to Russia could trigger damaging western sanctions against China while it’s trying to recover from its disastrous zero-Covid policy. And if Xi did, that would put enormous pressure on Zelensky, who has steadfastly refused to let Russia keep any Ukrainian land. But it’s also possible that Xi could exert pressure on Putin to accept a different kind of arrangement, one that allows him to extract his troops from the meatgrinder into which he has sent them at a cost of tens of thousands of Russian lives. If Russia had won swiftly, as so many expected, China would probably not mind that Russia invaded Ukraine, a pro-western country whose sovereignty Putin rejects, as China does Taiwan’s.
However, that has not been the case. And so a few weeks ago, Beijing released a 12-point peace plan to end the war in Ukraine. Zelensky welcomed China’s new interest in Ukraine, calling it “not bad.” The plan called for “respecting the sovereignty of all countries,” but it was strikingly vague. It seemed more intended to outline what China wants from the world than what is required to stop the war. The position paper also called for “abandoning the Cold War mentality,” and the expansion of a military bloc – meaning NATO – as well as stopping economic sanctions and “keeping industrial and supply chains stable.” It was a clear sign of the reasons why China would like this war to end. The Chinese outline further calls for ceasing hostilities and starting peace talks. But, unlike Zelensky’s plan, it does not require Russia to remove its troops currently occupying big pieces of Ukraine.
A ceasefire under those conditions would cement Russia’s control and stop the momentum, which arguably now favors Ukraine. Even in Bakhmut, where Ukrainians are struggling to hold ground, Russia has spent months seeking to capture the now-devastated town. It may capture it in the end, but the cost shows just how fiercely Ukrainians are fighting.
Simply put, a formula exists for ending the war in Ukraine. But Putin is determined to keep parts of Ukraine, and Zelensky and his people oppose such an outcome. If Xi can convince Putin to accept security guarantees – perhaps by pressuring Ukraine to pledge that it will not seek to join NATO – he would earn a reputation of peacemaker. Other elements could also factor into a deal, such as a legitimate, internationally supervised referendum in certain regions – without Russian troops on the ground – on which nation people want to join.
Optimism about a peace deal, however, is in short supply. The two sides are far apart. Putin thinks he can outlast western support for Ukraine. The latest statement on Ukraine by Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis supports that view if the likely presidential contender wins in 2024, and the war has not yet ended. Both DeSantis and Trump seem inclined to stand back and let Putin take pieces of Ukraine. The most realistically hopeful outcome of the talks, if they indeed occur, is that Zelensky’s powers of persuasion will work, convincing Xi to keep his weapons out of Russia’s hands, and – an even better-case scenario – that Xi might prevail on Putin that this war is unwinnable, so that the bloodshed on both sides can come to an end. Those odds, however, are not good.