The White House is rejecting Beijing’s proposal for a truce in Ukraine, ahead of Chinese President Xi Jinping’s meeting with Russian leader Vladimir Putin in Moscow next week and a subsequent phone call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy.
“We’d be concerned if coming out of this meeting there was some sort of call for a cease-fire,” said John Kirby, National Security Council coordinator for strategic communications in an interview with VOA on Friday. “While a cease-fire sounds good, it actually ratifies Russia’s gains on the ground.”
Putin’s foreign policy adviser, Yuri Ushakov, earlier Friday said the talks with Xi could yield new approaches to the war in Ukraine.
“I’m sure that our leader and the Chinese leader will exchange their assessments of the situation there,” he said. “We shall see what ideas will emerge after that.”
Kirby suggested that a cease-fire could provide Moscow with the opportunity to prepare for a more effective assault on Ukraine in the future. A cease-fire at this point, he added, “doesn’t serve Ukraine’s interest” and “would be a violation of the U.N. Charter” as it would take away from the recognition that Russia is illegally inside Ukraine.
Cautiously welcoming Beijing’s involvement, Zelenskyy said success would depend on actions not words.
Last month Beijing released its 12-point framework for a political settlement in Ukraine, calling for a “direct dialogue as quickly as possible” to reach a “comprehensive cease-fire.”
The document lacked specifics about resolving Russia’s occupation of Ukrainian territory or security guarantees for Ukraine. It did not call for the withdrawal of Russian forces.
By proposing a cease-fire, the Chinese appear to be trying to “salvage something for Putin,” said David Kramer, executive director of the George W. Bush Institute.
“The Russian forces are not doing well,” he told VOA. “And we don’t need the Chinese intervention at this point.”
Not all observers are quick to dismiss Beijing’s diplomatic overtures. Given that Putin has burned his bridges with the West and become more dependent on China, Xi may have a decent chance of brokering peace, said George Beebe, director of Grand Strategy at the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft, a think tank that advocates restraint in U.S. foreign policy.
“He has limited room for maneuver[ing] in rejecting the Chinese involvement altogether,” Beebe told VOA.
On the Ukrainian side, Beebe noted that while they are not dependent on Beijing, they realize that China is potentially an important wild card. Zelenskyy would want to engage with Xi if only to prevent Beijing from supporting Putin militarily, which could alter the war’s outcome.
The prospects for a cease-fire acceptable to the warring parties at this point are slim.
Recent polls show that 85% of Ukrainians believe no territorial concessions are acceptable even if that means a longer war. Kyiv is demanding that Russia pull back from areas taken since its February 2022 invasion as well as from the Crimean Peninsula, which Putin illegally annexed in 2014.
Meanwhile, Moscow would oppose any truce that would require it to withdraw from newly annexed Ukrainian territories, said James Acton, co-director of the Nuclear Policy Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. It is even less likely to agree to withdraw from Crimea.
“It’s held it since 2014,” Acton told VOA. “It is a crowning achievement of Putin’s reign.”
Even with no prospects of a concrete outcome, the announcement of the meeting with Xi provided a diplomatic boost to Putin on the same day the International Criminal Court announced it wants to put the Russian leader on trial for alleged war crimes.
Because of the warrant, should Putin travel to a country that is party to the ICC, that country has the legal obligation to arrest and surrender him to the court, ICC President Piotr Hofmanski told VOA.
Growing diplomatic ambition
Xi’s plan to visit Moscow is the latest sign of the Chinese leader’s growing diplomatic ambition, following last week’s announcement of a Beijing-brokered deal that allowed Iran and Saudi Arabia to reestablish diplomatic relations after seven years of hostility.
China is signaling that it wants to be involved in a future peace process, said Moritz Rudolf, a fellow at Yale Law School’s Paul Tsai China Center.
“Part of it is to be perceived as an ‘international responsible great power,’” he told VOA.
This makes Washington uncomfortable. “I don’t think the United States wants to be in a situation where China develops a reputation around the world for being a peacemaker,” Beebe said.
Kirby insisted that the administration’s opposition to the cease-fire is not because it was proposed by China.
“I’ve been very clear. It’s about the principle of a cease-fire called for right now, which would essentially just ratify Russia’s gains,” he said.