Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi reached out to his Ukrainian counterpart after Russia's invasion. Photo: AFP

Beijing appears to be positioning itself as a possible peacemaker in the Russian war on Ukraine following a telephone conversation between Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi and his Ukrainian counterpart Dmytro Kuleba on Tuesday. 

But there is predictable skepticism in Washington and European capitals, especially as the US reportedly lobbied the Chinese government to help mediate the crisis since Russia, a close Beijing ally, began amassing its troops on Ukraine’s border late last year.

“They didn’t do anything to deter Vladimir Putin, and I doubt they will want to do so now,” a European diplomat told Asia Times.  

In his telephone call with the Ukraine foreign minister on Tuesday, Foreign Minister Wang spoke of China’s “pity” that war had broken out in Ukraine and said Beijing is “extremely concerned about the harm to civilians” in the country.

“Ukraine is willing to strengthen communications with China and looks forward to China playing a role in realizing a ceasefire,” according to a Chinese ministry statement on Tuesday.

Foreign Minister Kuleba said that he had “asked Wang Yi to use the level of relations between Beijing and Moscow to force Russia to stop its armed aggression against the Ukrainian people,” according to a Ukrainian ministry statement. 

His Chinese counterpart had assured him “of China’s readiness to make every effort to end the war on Ukrainian soil through diplomacy, including as a permanent member of the UN Security Council,” it added.

Firefighters work on a fire on a building after Russian bombings on the eastern Ukraine town of Chuguiv on February 24, 2022, as Russian armed forces are trying to invade Ukraine from several directions using rocket systems and helicopters to attack Ukrainian positions in the south. Photo: Fox News / Screengrab

The Russian invasion of Ukraine, which began on February 24 and now appears to be intensifying, has put Beijing in a tough spot.

Putin, who has been in power for three decades, visited Beijing in early February where he and Chinese President Xi Jinping said their friendship had “no limits.” The two powers, both locked in rivalries with the US, have become closer political and economic partners in recent years.

Yet Russia’s invasion of a sovereign nation goes against Beijing’s rhetorical commitment to “non-interference” and respect for territorial integrity, and risks leaving China more isolated from the international community if it is perceived as siding with Moscow. 

For the most part, Beijing still isn’t taking sides. It has now seemingly criticized Putin’s invasion and the Russian military’s alleged targeting of civilians in Ukraine, although China’s foreign minister has reiterated that his government never “condemned” Putin’s invasion. 

And it has also criticized the Western response to the crisis. It says it “fiercely” opposes sanctions against Russia and believes dialogue “is the only way to stop the fighting.”

On February 23, the day before Russia’s full-scale invasion, Beijing described the United States as the “culprit” for the crisis, “heightening tensions, creating panic and even hyping up the possibility of warfare.”

At a UN Security Council vote last week, China abstained on a resolution condemning Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, rather than joining Moscow in vetoing it, which many in the West have seen as a sign of Beijing’s unease over the war – although it was likely motivated by the Chinese government’s desire to protect itself from the international fallout.   

On Tuesday, Beijing reiterated its position that “regional security cannot be achieved by expanding military blocs,” a reference to NATO enlargement, which Putin has cited as his motivation for war. 

On Wednesday, China abstained from voting on a UN General Assembly resolution that voted to reprimand Russia for invading Ukraine and demanded a stop to the fighting. The resolution was supported by 141 of the assembly’s 193 members.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov (left) meets Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi in Beijing on March 23, 2021. Photo: AFP / Russian Foreign Ministry / Handout / Anadolu Agency

With Russia’s rising isolation in the West and much of the international community, Moscow is now immediately more dependent on China, a position that could afford Beijing greater powers to pressure Putin to stop his war.  

“China can push Russia hard because, as the Western sanctions hit Russia really hard now, China is the only friend Russia has left from the large countries. That means that China has strong leverage to force Russia to move in one direction,” said Jakub Janda, director of the European Values Center for Security Policy, a think tank. 

“The West should push China very hard so Xi understands it’s time to squeeze Putin to stop the war crimes in Ukraine now,” he added. 

However, it’s not immediately clear what role China could play in any Russia-Ukraine negotiations.

For starters, Beijing seemingly did little to deter Putin in the months after he began amassing Russia’s troops on Ukraine’s borders late last year, despite Washington repeatedly urging China to intervene and apply pressure on him not to invade, according to a recent New York Times report citing US sources. 

But Beijing reportedly shared this information with Moscow, possibly believing that Washington was using the looming threat of a conflict in Ukraine to sow discord between Russia and China. If true, that leaves several explanations.

One is that Beijing didn’t believe that Moscow would launch an invasion of Ukraine, which would suggest their ties aren’t as close as many believe. Another is that Beijing knew of the plans but was either content to stand aside as Putin launched his war or couldn’t dissuade him. 

Any of these explanations would suggest that Beijing’s ability now to apply pressure on Moscow for a ceasefire or even a negotiated settlement is for now limited.   

“China’s role in conflict is never an honest broker, because being a broker means it has to have a position on the substance of the compromise. China does not take a position on that because it inevitably involves angering one or both parties,” said Yun Sun, China program director at the Stimson Center, a Washington-based think tank. 

“China’s role in conflict mediation is facilitator rather than mediatory. It is the convener, facilitator and sometimes, the host and endorser of the agreement,” she added. “But that is categorically different from being a mediator.”

Analysts are unsure whether involving itself in pressuring Russia to stand down would really be in Beijing’s own interest.

Ukrainian servicemen get ready to repel an attack in Ukraine’s Lugansk region on February 24, 2022. Photo: Facebook / Gulf News

China’s geopolitical ambitions will be crimped if Western and democratic governments find greater unity against authoritarian regimes, a process some believe is already underway because of the Russian invasion of Ukraine. 

Western leaders are increasingly speaking in black-and-white terms about democracy and autocracy while warning China could follow in Russia’s footsteps if it moves against Taiwan, which Beijing considers a renegade province that must be reincorporated with the mainland.

In his State of the Union speech on Tuesday, US President Joe Biden stated that “in the battle between democracy and autocracy, democracies are rising to the moment, and the world is clearly choosing the side of peace and security.”

The European Commission president, Ursula von der Leyen, said the same day that the conflict is “a clash between the rule of law and the rule of the gun; between democracies and autocracies; between a rules-based order and a world of naked aggression. How we respond today to what Russia is doing will determine the future of the international system.”

If Beijing is now perceived by the West as siding with Putin, it too could suffer economic and diplomatic blowback, some analysts say. 

“The more death and destruction in Ukraine over the coming days and weeks, the more damaging China’s equivocations are likely to be for its international image,” Noah Barkin, a senior visiting fellow at German Marshall Fund of the United States, a think tank, wrote in a recent newsletter. 

More than a week before the Russian invasion, German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock reportedly warned that if Russia invaded Ukraine and China looked the other way, then Berlin “cannot have normal relations” with Beijing. 

The war in Ukraine could redound on China’s investment plans in Eurasia, including the New Eurasian Land Bridge, a railway corridor connecting mainland China to Europe which passes through Kazakhstan, Russia and Belarus. 

A China-Europe freight train from Kazakhstan arrives at the Xinzhu Station of China Railway Xi’an Bureau Group Co., Ltd. in Xi’an City of northwest China’s Shaanxi Province, February 3, 2021. Photo: Xinhua / Li Yibo

Significantly, Ukraine’s number one global trading partner is China. Beijing will want to maintain good relations with Kiev, as well as with other central and eastern European partners. 

Polish President Andrzej Duda, a committed opponent of Russian aggression, was the only head of an EU member state — except for Luxembourg’s grand duke — who participated in the opening ceremony of the 2022 Winter Olympic Games held in Beijing last month. 

On the other hand, Beijing will be equally concerned if Russia’s invasion of Ukraine intensifies while Putin’s forces are buffeted by stiff resistance from the Ukrainian army and civilian fighters – a long-war scenario that will make it increasingly difficult to take a non-committal stance.