Xi and Zelensky Speak in First Known Contact Since Russia’s Invasion
China’s leader, Xi Jinping, and Ukraine’s president, Volodymyr Zelensky, spoke by telephone on Wednesday, in the first known contact between the two leaders since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
Mr. Zelensky said he “had a long and meaningful phone call” with Mr. Xi. The Chinese state news media said the two leaders had discussed “the Ukraine crisis” and their nations’ bilateral relationship.
A summary of the nearly hourlong conversation published by the Chinese state news media made no mention of Russia and did not use the word “war.” Mr. Xi reiterated points Beijing has made in the past, saying that China’s “core position” was to “promote peace and talks.” Mr. Xi also said “mutual respect for sovereignty and territorial integrity” was the “political basis of China-Ukrainian relations.”
Mr. Zelensky said on Twitter that the call would help “give a powerful impetus to the development of our bilateral relations.”
The Chinese state media added that China would “send a special representative of the Chinese government on Eurasian affairs to visit Ukraine and “other countries to conduct in-depth communication with all parties on the political settlement of the Ukrainian crisis.”
The special representative, Li Hui, was awarded a “Medal of Friendship” by President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia in 2019.
Since Russia’s full-scale invasion 14 months ago, Mr. Zelensky had repeatedly expressed interest in speaking with Mr. Xi. China, though it has declared itself neutral in the war and has refrained from criticizing the invasion by Russia, its close partner. Many Western officials believe China may be the only country with enough clout with both Ukraine and Russia to help negotiate an end to the conflict.
But Chinese officials had long dodged questions about whether Mr. Xi would speak with Mr. Zelensky, even as the Chinese leader repeatedly spoke or met with Mr. Putin, including during a trip to Moscow on March 20. Before that visit, China had issued what it framed as a peace plan for Ukraine, seemingly positioning itself as a potential mediator, though the United States and Western allies largely dismissed the plan. China and Russia’s joint statement after the visit made little mention of the war, instead focusing on deepening ties between the two countries.
The call took place days after China’s ambassador to France, Lu Shaye, caused a diplomatic firestorm in Europe after he questioned the sovereignty of post-Soviet nations like Ukraine in a televised interview.
Analysts said Mr. Xi’s call with Mr. Zelensky may have been in response to the flap, which damaged China’s effort to strengthen ties with Europe as its relations with the United States worsen.
“Xi’s strategy is to weaken the trans-Atlantic alliance,” said Theresa Fallon, director of the Center for Russia Europe Asia Studies in Brussels. “It was really important for Xi to fix it and fix it fast.”
Mr. Xi has been trying to burnish his image as a global statesman in recent months by helping restore diplomatic ties between Saudi Arabia and Iran and by rolling out the red carpet in Beijing for visiting world leaders such as President Emmanuel Macron of France.
Whether Mr. Xi has the intention, or ability, to help mediate for peace in Ukraine remains to be seen. Russia is viewed as a crucial partner in challenging a U.S.-led world order that China is attempting to reshape.
Before the war, China-Ukraine ties had been strengthening. By 2019, China was Ukraine’s largest trading partner and the top importer of its barley and iron ore, according to a report by the Council on Foreign Relations. Ukraine was also China’s largest corn supplier and its second-largest arms supplier. China’s first aircraft carrier, the Liaoning, was a discarded Soviet vessel bought from Ukraine that the Chinese Navy refurbished.
The last known contact between Mr. Xi and Mr. Zelensky was a phone call in January 2022, just weeks before the invasion, to celebrate the 30th anniversary of diplomatic bilateral ties.
But after the invasion, the official Chinese news media adopted many of the Kremlin’s talking points and disinformation, accusing NATO of instigating the conflict and refusing to call it an invasion.
Even so, Ukraine has been careful not to antagonize Beijing, mindful of the decisive role China could play in the war. Mr. Zelensky, for example, called China’s position paper on the war “an important signal,” and has said that “I really want to believe” China would not supply weapons to Russia. (Western officials have suggested that Beijing may do so, despite China’s denials.)