Peter Kuznick Ukraine

Why Beijing Should Help Mediate to End the Russia-Ukraine Crisis

Analysts scoffed when the EU’s Josep Borrell said ‘it must be China.’ But he’s onto something — and Biden should take notice.
Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelensky  (Sergei Chuzavkov/Shutterstock); Chinese President Xi Jinping (Shutterstock/Alessia Pierdomenico) and Russian President Vladimir Putin (quetions123/shutterstock)

By Peter Kuznick / Responsible Statecraft

European Union foreign policy chief Josep Borrell, searching for a global leader who can mediate peace between Russia and Ukraine, declaredunambiguously, “it must be China.” Most analysts scoffed at this notion, dismissing Xi Jinping as a Putin enabler who would side with his fellow autocrat and strongman.

Borrell, however, was absolutely correct in thinking that Xi is the only leader who can exercise meaningful leverage over Vladimir Putin. It’s up to the U.S. and the rest of the international community to convince and even incentivize Xi to play that role. 

While not officially an ally, China is Russia’s closest partner. It is also Russia’s lifeline at a time when not only NATO and the EU, but most of the world has united against Russia’s illegal, immoral, and self-destructive invasion of Ukraine. 

So far, Xi has stood on the sidelines while the blood flows, the buildings are leveled, and the possibility of World War III grows. On March 7, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi stated that, “China is willing to continue playing a constructive role in urging peace talks and is willing when necessary to work together with the international community to launch required mediation.” 

When necessary? The necessity for action is long past as the crisis gets worse by the hour. China must act with a sense of urgency. 

China has friendly relations with both Ukraine and Russia. By 2019, it had replaced Russia as Ukraine’s biggest trading partner, importing corn, barley, iron ore, and arms, among other things. 

China has also invested heavily in Ukraine, which represents a crucial leg in its Belt and Road Initiative, having already signed nearly $3 billion worth of BRI-related construction contracts. In their first phone conversation in 2021, Zelensky told Xi that China was “Ukraine’s no. 1 trade and economic partner” and expressed hope that his country would become “a bridge to Europe for Chinese business.” 

That dream would be lost if Russia bombs Ukraine back into the Stone Age. China has also said it respects Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity, effectively rejecting Putin’s claims to the contrary. And Ukraine’s Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba implored Wang to use his influence with Russia to stop the invasion as did European leaders in a video call with Xi Jinping in February.

China’s ties to Russia are obvious. Not only has Xi said that Putin is his dearest friend in the world, China is Russia’s number one trading partner and principal ally in the struggle against U.S. global hegemony and unipolarity, a relationship that was further cemented in the two leaders’ joint statement of February 4 when Putin visited Beijing. They declared there were “no limits” to the friendship between their countries. Xi has said that he agrees with Putin about NATO encroachment and supports Russia in its effort to fashion a new global security architecture. 

Some allege that Xi knew in advance and approved Putin’s harebrained invasion, but evidence and logic suggest that he, like most of the people inside and outside Russia, was caught by surprise. Even if he did somehow share Putin’s perverse fantasy about a lightning strike and quick victory in which the Russian invaders would be welcomed as liberating the Ukrainian people from a genocidal government run by “neo-Nazis” and “drug dealers,” he must now see that the invasion has turned into a military, economic, moral, and political disaster for Putin, whose stature on the world stage, like that of fellow warmongers George W. Bush and Dick Cheney, has been irreparably and deservedly diminished and whose historical legacy lies in tatters.

The longer this war goes on, the worse this gets not only for the Ukrainian people but for Putin himself. Putin may be so deluded and surrounded by sycophants afraid to tell him the truth that he doesn’t see what a disaster this war is for Russia, but it is inconceivable that Xi doesn’t see it. It is also in China’s interest to maintain the relative peace and stability (multiple U.S. wars notwithstanding) that has allowed it to grow economically at a rate that is totally unprecedented in human history. The current economic disruptions, just as parts of the world appeared to be emerging from the worst ravages of the pandemic, will not only hurt people around the globe, especially the billions dependent on grain from Russia and Ukraine, it will badly damage the Chinese economy.

Xi can’t enjoy seeing his closest friend being isolated and demonized on the world stage and must offer Putin a way out of the current quagmire he has gotten himself into in Ukraine. Russia can prevail militarily by bludgeoning Ukraine’s cities and killing large parts of its population, but that would be the worst kind of pyrrhic victory that would leave Russia far, far weaker than when this invasion began.

Furthermore, Xi should jump at the chance to be seen as a peacemaker. While he might not have to worry about public opinion in China given the Party’s lock-hold on information and steel-like repression of dissent, his and China’s international reputation are abysmal in light of the treatment of the Uyghurs, the crackdown on Hong Kong, the unprecedented surveillance of Chinese citizens, and China’s aggressive stances toward Taiwan and its South China Sea neighbors. 

In the U.S., more than 89 percent see China as a competitor or an enemy and 67 percent have “cold feelings” toward the country, a number that has grown sharply in recent years. In Japan, Australia, South Korea, Canada, Sweden, the Netherlands, and Germany, negative views of China exceed 70 percent. Successful mediation would help transform Xi’s and China’s reputation. And while the U.S. has gone to war with one country after another in recent decades, China has not been at war since 1979. Not only would Xi be doing the greatest favor to Ukrainians and Russians by successfully mediating this crisis, he would be enhancing his own and China’s standing in the world. The image of Xi as peacemaker would be much more beneficial than that of Xi as bully or dictator. 

While China might benefit in the short-term from the Biden administration’s focus on Russia, which has distracted it from its intended intensification of competition with China, the relief it is getting will be temporary. Once this war is over, containment of China will resume. Seizing this opportunity to improve relations with the U.S. and Europe will be much more beneficial for China if it is serious about a “win-win” cooperative approach rather than the hostile competition that many in the West have been pursuing in what is often referred to as the “new cold war.”

And President Biden can help. So far, he has been good at rallying EU states and NATO members in vilifying Putin, punishing Russia, supporting refugees, and arming Ukraine. But if the U.S. goal is really to end this war with the least possible loss of innocent life and not simply to inflict maximum damage on Russia, then there are things Biden can do.

His administration’s policy, under the stewardship of Kurt Campbell, Antony Blinken, Jake Sullivan, and a small army of hawkish administration officials from the Center for a New American Security, has been hostile and confrontational toward China since Biden took power. Instead of ending Trump’s trade war, he has doubled down on it. Instead of easing tensions over Taiwan, he has exacerbated them. If the U.S. is willing to reach out to and lift sanctions on Venezuela and Iran to get them to assist with increasing available oil in order to marginalize Russia, it should be willing to offer economic concessions to China in return for its taking the lead in ending this war. If this can’t be done publicly, it should be done in backroom deals or with private assurances. 

Whether it is trade policy or concessions in other contentious areas, including the U.S. backing off on provocative behavior around Taiwan, there is a lot the U.S. could offer. 

The world stands with the heroic Ukrainians who are resisting this invasion. But the reality is that this can only end in slaughter. Ukraine is not about to be invited to join NATO and Zelensky has said he is no longer interested in joining. He indicates that he is willing to accept neutrality, another key Russian demand. He seems flexible when it comes to Luhansk and Donetsk. The Ukrainians and Russians can agree to disagree about Crimea, which Russia is not relinquishing. Ukrainian security and sovereignty must be guaranteed. The basis for a solution that addresses most of the concerns of both sides should be within reach. 

With Chinese pressure on top of that already being exerted by much of the rest of the world, Putin might grasp at the opportunity to claim victory and end this insanity, while his diminished military still has a modicum of respect and his economy is not completely shattered. Hopefully, the world will have learned a lesson from this horrific episode. While the responsibility here clearly lies with Putin, who unleashed this criminal invasion, there’s plenty of blame to go around and, in the end, there are no winners in a war that could have and should have been averted before it began.

Peter Kuznick

Peter is a professor of history and Director of the Nuclear Studies Institute at American University in Washington, D.C. He is also the author of numerous books, and co-author (with Oliver Stone) of The Untold History of the United States.

13 comments

  1. I think Uruguay or Rwanda or Bolivia or Vietnam or maybe even Rhode Island should mediate.

  2. If the US goal were to secure peace in Ukraine, it could have avoided this war alltogether by simply telling Zelensky to implement the Minsk agreement and by promising in writing to Russia that Ukraine will never join NATO. But it didn’t. Instead, it supplied Ukraine with hundreds of millions of weapons and threatened Russia with economic annihilation. The US is profiting handsomly from this war, and it will sabotage any Chinese mediation, which, if successful, could give China much increased power and influence in Europe. It may even spell the end of NATO, as Europeans would finally realize that the new multipolar order, not the old NATO, saved them from WWIII.

  3. Thanks , Peter Kuznick. This is the most sensible suggestion I’ve heard. It sound also like Zelensky is willing to compromise. Let’s convince Biden.

  4. Putin’s 6 demands can hardly be said to be unreasonable. Given the history of Reagan and NATO’s Accord with the Soviet Union and Gorbachev in promising no expansionism in exchange for the split up of the Soviet Union.

    How did the US feel when Kruschev put nukes in Cuba???? When the shoe was on the other foot, or WMD the lies continue.

  5. I don’t think China will “mediate” between Russia and NATO. I think China sees US led NATO vs. Russia as a dress rehearsal for an inevitable US vs China over Taiwan and will back Russia now rather than face the US alone in the near future.

    1. Jim, you are bang on, nailed it.
      But China must be try to mediate as best as can be.
      They would be absolutely stunningly stupid not to understand that America Empire ultimately loves to end the Communism party even if it has to destroy all of China, as they attempted in Korea , Vietnam.
      So, sanctions for helping or not helping will be applied sooner or later….promises, deals, agreements have always been negated.

      What if Russia and China arranged for mercenaries from Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Mongolia were recruited?? If Stalin could do it 70 years ago, it could be repeated.
      Kazakhstan owes Putin big favor for stopping a Coup.

      If Russia loses the war, then an anti China leader would be installed in Kremlin which undoubtedly be the collapse of Xi and his Party.

  6. Oh dear – this, to me, is such a sad piece – does he really think that Bush, Cheney, Xi, give a tinker’s damn about their “reputation” in the international arena?

    And if Zelensky is really willing to consider what were essentially the provisions of MinskII, why the hell didn’t he do that years ago?

    China as mediator? Methinks the only way for China to be allowed to “mediate” is through back channels, which i suspect are in play already ,,,

  7. Peter Kuznick’s article is a straight up propaganda piece bringing up all the usual mainstream media words used to demonize Russia and its president.
    Illegal? Russia acted in self-defense. Immoral? Do you let the US/NATO/Right Sector/Azov Battalion and others perpetrate a genocide in Donbass and, as it’s now clear, threaten the very the very existence of the Russian State? Self-Destructive? If anything Russia is rearranging the world by standing up to the US/its allies and NATO unaccountable killing machine, responsible for countless wars of aggression, covert and proxy wars that have killed an estimated 20-30 million people since the end of World War Two. The only “perverse fantasy” here is the one that the US has been living under for the past 70 years. It’s a fantasy that is close to killing us all because its leaders are stupid. (Please read Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s letter from prison where he defines stupidity.)
    “Leadership passes into empire; empire begets insolence; insolence brings ruin.” –William Carlos Williams (poet/medical doctor)

  8. P.S. There should be at least 7 people involved in the mediation, not just China–and that’s providing China wants to participate. The other mediators should be the head of the United Nations (what ability does he have besides give speeches? Can he mediate peace? It should be a requirement for the post.) Plus four more countries/individuals, two selected by each side–Ukraine and Russia.

  9. kuznik repeats all the racist sinophobic, Russophobia anglo slogans. China opposes US/anglo imperialism. there will be no mediation until former ukraine is entirely denazified. as Saker and Indian retired general Bakshi has observed, the longer the conflict continues the more this benefits Russia. It is farcical to believe that Russia is not prepared militarily and economically; the sanctions damage anglo/NATO nations more than Russia—the increase in gas oil prices attest to this. Negotiaton with Ukraine will occur when they accept that they have permanently ceded Crimea/Donbass will permanently demilitarize and accept neutral status as Austria did in 1955

  10. OMG, more pearl-clutching about this situation? Really? The biggest problem of this kind in the world right now is the genocide that Saudi Arabia and its western allies like the U.S. and U.K. are committing in Yemen. The second biggest one is the continual Israeli assaults on Palestinians. The third biggest is the continuing illegal U.S. occupation of 1/3 of Syria and theft of its oil. But yeah, let’s obsess on Ukraine because, why exactly? Oh that’s right, the U.S. and the rest of the western establishment tells you to!

  11. I agree that it would be in China’s best interest and the best interest of the rest of humanity for China to mediate a peace settlement to the war. I would love to see it.

  12. China is the only major country with the correct take on this: Russia was wrong to invade, but the U. S. and NATO caused the problem. So I strongly agree that China should be the mediator. Maybe China can find common ground between the western hysterics and hypocrites, and the Russian invaders.

Comments are closed.

%d bloggers like this: