The Ukrainian president has become the face of Ukrainian resistance: Volodymyr Zelenskyy has made hundreds of public speeches in Ukraine and abroad and captured the world’s attention. The former actor and comedian was named Time’s Person of the Year in 2022 and has been extraordinarily effective in terms of getting military and financial aid for Ukraine. He lives on a tight schedule, playing the biggest role in his career — wartime president. The whole world is watching Zelenskyy, and he understands his responsibility to lead his country through war.
Since April 2022, the Ukrainian president has hosted many world leaders in Kyiv and has paid visits to key partners abroad. He never misses a chance to criticize the Western partners for slowing military aid or to accuse the UN Security Council of inaction in response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. But he has never said a word against China, which has significantly intensified its cooperation with Moscow since the beginning of full-scale invasion.
President Zelenskyy has addressed the Chinese leadership many times publicly using different media platforms. This year at the World Economic Forum in Davos, First Lady Olena Zelenska delivered a letter to the Chinese delegation setting out Zelenskyy’s proposals for ending Russia’s war against Ukraine. We have never seen any official response to these efforts, but our president hasn’t lost hope of reaching Xí Jìnpíng 习近平.
It suddenly happened this April, right after China’s ambassador to France, Lú Shāyě 卢沙野, ignited fury across Europe by giving an interview in which he questioned the legal status of Ukraine and other countries that were formerly part of the Soviet Union.
Zelenskyy’s conversation with Xi was described as “long and meaningful.” It lasted about an hour, and inspired the Ukrainian government and ordinary Ukrainians. The media became more hopeful about the possible success of China’s peace mission in Ukraine. Every world outlet covered the event. But the appointments of China’s special envoy Lǐ Huī 李辉 and Ukrainian ambassador to China Pavlo Ryabikin were the only constructive results of the virtual meeting.
Li Hui visited Kyiv in May 2023 and took part in a multilateral meeting on a peace plan for Ukraine in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, in August.
In Kyiv, Li met with Ukraine’s top officials, including Zelenskyy. He was given a high-level reception, and had an opportunity to get all the information about the Zelenskyy peace plan and to talk directly to the Ukrainian minister of defense, and the minister of foreign affairs. Even though we haven’t seen any results from China playing its “constructive role in promoting the political settlement of the Ukraine issue,” Zelenskyy welcomed Li for another round of joint peace talks in Malta this month.
Since the full-scale invasion, Zelenskyy has taken on the responsibility for the foreign policy of Ukraine. He has discussed China’s potential role in ending the war in Ukraine with our international partners. Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida has said that he believes that Ukraine is under China’s “nuclear umbrella.” European leaders, who visited China this year, made the war in Ukraine a top priority in their dialogue with Beijing because they see that China has a role to play. China needs Europe. The conversation with Beijing needs to continue.
Among ordinary Ukrainians, China’s close partnership with Russia and official peace-making mission has caused a mixed reaction, mostly negative. China’s ambiguous position toward Ukraine looks like it is playing a geopolitical great game in a time of global turbulence. But Zelenskyy is willing to play a diplomatic long game as long as China does not supply weapons to Russia. Ukraine is in a weak position and needs as much support as possible.
In terms of business, China has been Ukraine’s first key trade partner since 2019. Zelenskyy also takes this into consideration when he doesn’t criticize Beijing. Even during the most recent months, China has benefited the most from Ukrainian grain under the Black Sea Grain Initiative. This summer, Deputy Minister of Economy of Ukraine Taras Kachka made the first visit by a Ukrainian official to China since the beginning of the Russian invasion, with the goal of increasing exports. This door remains open for future negotiations.
China has yet to offer a real peace plan. It has issued a 12-point position paper on a political settlement that could be used for any crisis in the world. But the paper does have something in common with the Ukrainian peace formula: It calls for “keeping nuclear power plants safe.” Ukraine’s Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant is under Russian occupation. We need to talk with all International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) members, including China, about how to demilitarize it. Zelenskyy is using every platform he can to remind people about the risk of a second Chernobyl.
The clash between the two superpowers, the U.S. and China, won’t help Ukraine end Russia’s war. Chinese state media officials have said many times that the U.S. is adding “fuel to the fire.” Consequently, they see this war through the lens of U.S.-China rivalry. No doubt, Ukraine has taken the path of European integration. After the Russian invasion, there are no other alternatives left. We now have deeply negative attitudes toward Russians and there will be a chasm between the two peoples for generations.
The Chinese have slowly started to understand that; at least the intellectuals have. Meanwhile, the Biden-Harris administration’s National Security Strategy labels China a “competitor,” but calls Russia a “threat” and an “enemy.” The U.S. and Ukraine have that in common.
Every country has its own national interests; nevertheless, the Ukrainian factor could be a key point in a U.S.-China strategic compromise. Xi’s position as a “Ukrainian crisis” watcher, but not an active participant, has been accepted by Zelenskyy so far. There is hope that the likely meeting between Biden and Xi at the APEC Summit November 14–16, 2023, in San Francisco will make the Chinese-Russian “no limit” partnership less strategic, at least in critical spheres.
“We will always be willing to work with the P.R.C. where our interests align,” as it says in the U.S. National Security Strategy. Peace in Europe is in the world’s interest.