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China's Xi calls Ukraine's Zelenskyy, after weeks of intensifying pressure to do so

This combination of file photos shows China's President Xi Jinping, taken in Bangkok, Thailand, on Nov. 19, 2022, and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, taken outside Kyiv, Ukraine, on April 7, 2023. Chinese leader Xi talked Wednesday with Ukrainian President Zelenskyy.
AP
This combination of file photos shows China's President Xi Jinping, taken in Bangkok, Thailand, on Nov. 19, 2022, and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, taken outside Kyiv, Ukraine, on April 7, 2023. Chinese leader Xi talked Wednesday with Ukrainian President Zelenskyy.

Updated April 26, 2023 at 4:16 PM ET

Chinese leader Xi Jinping called Ukraine's President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, over a month after Xi's summit in Moscow with Russia's leader Vladimir Putin.

Xi made the call to Zelenskyy after weeks of intensifying pressure from Western leaders to use his influence with Putin to broker a deal toward ending the war in Ukraine, which began with Russia's invasion in late February 2022.

It was the first call between Xi and Zelenskyy since the Russian invasion, the Ukrainian government said. China said it happened on Wednesday, at the invitation of Zelenskyy.

Writing on Twitter, Zelenskyy said the call was "long and meaningful." He later wrote, on the Telegram messaging app, that the hour-long conversation paid particular attention "to the ways of possible cooperation to establish a just and sustainable peace for Ukraine."

He noted that China was Ukraine's top trading partner before the invasion, and the call serves as a "powerful impetus" for the countries' relations.

President Zelenskyy's office announced the appointment of Pavlo Riabikin as ambassador to China, a post that has been vacant for two years since the death of Ukraine's last ambassador to China in 2021.

"China would not sit idly by"

A Chinese government readout after the call said it will send a special representative "to Ukraine and other countries to have in-depth communication with all parties on the political settlement of the Ukraine crisis."

Notably, it did not mention Russia or its leader by name.

"As a permanent member of the UN Security Council and a responsible major country, China would not sit idly by, nor would it add oil to the fire, still less exploit the situation for self gains," the Chinese government said. "No matter how the international landscape changes, China is willing to work with the Ukrainian side to move forward the mutually beneficial cooperation between the two countries."

It said Xi reiterated his stance against the use of nuclear weapons. Russia has a large nuclear arsenal, while Ukraine is backed by NATO powers that possess nuclear arms, too.

"There is no winner in nuclear wars," the Chinese government said Xi told Zelenskyy. "On the nuclear issue, all relevant parties must stay calm and exercise restraint, truly act in the interests of their own future and that of humanity, and jointly manage the crisis."

Xi and Zelenskyy's call comes as the Chinese leader has sought to play the role of international peacemaker, having brokered a deal to mend fences between Middle Eastern rivals Iran and Saudi Arabia.

However, chances of a diplomatic breakthrough in the war in Ukraine are slim, given how far apart Moscow and Kyiv's positions remain, especially on the issue of Russian-occupied Ukrainian territory.

Russia occupies large portions of eastern Ukraine and Crimea, and Kyiv insists no talks are possible until Moscow withdraws from Ukrainian territory. Even a cease-fire, Ukraine says, will only allow Moscow time to regroup in its faltering military campaign. Ukraine rejected a 36-hour Russian cease-fire over Orthodox Christmas.

The Ukrainian readout from the call said "Zelenskyy expressed hope for China's active participation in efforts to restore peace." But, it said Zelenskyy insisted, "There can be no peace at the expense of territorial compromises."

Analysts say Ukraine is gearing up to soon start a spring counteroffensive to take back Russian-occupied land. The success or failure of those operations could dramatically reshape the conflict.

White House: It's a "good thing"

Speaking to reporters Monday, President Zelenskyy's chief of staff, Andriy Yermak, said the government has been seeking out Xi's ear.

"We appealed to China and presented President Zelenskyy's peace plan," Yermak said. "Of course we can't say that we accept China's plan or political position, but it's good that they are ready to be involved. We are looking for contact between President Zelenskyy and President Xi because we think it's the best way to listen, personally, between our presidents."

On Wednesday, news of the call was greeted with cautious welcome in some Western capitals.

John Kirby, a White House national security spokesperson, told reporters the phone call was "a good thing," because "it's important for President Xi and [Chinese government] officials to avail themselves of the Ukrainian perspective on this illegal and unprovoked invasion by Russia." But it's unclear if it can lead to some sort of peace, he said.

The European Commission — the European Union's executive arm — called it "long overdue."

"China's leadership needs to use its influence to bring Russia to end its war of aggression, restore Ukraine's territorial integrity and respect its sovereignty, as a basis for a just peace," European Commission spokesman Eric Mamer said, according to the Agence France-Presse.

Beijing tries to fix strains

China's Xi, having recently secured an unprecedented third term as president, seeks to burnish China's international credentials amid deeply stressed ties with the United States and increasingly difficult ones with Europe. Leaders in Europe view China's close ties with Russia — their "no limits" partnership — with growing suspicion and skepticism.

Earlier this week, the Chinese ambassador to France caused outrage by questioning whether former Soviet republics are sovereign states under international law. Ukraine was once a Soviet republic, as were over a dozen other currently independent countries. China's Foreign Ministry walked back the remarks, saying it does respect the sovereignty of former Soviet republics.

Beijing's ties are also frayed with Western countries on issues ranging from trade to human rights to defense concerns over Taiwan.

China called for a cease-fire and peace talks between Russia and Ukraine in a position paper released on the first anniversary of Russia's invasion on Feb. 24.

"Dialogue and negotiation are the only viable solution to the Ukraine crisis," the 12-point position paper stated. "All efforts conducive to the peaceful settlement of the crisis must be encouraged and supported."

Since then, Zelenskyy has requested an audience with Xi but has been skeptical of the proposal, given Beijing's close ties with Moscow. Washington essentially dismissed the proposal, saying China was not a neutral arbiter in this conflict.

Julian Hayda and Hanna Palamarenko contributed reporting from Kyiv, Ukraine. Alex Leff contributed from Washington.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Nishant Dahiya
Emily Feng is NPR's Beijing correspondent.
John Ruwitch is a correspondent with NPR's international desk. He covers Chinese affairs.
Joanna Kakissis is a foreign correspondent based in Kyiv, Ukraine, where she reports poignant stories of a conflict that has upended millions of lives, affected global energy and food supplies and pitted NATO against Russia.