Biden White House Urges Xi Jinping to Call Zelensky, Play ‘Constructive Role’ in Ukraine

John Kirby (Saul Loeb / AFP / Getty)
Saul Loeb / AFP / Getty

National Security Council (NSC) Coordinator for Strategic Communications John Kirby told reporters in White House briefings on Monday and Tuesday that China could play a “constructive role” in the Russian invasion of Ukraine by reaching out to the latter nation’s president, Volodymyr Zelensky, and “press[ing] Russia to pull its troops out of Ukraine.”

Kirby emphasized that if Zelensky “can get behind” a path to peace, even one promoted by China, “he’ll find no better friend in that effort than the United States.”

The Chinese Communist Party began mounting a full-scale publicity effort in February to insert itself in the Ukraine invasion. Beijing is one of Russia’s closest allies but maintains friendly relations with Ukraine, as well. Ukraine is a member of China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), an infrastructure plan in which China ensnares impoverished countries with predatory loans used to pay China to build roads, ports, and railways China later seizes when the countries default on their debts. Zelensky has repeatedly made public appeals to hold a conversation with Chinese dictator Xi Jinping, to no avail, and for China to encourage Russia to end its invasion.

Xi Jinping departed Moscow on Wednesday after a two-day visit featuring hours of talks with Putin. Both sides revealed that they discussed the Russian invasion in Ukraine, but did not indicate that Xi and Russian leader Vladimir Putin came to any definitive plans of action together on the matter.

Upon arriving in Russia on Monday, Xi proclaimed that China would “stand guard over the world order.” The Chinese Foreign Ministry and its state media arms have aggressively promoted China as the best potential mediator to stop the conflict. China debuted a “peace plan” for Ukraine in February, on the anniversary of Putin’s “special operation” to oust Zelensky, that consisted of ending sanctions on Russia, opposing the use of nuclear weapons, and all parties moving to “calm down as soon as possible.”

“If there is a country able to play a role in mediating the Ukraine crisis, it has to be a country with a true neutral stance and a position of justice, and the US has already lost this position,” the Chinese state-run newspaper Global Times asserted on Monday, “so in the next stage, China will keep making efforts for mediation, and during Xi’s visit to Russia, the world will hold high expectations of what progress China will make with Russia.”

Speaking to reporters in the White House briefing room on Tuesday, Kirby repeatedly rejected the idea that China was an “impartial” actor given its close relationship with Russia and rejection of Western sanctions on Russia’s top industries. Kirby did not, however, entirely reject Chinese meddling in eastern Europe and suggested that China could take steps to developing impartiality.

“So, now, if China wants to play a constructive role here in this conflict, then they ought to press Russia to pull its troops out of Ukraine and Ukrainian sovereign territory,” Kirby said. “They should urge President Putin to cease bombing cities, hospitals, and schools; to stop the war crimes and the atrocities; and end the war today. It could happen right now.”

Kirby dismissed the description of China as “impartial” due to a lack of communication with Ukraine.

“Now, look, if — if he’s [Xi] willing to talk to President Zelenskyy and willing to get the other side and — and we — you know, if any future potential negotiation can incorporate Ukrainian views and perspectives and can be achieved and pursued with Ukraine,” Kirby suggested, “if that’s the direction, then that’s something that could be seen as impartial.  But I just don’t think right now that they can be seen that way.”

Later in the same briefing, Kirby added, “If President Zelenskyy — if there’s a path put forward that President Zelenskyy can get behind and he believes will help lead to a ‘just peace,’ as he refers to it, then he’ll find no better friend in that effort than the United States.” Kirby did not exclude China from potentially being part of that path.

Kirby made similar comments in Monday’s press briefing, which mostly made news for a bizarre episode in which outraged journalist Simon Ateba condemned White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre for ignoring non-elite journalists while the front of the room apologized profusely to the cast of Ted Lasso for Ateba’s remarks.

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“We hope that President Xi will press President Putin to cease bombing Ukrainian cities, hospitals, and schools; to halt the war crimes and atrocities; and to withdraw all his troops,” Kirby said. “But we are concerned that, instead, China will reiterate calls for a ceasefire that leaves Russian forces inside Ukraine sovereign territory.”

“Efforts to end this conflict must take Ukraine’s position into account. And so we encourage President Xi to play a constructive role by speaking with President Zelenskyy, which he has not done since Russia launched this invasion,” the NSC spokesman continued. “Because China, quite frankly, we believe, should hear directly from the Ukrainians and not just from the Russians.”

Kirby added that President Joe Biden was seeking to schedule a conversation with Xi soon and that the White House was still hoping to schedule a Beijing visit for Secretary of State Antony Blinken, who had planned to visit early in the year but canceled his trip following the Chinese spy balloon incident.

“That visit was postponed; it wasn’t canceled,” Kirby said on Monday, “and we’re still hopeful that we can get that back on the calendar.”

Follow Frances Martel on Facebook and Twitter.


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