On Monday, Chinese President Xi Jinping and Russian President Vladimir Putin met face to face in Moscow. Xi offered his country’s assistance in mediating between Russia and Ukraine to help find a solution to the war. At the same time, the United States has warned that it has evidence that China was considering sending legal aid to Moscow. So what is the significance of the peace plan, and could it work?
The magazine’s news team joined FP Live to answer this and other subscriber questions on Russia’s war in Ukraine. What follows is a condensed and edited transcript. FP subscribers can watch the video at the top of this page.
Ravi Agrawal: Chinese Premier Xi Jinping and Russian President Vladimir Putin met face to face in Moscow this week. Amy, tell us a little bit about Xi’s proposed peace plan.
Amy Mackinnon: This was a 12-point peace plan released by Beijing on the one-year anniversary of the invasion last month. What’s interesting about this document is what it reveals about Beijing’s worldview and its views of the conflict. It talks about respecting the sovereignty of all countries, of abandoning a Cold War mentality. It rails against international sanctions. It’s safe to say that all of these can be interpreted as directed at the United States and the West.
The document also gives us a sense of where China’s unease really lies with regard to the war in Ukraine because they’ve been playing this very kind of interesting dance since the beginning of the war. Weeks before the invasion, we heard Xi and Putin talk about this limitless friendship, but at other turns in the summer last year, Xi seemed to set some boundaries with Putin in terms of his expectations for the war and how far the Russians may go. You also get a sense within this peace plan about China’s unease, particularly with regard to the nuclear issue. The plan reiterates the Reagan-Gorbachev famous statement that nuclear war cannot be and must not be fought. Russian officials have routinely made threats toward using their nuclear arsenal.
We hear repeatedly from Western officials that [Russian nuclear threats] make Beijing very nervous. In terms of the war itself, there’s not a lot of substance there and no concrete proposals. Western officials have dismissed the plan, fearing that it could essentially freeze the conflict in place, giving massive territorial gains to Russia and giving Russia time to regroup. Nowhere in the document, crucially, does it call for Russia to actually withdraw its forces from Ukrainian territory.
RA: Jack, how has Kyiv responded to this proposal from Xi?
Jack Detsch: It’s the same message that Ukrainian troops sent to that Russian warship surrounding Snake Island a year ago. They want Russian soldiers out of the country, and the Chinese plan doesn’t do anything to articulate that.
On the U.S. side, we’ve seen openness to the Ukrainian talking points on this. National Security Council spokesperson John Kirby earlier this week said they’re open to a Chinese role in brokering an end to the conflict, but again, it’s an end to the conflict without Russian troops on Ukrainian soil.
In larger geopolitical terms, the problem for the Biden administration is that the longer this goes on, the more it could potentially benefit China. When you look at the military balance in East Asia deeper toward the Pentagon’s 2027 deadline of when the [Chinese] People’s Liberation Army could be ready for that cross-strait invasion of Taiwan, is that a point by which the United States is still deeply involved in Ukraine? Perhaps that’s something Chinese policymakers would like to see.
RA: Robbie, what are you hearing from the American side of how it views China’s role in mediating, in trying to project itself as a leader or a peacemaker?
Robbie Gramer: When I talk to administration officials about this, the broad sense is that there’s this underlying sense of unease. China brokered this diplomatic deal between Iran and Saudi Arabia, [historic] arch rivals, earlier this month, and that was seen as a wake-up call.
China is trying to portray itself as the constructive global engager, trying to supplant the United States’ role, and it’s added overall to pressure on the Biden administration [to be everywhere all at once]. Even as they’re laser focused on the Asia-Pacific and the war in Ukraine, they can’t ignore the Middle East, Latin America, or Africa because China is stepping up its engagement there. This peace plan that Xi put forward is a shameless approach, but it’s also smart diplomacy for a lot of these other countries outside the West to try to portray China as putting forward the peace plan. And I think they’re going to gain some traction there with other countries, even if that argument is completely feckless and ignores the fact of how Russia’s full-fledged invasion was completely unprovoked. I also think it shows broadly that China, after being on the defensive for so long after COVID, after its clumsy attempts at wolf warrior diplomacy, taking on this really combative approach, they’re starting to go back on the offensive on the soft-power side of this great-power competition.
RA: Amy, the notion of China proposing a peace plan sounds preposterous knowing the Chinese were possibly trying to arm the Russians. What’s your sense of what Washington is trying to do to block any potential lethal aid to Russia?
AM: We’re beginning to see China use the similar fire starter-fireman playbook that Russia has used for a long time. They’re proposing peace plans at the same time [that] we’re hearing from U.S. officials that they’re weighing sending arms to Moscow.
As things stand, it seems that they are still weighing Moscow’s request. [NATO chief] Jens Stoltenberg said this week that NATO had not yet seen any evidence that Beijing was actually providing lethal aid to Russia. My understanding from speaking to Western officials is that the kind of aid Beijing is considering would not necessarily be a game-changer on the battlefield. This is not the support that the West has provided to Ukraine, which has actually allowed them to make meaningful gains on the battlefield, but rather that this is a question of backfilling the enormous depletion to Moscow stockpiles that we’ve seen during the course of this war.
It would, however, be a huge signal of support of Beijing’s support for Moscow’s war as prosecution of that—and potentially open them up to further sanctions from the West over this action.
RA: There’s this growing notion that for China and India, the idea of Russia potentially using nuclear weapons in any way as a battlefield setback reaction would be a huge red line. In a sense, reassurances from the Indian and the Chinese to the West have maybe even changed the calibrations of how the West is thinking about deterrence and thinking about escalation as well. Robbie, what are you hearing?
RG: It’s clear that Putin is trying to portray this strategic shift for Russia away from the West. You’re seeing the [Russian] foreign minister, [Sergey] Lavrov, go on all these charm offensive tours throughout Africa and the global south, which encompasses a large majority of the global population.
Even though there is frustration within the U.S., within NATO, [about] countries like India, opening up trade ties with Russia, providing an economic lifeline, just as Washington and Brussels are trying to squeeze the economic noose around Russia, there’s still a sense that everyone is on the same page on the nuclear question. That’s part of the reason why you’ve seen Putin back off from his nuclear saber-rattling. It is these other power bases in places like New Delhi and Beijing that are telling Putin, “Pump the brakes on this.”
RA: Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis issued a statement and said that the U.S. has many vital national interests but becoming further entangled in a “territorial dispute” between Ukraine and Russia is not one of them. This is a faction within the GOP, and other parts of American society as well, where there’s a growing belief that helping Ukraine isn’t in America’s strategic interests. Jack, what’s your sense of how DeSantis’s words change the debate in America, if at all?
JD: The dynamic in the Republican Party is almost like [Albert] Einstein versus quantum physics. The universe writ large has order, but the subatomic layer has chaos. We see these little dynamics, these little turf wars within the Republican Party, animating this upstart versus establishment dynamic that DeSantis really figures into.
We haven’t seen it magnified by the polling data so far. According to Gallup, 62 percent of registered Republicans still view Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine as a major U.S. national security threat and something that’s against American interests. We see this reflected throughout the Republican presidential contender field so far, other than DeSantis and [former U.S. President Donald] Trump. [Former South Carolina Gov.] Nikki Haley bluntly said that if Russia wins in Ukraine, this is a major threat for Taiwan to be invaded by China. [Former U.S. Secretary of State] Mike Pompeo has called on the U.S. to send all the weapons that they need.
This is a calculated bet by DeSantis, that the political calculations will change in the United States. He’s betting that the Mitch McConnell’s of the world won’t hold. They might be outflanked by the Kevin McCarthy’s, the Matt Gaetz’s, the Marjorie Taylor Greene’s of the world. That’s going to depend on a few things. If Ukraine actually lands another Kharkiv-level punch on the Russians in this spring offensive that we see upcoming in [the] next few weeks, that could change the calculus, perhaps get more popular support behind a renewed financial push by the Pentagon toward the Ukrainians. [It also depends] on where the U.S. economy goes. If [U.S. President Joe] Biden has to come hat in hand asking Congress for $40, $50, even $60 billion more for the Ukrainians in June or July and we see a change in U.S. fortunes, that’s going to be a stronger argument that DeSantis is going to be putting forward.
RA: Robbie, I’m curious if any personnel changes announced in the last few weeks change the dynamics. Nicholas Berliner was announced as Biden’s new Russia envoy. Does that affect any of the thinking behind this?
RG: Biden has decades of experience and affinity for Europe from his time in the Senate and his time as vice president, and you can think of Biden as the Russia-Ukraine desk officer in the American government. He’ll be judge, jury, executioner on all of policy related to Ukraine and Russia. There’s the old adage that personnel is policy. That really rings true in many cases, but when it’s the pet project of the American president, that [policy is] not going to shift a lot.
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