Chinese leader Xi Jinping speaks with Ukraine’s Zelensky for first time since Russia’s invasion

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky spoke Wednesday with Chinese leader Xi Jinping, Moscow’s most important diplomatic partner, in the first phone call between the two leaders since the start of Russia’s invasion.

“I had a long and meaningful phone call with Chinese President Xi Jinping. I believe that this call, as well as the appointment of Ukraine’s ambassador to China, will give a powerful impetus to the development of our bilateral relations,” Zelensky said.

Andrii Yermak, head of the Ukrainian Presidential Office, described the phone call as “an important dialogue” in a Telegram post Wednesday.

Chinese state broadcaster CCTV also reported the call, during which Xi confirmed that that an envoy would travel to Ukraine and other countries to help conduct “in-depth communication” with all parties for a political settlement of the Ukrainian crisis.

In a briefing on Wednesday, China’s Foreign Ministry said its envoy to Ukraine will be Li Hui, Special Representative of the Chinese Government on Eurasian Affairs. Li is the former Chinese ambassador to Russia, who served in the post from 2009 to 2019.

The ministry did not provide further details as to when Li would make the trip and which other countries he would be visiting.

Beijing has refused to condemn Russia’s invasion or make any public call for Russia to withdraw its troops. Its officials have instead repeatedly said that the “legitimate” security concerns of all countries must be taken into account and accused NATO and the US of fueling the conflict.

Despite its claims of neutrality and calls for peace talks, Beijing has offered Moscow much-needed diplomatic and economic support throughout the invasion.

Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova said on Wednesday that Moscow had taken notice of China’s willingness to facilitate negotiations with Ukraine following the phone call between Xi and Zelensky.

“We note the readiness of the Chinese side to make efforts to establish the negotiation process,” Zakharova said during a press conference on Wednesday.

However, she said she also noted that under current conditions negotiations are unlikely and blamed Kyiv for rejecting Moscow’s initiatives.

Diplomatic consternation

Wednesday’s phone call is the first time Xi has spoken to Zelensky since Russia invaded Ukraine in February last year. In comparison, Xi has spoken to Russian leader Vladimir Putin five times since the invasion – including a face-to-face at the Kremlin when the Chinese leader visited Moscow last month and another in-person meeting at a regional summit in Central Asia last September.

Reports that discussions were underway between China and Ukraine to arrange a call for their leaders first surfaced in March, in the lead-up to Xi’s state visit to Russia.

The reported efforts were widely seen by analysts at the time as part of China’s attempt to portray itself as a potential peacemaker in the conflict, in which it has claimed neutrality.

But the call didn’t materialize for weeks after Xi and Putin met in Moscow and made a sweeping affirmation of their alignment across a host of issues – including their shared mistrust of the United States.

Following a trip to Beijing, European Commission chief Ursula von der Leyen told reporters earlier this month Xi reiterated his willingness to speak with Zelensky “when conditions and time are right.”

Xi’s call with Zelensky comes days after China’s top diplomat in Paris sparked anger in Europe by questioning the sovereignty of former Soviet republics, in comments that could undermine China’s efforts to be seen as a potential mediator between Russia and Ukraine.

The remarks by China’s ambassador to France Lu Shaye, who said during a television interview last weekend that former Soviet countries don’t have “effective status in international law,” have caused diplomatic consternation, especially in the Baltic states, with Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia summoning Chinese representatives to ask for clarification.

Officials including from Ukraine, Moldova, France and the European Union also all hit back with criticisms of Lu’s comments.

China later distanced itself from Lu’s comments saying he was expressing a personal opinion, not official policy.

CNN asked Chinese Foreign Ministry official Yu Jun if the timing of the Xi-Zelensky phone call had anything to do with the backlash. “China has issued an authoritative response to the remarks made by the Chinese ambassador to France,” he said. “And I have been very clear on China’s position (on the Ukraine crisis).”

The last publicly reported phone call between Xi and Zelensky was on January 4, 2022, weeks before the invasion, during which the two leaders exchanged congratulatory messages to celebrate the 30th anniversary of diplomatic bilateral ties.

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