Xi Jinping speaks with Ukrainian Zelensky for the first time since the Russian invasion

Hong Kong (CNN) Chinese leader Xi Jinping and his Ukrainian counterpart Volodymyr Zelensky They spoke by phone on Wednesday, in their first known conversation since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, as Beijing ramps up efforts to position itself as a potential peacemaker in the grinding conflict.

Zelensky, who has long expressed a desire to speak with Xi, said he had a “long and meaningful phone call” with the Chinese leader that lasted an hour. “We discussed a whole range of topical issues of bilateral relations. Special attention was paid to ways of possible cooperation to establish a just and sustainable peace for Ukraine,” Zelensky said in a statement.

“There can be no peace at the expense of territorial concessions,” Zelensky said.

In a statement, the Chinese Foreign Ministry quoted Xi as telling Zelensky that “mutual respect for sovereignty and territorial integrity is the political foundation of Sino-Ukrainian relations.” Xi also reiterated Beijing’s view that China’s “basic position” on the Ukraine conflict is to “promote peace and talks.”

In a briefing later on Wednesday, China’s foreign ministry said it would send an envoy to Ukraine and other countries to help conduct “in-depth communication” with all parties to achieve a political settlement. The envoy, Li Hui, is the Chinese government’s special representative for Eurasian affairs and served as China’s ambassador to Russia from 2009 to 2019.

The call between Xi and Zelensky comes weeks after the Chinese president paid an official visit to Russia and met with Vladimir Putin in March, when the Chinese and Russian leaders overwhelmingly affirmed their alignment across a range of issues — including a shared mistrust of the United States. .

The long-awaited call also comes days after China’s top diplomat in Paris caused a stir across Europe because he suggested in an interview that the former Soviet republics had no status under international law. The comments were seen as a possible nod to Putin’s view that Ukraine should be part of Russia – and threaten to undermine China’s ongoing efforts to repair its image in Europe, including by positioning itself as a potential mediator between Russia and Ukraine.

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Beijing has so far refused to condemn Russia’s invasion of Ukraine or call for the withdrawal of its forces, instead urging restraint from “all sides” and accusing NATO of fueling the conflict. It has also continued to deepen diplomatic and economic ties with Moscow, despite its claims of neutrality.

Beijing’s unbalanced position is also evident in its diplomatic relations with Moscow and Ukraine.

Wednesday’s phone call marked the first time Xi spoke to Zelensky since Russia invaded Ukraine in February last year. By comparison, Xi has spoken to Putin five times since the invasion — including a face-to-face meeting in the Kremlin when the Chinese leader visited Moscow last month and another in-person meeting at a regional summit in Central Asia last September.

Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova said on Wednesday that Moscow has noted China’s willingness to facilitate negotiations with Ukraine after the phone call between Xi and Zelensky.

“We note the willingness of the Chinese side to make efforts to establish the negotiation process,” Zakharova said during a press conference on Wednesday.

However, she said she also indicated that under current conditions negotiations are unlikely and blamed Kiev for rejecting Moscow’s overtures.

Diplomatic panic

Reports of ongoing discussions between China and Ukraine to arrange an invitation for their leaders first emerged in March, in the run-up to Xi’s state visit to Russia.

The efforts, which were widely reported at the time, were seen by analysts as part of China’s attempt to portray itself as a potential peacemaker in the conflict.

But the call did not materialize for weeks after Xi and Putin met in Moscow. After a trip to Beijing, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen told reporters earlier this month that Xi had confirmed his willingness to speak with Zelensky “when the conditions and time are right.”

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Recently, the remarks of China’s ambassador to France Lu Shai, who said during a television interview last week that the former Soviet countries have no “effective place in international law,” have caused diplomatic panic, especially in the Baltic states, with Lithuania. , Latvia and Estonia to summon Chinese representatives to seek clarification.

Officials including from Ukraine, Moldova, France and the European Union responded to criticism of Low’s comments.

China later distanced itself from Lu’s remarks, saying he was expressing a personal opinion rather than an official policy.

CNN asked Yu Jun, a Chinese foreign ministry official, if the timing of the Xi-Zelinsky phone call had anything to do with the backlash. “China issued an official response to the remarks of the Chinese ambassador to France,” he said. “I have been very clear about China’s position (on the Ukraine issue),” he added.

The last publicly reported contact between Xi and Zelensky was on January 4, 2022, weeks before the invasion, with the two leaders exchanging congratulatory messages for the 30th anniversary of bilateral diplomatic relations.

potential peacemaker

China began ramping up efforts to position itself as a potential peacemaker in the conflict earlier this year, issuing a proposal for a political solution to the crisis on the one-year anniversary of Russia’s invasion.

But the vaguely worded proposal is seen as baseless in the West and in Ukraine, because it did not include any provision for Moscow to withdraw its forces from Ukrainian territory. China’s status as a mediator has also been viewed critically, with Xi visiting Moscow but not yet speaking with Zelensky.

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The timing of Wednesday’s call between the two leaders may indicate that Xi believes there is potential for progress, according to Rajan Menon, director of the Grand Strategy Program at the Washington-based Defense Priorities think tank.

He cited Beijing’s role in brokering the restoration of diplomatic relations between Saudi Arabia and Iran earlier this year. In this case, Menon added, this could mean that Putin signaled to Xi that he is ready to talk to Kiev.

However, there is still a significant political distance between the two sides when it comes to acceptable terms for peace, in addition to the persistent belief that each has that it can prevail over the other on the battlefield and during the Spring Offensive, Menon said.

“Therefore, we should not expect anything to happen (immediately), but what is clear is that the Chinese have now indicated that they will take concrete steps in the direction of mediation and this is not a small matter,” he added, adding that it is not yet clear whether China will adjust its proposed political solution. in the process.

CNN’s Ulyana Pavlova contributed to this report.

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