Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov on Thursday said that Russia’s partner China has “impressive potential for mediation” in the Ukraine war, as “eloquently demonstrated” by China’s recent brokering of diplomatic relations between Iran and Saudi Arabia.
“But the situation with Ukraine is still difficult, so far there are no prospects for a peaceful settlement,” Peskov added, slightly tempering his enthusiasm.
According to the Kremlin spokesman, Russia has communicated its position to Ukraine through both “official and unofficial” channels and, based on the response, feels it must continue the brutal stalemated invasion Moscow refers to as a “special military operation.” This assessment would not seem to leave much room for China, or anyone else, as a dealmaker.
Peskov was specifically responding to French President Emmanuel Macron’s plea for Chinese dictator Xi Jinping to “bring Russia to its senses” and “bring everyone back to the negotiating table.”
France urging #China to get into the business of brokering a peace deal between #Ukraine and #Russia is the last thing we need. China is Russia’s ally against the West and Asian democracies. Doesn’t President Macron get that? Sigh…. #StandWithUkraine https://t.co/LCtTcgkFHm
— Andrew A. Michta (@andrewmichta) April 6, 2023
Macron, who arrived in Beijing to meet with Xi on Wednesday, asked the Chinese leader not to “make deliveries to Russia that would help its war against Ukraine.”
The U.S. government made the same request, in a less delicate manner, after intelligence reports suggested China is providing material support to the Ukraine invasion, possibly including lethal equipment.
After meeting with Macron for about 90 minutes, Xi was prepared only to say that “China is willing to jointly appeal with France to the international community to remain rational and calm.” Those are two words few would apply to Russia’s conduct in Ukraine so far, and yet China staunchly refuses to criticize the invasion.
“Peace talks should be resumed as soon as possible, taking into account the reasonable security concerns of all sides with reference to the U.N. Charter,” Xi said at a joint press conference with Macron.
The Russians have been fumbling to handle Xi’s ambition to be seen as a top global peacemaker. China produced a vacuous bullet-point “peace formula” in February that Chinese state media fervently promoted as a towering achievement of diplomatic genius, even though one of its bullet points is literally just “cease hostilities.” (Who knew it could be so simple? And why isn’t that Point Number 1 instead of Point Number 3?)
The Russians and Ukrainians have both politely thanked China for its helpful suggestions while looking for gentle ways to signal to Xi that his “peace formula” does very little to address either side’s motivations or priorities. As Peskov’s exercise in damning with faint praise on Thursday suggested, Russian leader Vladimir Putin has no intention of stopping the assault until certain objectives have been achieved, and Ukraine is not prepared to concede what he wants.
Foreign Policy (FP) on Wednesday suggested China’s “abstract” peace plan was really meant for audiences in “the global south, Europe, and postwar Ukraine,” not Putin or the current Ukrainian leadership.
“Beijing knows that a number of countries in the global south interpret the Russo-Ukrainian war differently from the West and are more inclined to take Russia’s side and call for an early, negotiated end to the war,” FP noted
Beijing’s Ukraine peace deal is part of China’s strategy to present itself as a peace broker to the global south—and to Europe. https://t.co/qZmb4cJ6j1
— Foreign Policy (@ForeignPolicy) April 4, 2023
Macron’s supplicating visit to Beijing suggests that Europe is at least “in play” as U.S. influence declines under President Joe Biden. Even though China is hardly the “neutral” party it pretends to be, when it is not touting its “unlimited partnership” with Russia as the defining axis of power in the coming century, the Europeans are willing to play along with the notion of Xi as a peacemaker — and a far more consequential global figure than Biden. China’s “peace formula” might as well be a blank piece of paper, as long as everyone takes it seriously and no one points out that it offers no solutions that could actually be implemented.
FP intriguingly suggested that what Xi is really playing for is a big piece of the action when Ukraine is reconstructed after the war:
In fact, China’s position paper on Ukraine explicitly states that it stands ready to provide assistance and play a role in post-conflict reconstruction. No other country is possibly better equipped than China to assist in rebuilding Ukraine. It has constructed more railways, highways, airports, bridges, pipelines, ports, and high-rise buildings at home and abroad than any other nation over the last two to three decades, giving Chinese companies a unique set of experiences. In addition, China has money. Welcoming Chinese assistance, expertise, and investments must be a tempting proposition for Ukraine. Seen from Beijing, contributing to the reconstruction of Ukraine would strengthen China’s overall engagement with Europe.
The first hint of a tiny crack of daylight between Beijing and Moscow was glimpsed on Thursday, when China’s ambassador to Europe, Fu Cong, told the far-left New York Times (NYT) that China’s unlimited partnership with Russia might just have a few limits after all.
“‘No limit’ is nothing but rhetoric,” said Fu, accusing everyone who thinks “no limits” means the absence of limits has been willfully misinterpreting Xi’s declarations of brotherhood with Putin.
Fu claimed China has not condemned the invasion because it understands “the root causes are complicated” and sympathizes with Russia’s fears concerning NATO expansion. Throughout the interview, he was obsequious toward the European Union and suggested the Europeans should break out of the U.S. orbit.
“[The] EU claims to be a big center, a power center in the world, an independent power center in the world, as much as the United States, as much as China. So why does it have to listen to the United States all the time?” Fu asked.