On 17 January 2023, during the Davos economic forum where she had been invited to speak, Olena Zelenska passed on to the Chinese delegation a letter that her husband had written to Xi Jinping. Since the Russian invasion of his country on 24 February 2022, the Ukrainian president has repeatedly sought contact with his Chinese counterpart.
His idea is to ask China to use its influence on the Russians so that they will give up their war of conquest.
From 1839 to 1945, China experienced a long century of repeated violations of its sovereignty by the various great powers, both Western and Asian, of the time. It remains very sensitive on the subject. It is, through its history, very attached to the sovereignty of nations.
At the beginning of the 15th century, the powerful fleet of Admiral Zheng He reached the Persian Gulf and then the eastern coast of Africa. It established diplomatic and commercial ties with the various countries it approached, but refrained from territorial predation, unlike the Western navies of the following century.
The Chinese people suffered enormously from Japanese aggression and occupation, which began on a large scale in 1937. In the UN Security Council, where it has a permanent seat, China has always been fussy about state sovereignty and respect for international borders.
Russia’s territorial nibbling of Ukraine from 2014 onwards is totally contrary to Chinese diplomatic DNA. Moreover, they have never recognised Moscow’s annexation of Crimea.
It was out of anti-American opportunism, not principle, that they refrained from condemning the Russian aggression of 24 February in the Security Council. At the Asian summit in Samarkand on 16 September 2022, they asked Vladimir Putin to end his war as soon as possible – and politely told him that his veiled threats to use nuclear weapons were irresponsible.
Because of its economic power, its influence on Moscow, and its diplomatic neutrality – neither condemning nor approving of Russia’s war in Ukraine – China is by far the best possible mediator between the belligerents.
Zelensky was right to address his Chinese counterpart. The Ukrainian president has understood that time is now on Russia’s side. On the one hand, the Russian army has sealed its gaps and is gradually strengthening thanks to the arrival of the first recalled soldiers in the fighting units.
On the other hand, the American Republicans, who now hold the purse strings, will be less generous towards Ukraine than the Democrats. As for the Europeans, the Ramstein meeting of 20 January showed that they were dragging their feet in giving Ukraine a massive comparative advantage in heavy tanks.
However, only an armoured division of at least 300 heavy tanks (of the Leclerc or Leopard 2 type) would be able to significantly break through the Russian front, although final success is not guaranteed.
The timing of a Chinese mediation is right because the Clausewitzian “rise to extremes” seems to be taking a break. The Americans refuse to deliver heavy tanks to their Ukrainian friends*, while Vladimir Putin no longer speaks of “denazification of the regime” in Kiev, limiting his war objective to the defence of the “Russian brothers” (implying the Russophiles of the Donbass). [Since this article was first published, the US has agreed to send Abrams tanks to Ukraine].
Contrary to what many had predicted after the Ukrainian liberation of the cities of Izum (11 September 2022) and Kherson (11 November), the Russian army has not collapsed. It still shows little manoeuvring skill, but it no longer retreats. It still holds 15 per cent of Ukrainian territory.
The capture by the Wagner militia of the small mining town of Soledar is a signal, even if one cannot speak of a Russian strategic victory. After his autumn enthusiasm, the Ukrainian president has returned to a realistic approach. He knows that his wish for a Russian defeat that would drive Putin from power is not for tomorrow.
Chinese mediation has the advantage of offering the Russian president a way to save his face. Making concessions to accommodate the Chinese mediator friend will have nothing to do, in the Russian narrative, with giving in to the Ukraine.
To convince China to act, France and Germany, united, would have to throw their weight around.
Between 1914 and 1918, the massacre of the youth of European countries continued for a very long time because there was no superior power to stop it.
Today, the priority is to stop the massacre among the Eastern Slavic brothers. If they work together on this task, the American and Chinese superpowers have the means to do so.
This article was first published in Le Figaro.