Zelenskyy and Xi hold first talks since Russian invasion

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy describes the talk with Chinese President Xi Jinping as ‘long and meaningful’.

Volodymyr Zelenskyy in his office, speaking on the phone to Xi Jinping
Ukraine's President Volodymyr Zelenskyy spoke for nearly an hour over the phone with Chinese President Xi Jinping [Ukrainian Presidential Press Service/Handout via Reuters]

Chinese President Xi Jinping has spoken to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy for the first time since Russia launched its full-scale invasion of Ukraine, with Beijing saying it wanted to send an envoy to Kyiv to serve as a mediator to pursue a “political settlement”.

The phone call on Wednesday lasted nearly an hour and was “long and meaningful”, according to the Ukrainian president.

“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,” Zelenskyy wrote on Twitter.

The first known wartime phone call between the two leaders comes after Xi and Zelenskyy both said they were willing to speak to each other following Xi’s visit to Moscow in March.

Chinese state media said Wednesday’s call was made at Zelenskyy’s invitation and that Xi told the Ukrainian president that as a responsible nation, Beijing could not be a “bystander” to the conflict.

“On the Ukraine crisis, China always stands on the side of peace and China’s core position is to promote peace via talks,” the Global Times quoted Xi as saying during the call.

A Chinese foreign ministry statement said an envoy – a former ambassador to Russia – would visit Ukraine to seek a “political settlement”.

The statement struck a positive tone, giving a nod to Kyiv’s insistence that its territory cannot be broken up by Russia’s annexations and making clear that Beijing values its long-standing ties with Ukraine.

Russia’s foreign ministry spokesperson Maria Zakharova praised Beijing’s “readiness to strive to establish a [peace] negotiations process” but also said Kyiv had rejected “any sound initiatives aimed at a settlement”.

At the White House, the United States also welcomed the phone call between the two leaders but said it was too soon to tell if it would lead to a peace deal.

“That’s a good thing,” US national security spokesperson John Kirby said about the call.

“Now, whether that’s going to lead to some sort of meaningful peace movement, or plan, or proposal, I just don’t think we know that right now.”

Chinese President Xi Jinping and Russian President Vladimir Putin
Xi and Russian President Vladimir Putin pose for a photo during their meeting at the Kremlin in Moscow, Russia in March 2023 [Sergei Karpukhin, Sputnik, Kremlin Pool Photo via AP]

Mediator aspirations

China says it is best positioned to help mediate the conflict because it has not taken sides, although it has not explicitly condemned Russia for its February 2022 invasion.

China unveiled its 12-point peace plan on Ukraine – calling for de-escalation and an eventual ceasefire – on the anniversary of Russia’s full-scale invasion in February. But the paper has been criticised by Western countries as too vague amid concern it could be used by Putin to promote a truce that would leave his forces in control of occupied territory while they regroup.

The Chinese president sought to reassure Ukraine that “mutual respect for sovereignty and territorial integrity” was at the foundation of the two countries’ relationship.

“China’s readiness to develop relations with Ukraine is consistent and clear-cut. No matter how the international situation evolves, China will work with Ukraine to advance mutually beneficial cooperation,” Xi was quoted as saying during the call.

In recent weeks, China has been trying to position itself as a peacemaker on the international stage after it secured  a surprise rapprochement between longtime Middle East foes, Saudi Arabia and Iran, earlier this year.

Peace was on the agenda when Xi travelled to Moscow to meet Russian President Vladimir Putin in March, amid expectations that he might then convene a virtual meeting with Zelenskyy. That did not happen and Xi concluded his three-day visit to Moscow by signing an agreement to take the relationship between Russia and China into a “new era” of cooperation.

Earlier this week, European countries raised alarm after China’s ambassador to France said states such as Ukraine, which won independence with the breakup 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 and that the comments reflected the ambassador’s “personal views”.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies