Xi and Zelensky Talk at Last, but Words Are Chosen Carefully

Two months after issuing a vague plan for ending the war in Ukraine, China’s leader, a close ally of Vladimir V. Putin, on Wednesday acceded to repeated requests from the Ukrainian president to talk.

The one-hour telephone discussion between China’s Xi Jinping and President Volodymyr Zelensky of Ukraine was the first known contact between the two leaders since Russia invaded Ukraine last year.

China’s official account of the discussion was notable for its omission of two words: “Russia” and “war.” It referred instead to the need for a “political settlement of the Ukrainian crisis,” and warned of the danger of nuclear escalation.

For his part, Mr. Zelensky said the two leaders “had a long and meaningful phone call.”

In recent months, Mr. Xi has been trying to burnish his image as a global statesman by helping restore diplomatic ties between Saudi Arabia and Iran and by rolling out the red carpet in Beijing for visiting world leaders like President Emmanuel Macron of France.

U.S. officials and their allies have questioned whether Mr. Xi has the ability to help mediate for peace in Ukraine — or even the intention to do so, given his close ties with the Kremlin — but in February, China released a 12-point plan laying out a path to ending the war.

Russia offered a muted response to the phone call on Wednesday through its Foreign Ministry.

“We note the readiness of the Chinese side to make efforts to work toward a negotiation process,” said the ministry’s spokeswoman, Maria Zakharova. She added, “Any initiatives for peace are unlikely to be adequately received by puppets controlled by Washington.”

The Biden administration welcomed the call as “a good thing.” But whether it is “going to lead to some sort of meaningful peace movement, or plan, or proposal — I just don’t think we know that right now,” said the National Security Council spokesman, John F. Kirby, according to Reuters.

As the West has moved to isolate Moscow globally in punishment for the February 2022 invasion, Russian leaders have worked to forge new relationships with other countries and strengthen existing alliances.

China has grown particularly close with Russia, and shares the Kremlin’s goal of upending a world order dominated by the United States and its allies. American officials have said they believe Beijing has seriously considered sending military aid to Moscow for its war.

The Chinese leader has repeatedly spoken to or met with Mr. Putin, including during a trip to Moscow on March 20, about a month after China issued its proposals for Ukraine, seemingly positioning itself as a potential mediator. The United States and Western allies largely dismissed the plan.

But even as Mr. Xi remained in close touch with Mr. Putin, and even after China released what it framed as a plan for peace, Chinese officials dodged questions about whether Mr. Xi would speak with the leader of the country his ally had invaded.

Ukraine, eager to maintain good ties with Beijing, has bitten its tongue as the Chinese government has pointedly refrained from joining those countries that have condemned the invasion.

Ukraine and China have long had good relations and, indeed, before the war, those ties were strengthening. By 2019, China was Ukraine’s largest trading partner and the top importer of its barley and iron ore, according to a report by the Council on Foreign Relations. Ukraine was also China’s largest corn supplier and its second-largest arms supplier. China’s first aircraft carrier, the Liaoning, was a discarded Soviet vessel bought from Ukraine that the Chinese Navy refurbished.

The last known contact between Mr. Xi and Mr. Zelensky was in January 2022, just weeks before the invasion, to celebrate the 30th anniversary of diplomatic ties.

But after the invasion, the official Chinese news media adopted many of the Kremlin’s talking points and disinformation about the invasion, accusing NATO of instigating the conflict and refusing to call it an invasion.

On Wednesday, the Chinese appeared at pains to describe Ukraine as an ally.

“President Xi noted that China-Ukraine relations, after 31 years of development, have reached a level of strategic partnership, boosting development and revitalization of the two countries,” a readout of the discussion from the Chinese Foreign Ministry said.

Mr. Zelensky said on Twitter that the call would help “give a powerful impetus to the development of our bilateral relations.”

The Chinese said Mr. Xi had also addressed rising concerns about a possible nuclear confrontation — without mentioning that the only party in the war with nuclear weapons is Russia, or that Mr. Putin and his officials themselves have repeatedly raised the possibility of a nuclear clash over the course of the war.

“Dialogue and negotiation are the only viable way forward,” China’s Foreign Ministry said. “There is no winner in nuclear wars. On the nuclear issue, all relevant parties must stay calm and exercise restraint, truly act in the interests of their own future and that of humanity, and jointly manage the crisis.”

Mr. Xi reiterated points Beijing has made in the past, saying that China’s “core position” was to “promote peace and talks.” Mr. Xi also said “mutual respect for sovereignty and territorial integrity” was the “political basis of China-Ukrainian relations.”

In their own readout of the discussion, the Ukrainians said Mr. Zelensky had told the Chinese leader that “no one wants peace more than the Ukrainian people” — but that it must be a “just and sustainable” one.

“There can be no peace at the expense of territorial compromises,” Mr. Zelensky said. “The territorial integrity of Ukraine must be restored within the 1991 borders.”

The call took place days after China’s ambassador to France, Lu Shaye, caused a diplomatic firestorm in Europe after he questioned the sovereignty of nations formed after the collapse of the Soviet Union — like Ukraine — in a televised interview. Analysts said the call may have been in response to the flap, which damaged China’s effort to strengthen ties with Europe as its relations with the United States worsen.

“Xi’s strategy is to weaken the trans-Atlantic alliance,” said Theresa Fallon, director of the Center for Russia Europe Asia Studies in Brussels. “It was really important for Xi to fix it and fix it fast.”

The talks between Mr. Xi and Mr. Zelensky came as Russian and Ukrainian forces continued to battle.

After a winter lull in military activity, Russian soldiers have of late begun to intensify their attacks in the southern region of Zaporizhzhia both on military positions in the fields and forests and on cities and towns, Ukrainian officials say. They are using a range of ordinance, from artillery shells and rockets to Iranian-made explosive drones, the Ukrainians say.

On Wednesday, at least five explosions rocked the industrial city of Zaporizhzhia amid the near constant shriek of air-raid alarms.

In Washington, testifying before the House Armed Services Committee, Gen. Christopher G. Cavoli, the top commander of U.S. forces in Europe, said Wednsday that nearly all the combat vehicles that Ukraine’s Western allies had promised to deliver in time for an expected spring counteroffensive had arrived.

“I am very confident that we have delivered the matériel that they need,” he said, “and we’ll continue a pipeline to sustain their operations as well.”

The economic struggle between Russia and the West is also escalating, with Moscow nationalizing the local subsidiaries of two major European energy companies and leaving open the door to further takeovers of Western assets.

Mr. Putin authorized the government to take control of local subsidiaries of Germany’s Uniper and Finland’s Fortum in a decree signed on Tuesday, a move that could accelerate the exit of the remaining Western businesses from the country that started after the invasion last year.

In the decree, Mr. Putin justified the nationalization by saying it came in response to the “unfriendly steps taken by the United States and allied foreign nations that go against international law.”

Reporting was contributed by Michael Schwirtz, Eric Schmitt and Anatoly Kurmanaev.

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