Russian President Vladimir Putin (L) and Chinese President Xi Jinping pose during their meeting in Beijing, on February 4, 2022.

Russian President Vladimir Putin (L) and Chinese President Xi Jinping pose during their meeting in Beijing, on February 4, 2022. Alexei Druzhinin / Sputnik / AFP via Getty Images

Don’t Expect China to Save Ukraine

“At this point in time, I think it’s very difficult for anybody to change Putin’s mind,” one expert said.

China’s close relationship with Russia means it's better positioned than most countries to help negotiate the end of the war in Ukraine, but experts said Thursday that even Beijing is unlikely to be able to stop Russian leader Vladimir Putin’s siege that has killed or injured more than 2,000 civilians.

President Xi Jinping’s role in ending the war, which has lasted three weeks so far, is expected to be a topic of discussion when he speaks with President Joe Biden on Friday, the first time the two leaders will speak directly since a virtual call in November. 

“This is part of our ongoing efforts to maintain open lines of communication between the United States and the [People’s Republic of China],” the White House said Thursday in a statement. “The two leaders will discuss managing the competition between our two countries as well as Russia’s war against Ukraine and other issues of mutual concern.”

China and Russia were aligned on the world stage throughout Moscow’s military build up on the Ukrainian border, and Beijing has continued its tacit acceptance of Russia’s war. In January, Beijing and Moscow were the only two members of the United Nations Security Council to vote against holding a meeting on Russia’s military build up. This week, the New York Times reported that Russia asked China for military and financial help to continue the war, and CNN reported that Beijing has been open to providing assistance, even though National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan told his Chinese counterpart that there would be “consequences” if they do so.

China offered this month to use those close ties to act as a mediator between Ukraine and Russia. 

“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,” Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi said at a March 7 news conference.

But it’s not clear if China’s intervention would help Ukraine, or if Xi could get through to Putin, experts said. 

“China’s behavior to date is…at best pro-Russian neutrality,” Evan Medieros, a professor at Georgetown University, said Thursday at a German Marshall Fund event. “Even that is moving from passivity to active support for Russia. So in that instance, I don’t see why it would be in the interest of Ukraine or NATO to invite China to be the mediator.”

If Ukraine did want China to get involved, officials in Kyiv should ask some “gatekeeping questions” to ensure Beijing would be even handed in negotiations, Medieros said, including asking China to publicly condemn Moscow’s attacks on civilians and to donate more humanitarian aid to Ukraine.

Despite China’s stated willingness to intervene, Medieros questioned if they really want to get involved, or if they would rather stay out of the conflict and let the United States and Russia clash. 

“When the Chinese look at Ukraine, their view is [that] you have two declining powers from a Chinese perspective, Russia and the United States. Let them fight it out, let them be distracted, let them use their resources, and we, China, will just sort of stay over here in Asia, continue to build up our domestic capabilities, and emerge from this as a global leader,” he said. “So it’s not clear to me that the Chinese are interested.”  

Evan Montgomery, a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, pointed out that China may have something to gain by ending the war, which might draw American attention away from the Indo-Pacific in the short term, but could leave Beijing as the sole great power threat getting all of America’s attention in the long term. 

“At what point do Russian losses become a liability for Beijing because a weaker Russia could make it easier for the US to focus on Asia?” Montgomery wrote on Twitter.

Regardless of the geopolitical impacts of China’s assistance, Akio Takahara, a professor at the University of Tokyo, said that as the death toll grows and Russian troops continue to target civilians, it’s important to pursue every avenue to end the conflict.

“What’s most important at this point in time is to stop the carnage. If somebody, whoever, can try and persuade Putin to stop, I think we should let them try, but my impression is it’s going to be very difficult even for China to stop Putin at this moment,” he said at the German Marshall Fund event. “At this point in time, I think it’s very difficult for anybody to change Putin’s mind.”