As widely expected, Chinese President Xi Jinping’s visit to Russia is proceeding with a broad and extremely warm welcome. Xi and Russian President Vladimir Putin called each other “dear friend” and on Monday their first bilateral meeting lasted about four and a half hours. During the meeting, Putin made it clear that in the next few days (it is not known whether it will be Tuesday or Wednesday, before Xi leaves again) the two leaders will also talk about Ukraine. In particular, Putin said: «We have carefully studied your proposals on resolving the acute crisis in Ukraine and will have the opportunity to talk about them».
The Chinese “proposals” on the “crisis” in Ukraine (both Russia and China refuse to talk about “war” or “invasion”) are contained in a 12-point document published a few weeks ago, in which China defines its position on the war. The document calls for “respecting the sovereignty of all states” (a complex thing for Russia, which has invaded and annexed huge Ukrainian territories), to “put an end to hostilities” and to “resume peace negotiations”.
It is not entirely clear what Putin and Xi will say to each other about the war in Ukraine, nor how the Chinese 12-point document will be discussed. However, experts are skeptical that a real diplomatic breakthrough could come from the meeting between the two leaders.
The most optimistic hypothesis – and the one in which the West hopes most – is that Xi convinces Putin to withdraw the Russian forces within the pre-war borders: it still means that the Russian army would be inside the borders of Ukraine, but that he would be forced to abandon large Ukrainian territories which he conquered in this year of war, and which Russia formally annexed last autumn.
The Russian withdrawal within the pre-February 24 2022 borders is probably the minimum condition that the Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky could accept to start negotiations: he himself has hinted at this possibility in some public statements. It is also by far the most unlikely hypothesis: Putin is unlikely to accept a major retreat of this type, and in the same way it is to be excluded that Xi has the political will to inflict what by world public opinion would generally be perceived as a defeat of the Russia.
Another hypothesis, already more probable, is that Xi advances a proposal for an immediate ceasefire, freezing the current battlefront. This proposal could give Russia advantages, because it would allow it to consolidate the conquests made in this year of war at a time when its army is particularly tried by the failure of the winter offensive. But it risks being unacceptable for Ukraine and for Zelensky, because it would entail a huge territorial renunciation which would be difficult to recover through diplomatic negotiations, and it would mean leaving a substantial part of the Ukrainian population under Russia’s occupation and oppressive rule.
Even if these hypotheses were realized, these hypotheses would hardly be able to provide guarantees of security to Ukraine, and to exclude the possibility that Russia, after having reconstituted its army, would return to attack the country.
Many signs, however, seem to exclude that Russia is really ready to end the fighting: some analyzes believe that Russia is preparing to recruit new young men, and in various speeches Putin has made it clear that the war in Ukraine will be an event long-lasting for the country.
Here we arrive at the third hypothesis, the least optimistic, and that is that the discussion of the Chinese 12-point plan will remain above all at a theoretical and formal level, and that the two leaders make proclamations for the respect of sovereignty and in favor of peace negotiations , without however on the battlefield things changing considerably. The war in Ukraine would not stop. In this case, it will mean that Xi Jinping has given up any formal semblance of appearing as a neutral broker, and that China has definitely sided with Russia in this war.
There is another element that must be considered when discussing the possibility of China mediating in a complex and broad conflict such as the one between Russia and Ukraine: China has never mediated in such intricate diplomatic situations, and has not real experience in this field. The Chinese government recently managed to sponsor a major deal between Saudi Arabia and Iran, but that was largely the result of two-year negotiations that had also been carried out by diplomatic teams from other countries.
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