Earlier this week, Chinese President Xi Jinping called up Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky for the first time since Russia invaded last year. Is Xi’s peace overture to Ukraine for real? He has several reasons for sincerely hoping that the war between Ukraine and Russia ends soon. Is his overture likely to achieve the goal? That’s a different question. Unless the underlying geopolitics change, probably not.
Two months ago, Xi issued a vague 12-point “peace plan,” and Zelensky found it intriguing enough to request a conversation. On Wednesday, Xi followed up, and they had an hourlong call that Zelensky later described as “long and meaningful.” China’s official readout emphasized the need for a “political settlement of the Ukrainian crisis.” Zelensky has since named an ambassador to Beijing, and Xi is sending his envoy for European affairs to Kyiv.
What’s going on, and why is it happening now? Xi hasn’t spelled out his reasoning publicly, but some plausible explanations can be inferred from recent events and context.
First is the basic backdrop: Xi must realize that the alliance he struck with Russian President Vladimir Putin in 2022—less than a month before Putin’s invasion of Ukraine—was, on some level, a strategic error. The two leaders talked at the time of a “no-limits” partnership, but Xi has slapped on a lot of limits since. Notably, though he continues to give Russia lots of money and technical gear, he has not supplied any weapons for the war. He watched the Russian army’s recent offensive that failed to move the lines of battle. He has no doubt read reports that Ukraine’s upcoming offensive—likely to get underway next month, as planeloads of new Western weapons, including tanks and other armored vehicles arrive—could recapture substantial swaths of territory. If that happens, Putin’s position—military and political—could face rapid erosion, as could Xi’s by affiliation.
Second, this past Monday, Xi’s other big diplomatic campaign—to make politico-economic inroads in Europe, partly for China’s own sake, partly to sever the continent’s transatlantic links to the United States—took a major smackdown. It happened when Lu Shaye, China’s ambassador to France, said in a TV interview that former republics of the Soviet Union, which gained independence in 1991, were not sovereign states under international law. These states would include Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, and—most significantly—Ukraine. Lu, one of the most flamboyant hardliners in China’s diplomatic corps, clearly hadn’t got the message that Xi was striking a softer image as a prospective mediator between Russia and Ukraine.
Xi’s economic support of Russia, and his failure to denounce Putin’s invasion, had already diminished the credibility of this image. Lu’s statement, extreme even by Beijing standards, threatened to pulverize the image into dust. In an unusual step, Chinese spokesmen quickly disavowed Lu’s words. Perhaps not by coincidence, just two days later, Xi made his phone call to Zelensky—affirming that, whatever his stance toward Putin, he regards Ukraine as a sovereign state indeed.
Zelensky has long wanted direct contact with Beijing, in hopes of breaking up Xi’s already dangling alliance with Moscow. He is reportedly upbeat about the conversation—but that doesn’t necessarily mean peace is at hand.
As he has in the past, Zelensky emphasized that any cease-fire must be preceded by Russia’s military withdrawal from all occupied Ukrainian territory and a restoration of the 1991 borders between the two countries. This would mean the return not only of Ukraine’s eastern Donbas region but also of Crimea, which Russia annexed in 2014. Whatever happens on the battlefield in the next few months, U.S. officials seriously doubt Putin would give up Crimea, which, among other things, holds the port of the Russian navy’s Black Sea Fleet. (Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev handed Crimea to Ukraine as a gift in 1954, but the deed was symbolic, as the Soviet Union was the only viable political entity at the time. Many Crimeans regarded themselves as Russian, at least until recently; when Russian troops occupied the peninsula in 2014, they did so without firing a shot.)
Zelensky’s insistence on retaking Crimea may be a bargaining position. Either way, he is completely reasonable to demand a Russian withdrawal from all other Ukrainian territory. A cease-fire that left both sides’ troops in their present positions would only give the Russians a chance to rest, regroup, rearm, and mobilize more troops for the next round of fighting.
So these are the questions: Would Putin withdraw from any captured land, despite the utter humiliation? Would he do so if he were allowed to keep Crimea, perhaps pending the results of a truly free and fair referendum (which, even now, Russia might well win)? Would Zelensky allow that to happen without first pushing for a fight? Finally, who would negotiate and enforce this arrangement?
That is the ultimate question. There is no higher power with the leverage to make this work. If the United States and China worked together—Washington pressuring and providing security guarantees to Ukraine, Beijing doing the same to Russia—there might be a chance of pulling this off. But U.S.-Chinese relations are in tatters these days, with little chance of mending any time soon, except perhaps on marginal issues such as trade deals.
Even if relations warmed rapidly, there is no guarantee that Putin or Zelensky would go along with any such deal, as long as either thought he had a chance of winning the war—and both still have some basis for thinking they could. Putin could still draft more men, even if just to soak up Ukrainian ammunition (not since World War I has the world seen a more horrifying spectacle of using troops as cannon fodder). Zelensky is on the verge of receiving more Western arms, including armored vehicles, which could propel the coming counteroffensive to some success.
The next few months could be crucial. If Ukraine’s counteroffensive fails to break through Russia’s defensive lines, if the war appears to be headed for a perpetual stalemate of carnage and devastation, the Western nations may stop sending more military aid and press for a diplomatic solution. This is Putin’s most plausible hope at this point.
If Ukraine does break through the lines and seems on the verge of “winning” by some reasonable definition of the term, then Putin’s hold on power could collapse and, sometime before that moment, Xi could face his own challenge of switching sides or doubling down to break his own isolation. This is Putin’s—and Xi’s— most dreadful nightmare, and it goes some distance in explaining why Xi is trying to end the war before it plows into its next uncertain stage. The problem is, he might have moved too late.