July 24, 2024

Chinese President Xi Jinping spoke by telephone on Wednesday Ukraine’s Volodymyr Zelenskiy for the first time since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine last year, fulfilling a longstanding goal of Kyiv which had publicly sought such talks for months.

Zelenskiy immediately signaled the importance of the chance to open closer relations with Russia’s most powerful friend, naming a former cabinet minister as Ukraine’s new ambassador to Beijing.

Describing the phone call as “long and meaningful,” Zelenskiy tweeted: “I believe that this call, as well as the appointment of Ukraine’s ambassador to China, will give a powerful impetus to the development of our bilateral relations.”

Xi told Zelenskiy that China would send special representatives to Ukraine and hold talks with all parties seeking peace, Chinese state media reported.

Xi, the most powerful world leader to have refrained from denouncing Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, made a state visit to Russia last month. Since February, he has promoted a 12-point peace plan for Ukraine, greeted with skepticism from the West but cautiously welcomed by Kyiv.

Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky, chief of staff of Presidential Office Andriy Yermak and Secretary of Ukraininian National Security and Defence Council Oleksiy Danilov attend a meeting of the National Security and Defence Council in Kyiv, Ukraine September 30, 2022. (credit: Ukrainian Presidential Press Service/Handout via REUTERS)

China will focus on promoting peace talks, and make efforts for a ceasefire as soon as possible, Xi told Zelenskiy, according to the Chinese state media reports.

“As a permanent member of the UN Security Council and a responsible major country, we will neither sit idly by, nor pour oil on fire, still less seek to profit from it,” Xi said.

The 14 month war is at a juncture, with Ukraine preparing to launch a counteroffensive in the coming weeks or months, following a Russian winter offensive that made only incremental advances despite the bloodiest fighting so far.

There are no peace talks in sight, with Kyiv demanding Russia withdraw its troops and Moscow insisting Ukraine must recognize its claims to have annexed seized territory.

Ukraine calls on Beijing to influence Russia

Ukrainian officials have long been calling on Beijing to use its influence in Russia to help end the war.

Xi and Russian President Vladimir Putin signed a “no limits” partnership agreement weeks before Putin ordered the invasion.

Since then, China has denounced Western sanctions against Moscow but has held back from openly supporting the invasion. China has also become Russia’s biggest economic partner, buying up oil that can no longer be sold in Europe, often at steep discounts.

Following the Xi-Zelenskiy talks, Russia’s foreign ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova said: “We note the readiness of the Chinese side to make efforts to establish a negotiation process.”

The United States has said in recent months it was worried about China providing weapons or ammunition to Russia, although Beijing denies any such plans.

China says it is positioned to help mediate the conflict because it has not taken sides.

“What China has done to help resolve the Ukraine crisis has been above board,” said Yu Jun, deputy head of the foreign ministry’s Eurasian department.

Western countries say China’s 12-point peace proposal is too vague, offers no concrete path out of the war, and could be used by Putin to promote a truce that would leave his forces in control of occupied territory while they regroup.

Earlier this week, European countries raised alarm after China’s ambassador to France said states such as Ukraine that won independence with the break-up of the Soviet Union “don’t have actual status in international law.”

Beijing said its position on the independence of ex-Soviet states was unchanged.