Witnessed too by the flow of political contacts during the weeks ahead of the “anniversary”, when the city of Kiev has been the rallying point of endless “surprise” visits. It seems as nobody believing he/she matters in his/her field can do without appearing in Kiev, with a touch of blue-yellow clothing or semi-military attire, hugging president Zelensky in front of carefully selected journalists from home. The most impressive, and the most significative, visit has been that of president Biden who, on 20 February, disembarked in Kiev central railways station. A few hours later, he took the train back to Poland for a well-planned visit to Poland to meet President Duda and the leaders of the members of the Eastern Flank Allies. In almost Reaganian tone, Biden projected the image of the leader of a global fight between the Good and the Evil, supporting “the people of Ukraine and the core values of human rights and dignity in the UN Charter that unite us worldwide”.
China’s peace plan
If the visit of an American president can not be a total “surprise”, for security reasons, the real surprise had come a few hours before the arrival of president Biden in Kiev, when China announced its “peace plan”. On 19 February, at the Munich Security Conference, US state secretary Antony Blinken had met Wang Yi, the Chinese foreign policy supremo in the context of bilateral increased tensions, this time around the Chinese spy balloons. In an interview with an American channel, Blinken declared that China was envisaging to provide “lethal support” to Russia against Ukraine. The Chinese ministry of foreign affairs reacted sharply, denying this information, and pointing that it was the US that were delivering endless streams of arms on the battlefield, not China. Beijing took badly Blinken’s warnings that China had to balance all the “implications and consequences” of its eventual material support to Russia or its help to circumvent Western sanctions. This is typically the kind of language that Beijing, like Moscow, translate as a Western attempt to dictate the policies of non-Western states. They know this feeling is shared by many countries pressured by the West to join a global front against Russia.
The Chinese initiative was well timed. Wang Yi had been in Moscow to prepare a meeting between Russian and Chinese presidents and in a few European capitals for bilateral talks. But significantly, he did not stop in Brussels to meet European institutions. Wang Yi had large exchanges with his guests, discussing Ukraine, but also global security issues, trade and investments – all matters that are on the agendas of EU presidents and prime ministers planning to visit Beijing in the coming weeks, separately. Parallelly, the new about a plan peace was released on the eve of the UN General Assembly’ session due to adopt a motion ordering Russian to withdraw all its forces from Ukraine’s territory. This situation provided a breathing space for Chinese UN representatives to maintain their opposition and for other countries to abstain without giving an unqualified support to Russia, nor joining the anti-Russian bloc. Especially at a time when Western intelligence agencies were reporting that Russia was concentrating forces to launch a new offensive, from Eastern Ukraine and Belarus.
This is the context in which China released its 12-point document outlining its “position on the political settlement of the Ukraine crisis”. It launched a debate among specialists of China, circling around the question “Is China taking its distances regarding Putin?”. Many agree that nothing is clear in geopolitical terms, and that the text is first of all a Chinese plan concerned by Chinese interests. Beijing can not accept a weak ruined Russia next door to a powerful NATO, especially if the Alliance is turning its attention to the Asia and Pacific region. And it does not want a bipolar world in the actual situation, when it still cannot hold its own stand against Washington and needs Western markets to sustain its economic growth.
The plan was rejected immediately by EU head of foreign relation, Josep Borrell who described it is a list of considerations, not a peace plan, with would require operational measures. The general secretary of NATO, Jens Stoltenberg, said that China was not much credible as long as it does not condemn the illegal invasion of Ukraine. The United States dismissed the document for the same reason – that it does not condemn Russia for the occupation of Ukrainian territory – but Washington is also concerned by global security issues, especially nuclear security. In the same time, there have been many leaks concerning discreet contacts by Americans to stop the military escalation, if only because of the financial and political costs. Many intermediaries have been quoted, and after all China is seen in Washington as the future second great power and, as such, worth its attention.
In contradiction with the lukewarm, if not hostile, Western reactions, the Chinese peace plan has been received with cautious optimism in Ukraine. President Zelensky spoke of the “necessity” to work with China to solve the conflict with Russia and detected in the Chinese text a respect for his country’s territorial integrity. With his usual haste, he even proposed a direct meeting with president Xi. Ukraine’s foreign minister Dmytro Kuleba declared the plan worth to be carefully studied – and China a credible mediator despite its close relationship with Moscow. But, as did other Ukrainian officials, he attracted the attention to the fact that Ukraine had published its own peace plan.