Zelenskyy Finally Calls out China’s Role in Russia’s War on Ukraine

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Zelenskyy Finally Calls out China’s Role in Russia’s War on Ukraine

Zelenskyy’s unusually direct comments in Singapore marked a significant shift in Kyiv’s stance and a long-overdue reckoning with China’s role in the war. 

Zelenskyy Finally Calls out China’s Role in Russia’s War on Ukraine

Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelenskyy at a press conference during the Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore, June 2, 2024.

Credit: President of Ukraine

For far too long, Ukraine has treaded carefully around China’s role in the ongoing war with Russia. Despite mounting evidence of Beijing’s support for Moscow, both materially and diplomatically, Kyiv has been reluctant to criticize China directly. However, during the recent Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy finally broke his silence, openly accusing China of aiding Russia in undermining peace efforts. 

In his speech, Zelenskyy alleged that “Russia, using Chinese influence in the region, using Chinese diplomats also, does everything to disrupt the peace summit.” He further claimed that China was supplying “elements of Russia’s weaponry,” something the United States has alleged for months by Kyiv has remained circumspect about. 

Zelenskyy’s unusually direct comments marked a significant shift in Kyiv’s stance and a long-overdue reckoning with China’s role in the war. 

Kyiv’s Cautious Pragmatism  

Kyiv was initially hesitant to openly criticize Beijing for its position on the Russian invasion of Ukraine, despite China’s tacit support for Moscow, due to several critical strategic considerations. First and foremost, Ukraine hoped to leverage China’s aspirations to enhance its global reputation in managing hotspot disputes, as demonstrated by its successful brokering of the Iran-Saudi Arabia deal. Thus Zelenskyy repeatedly extended invitations to Chinese President Xi Jinping to mediate the conflict. 

Moreover, China had heavily invested in vital Ukrainian infrastructure projects across key sectors such as energy, agriculture, and transportation. By 2019, China had surpassed Russia as Ukraine’s largest trading partner, with significant imports of Ukrainian barley, iron ore, and corn. Furthermore, Ukraine enjoyed a robust defense trade with China; after Russia, the next largest sources of weapons for China from 2016 to 2020 were France (9.7 percent) and Ukraine (6.3 percent). 

In 2017, Ukraine also joined China’s ambitious Belt and Road Initiative, seeking to harness that relationship to expedite the modernization of its transportation networks. Ukrainian policymakers aimed to establish the country as a gateway for Chinese access to Europe. Prior to the Russian invasion in 2022, China was Ukraine’s number one trade and economic partner and in 2021 Zelenskyy had expressed optimism that Ukraine would serve as a “bridge to Europe” for Chinese businesses. 

By treading carefully, Ukraine aimed to keep lines of communication open and maintain the possibility of China contributing to a negotiated settlement, however slim. 

China’s Symbolic Peace Efforts 

For its part, China has attempted to portray itself as a neutral actor in the conflict, engaging in several rounds of shuttle diplomacy. However, these efforts have been largely symbolic and failed to yield meaningful progress toward peace. 

In May 2023, Chinese Special Representative Li Hui visited Ukraine, Poland, France, Germany, and Russia to discuss a political settlement. However, reports suggest that Li promoted a ceasefire that would leave Russia occupying parts of Ukraine, a proposal unacceptable to Kyiv, which has consistently maintained that any peace deal must include the full withdrawal of Russian forces. 

China has also put forward a 12-point peace plan, but this plan has been criticized for being vague and failing to address the core issues of the conflict. The plan talks about general principles such as respecting sovereignty and abandoning the Cold War mentality, but does not provide any specific proposals for resolving the dispute. 

While Chinese leaders have emphasized the importance of a political resolution and called for a ceasefire, they have consistently blamed NATO and the West for provoking the conflict, echoing Russian talking points. 

Economically, China has become a crucial lifeline for Russia, helping to mitigate the impact of Western sanctions. Trade between the two countries reached a record $240 billion in 2023, a 64 percent increase from 2021. China has also significantly increased its purchases of Russian oil and gas, becoming Russia’s top crude oil customer in 2023. 

In terms of technology, China has been supplying Russia with dual-use goods that have both civilian and military applications. This includes machine tools, microelectronics, and optical components for tanks and armored vehicles. U.S. officials have reported that China has provided Russia with components for drones, cruise missiles, and other military equipment. Chinese officials have rebuffed criticism from the U.S. and Europe on this point, insisting that its trade with Russia is “legitimate” and calling the accusations of dual-use exports “extremely hypocritical and irresponsible.”

Shift in Kyiv’s Stance

Kyiv’s shift in stance toward China appears to be driven by a combination of broken promises, lack of dialogue, and repeated diplomatic snubs. Zelenskyy revealed that during a phone call in April 2023 – the first and only direct communication between the leaders of China and Ukraine since the war began – Chinese President Xi Jinping had promised to stand aside and not support Russia with weapons. However, in Singapore on June 2, Zelenskyy said, “Today, there is intelligence that somehow, some way, some things come to Russia’s markets via China … elements of Russia’s weaponry come from China.” China’s apparent breach of its promise has likely eroded Ukraine’s trust in Beijing and prompted a more critical stance. 

Furthermore, Zelenskyy accused Chinese officials of refusing to meet with him, stating, “many times we have wanted to meet Chinese representatives,” including Xi, but “unfortunately Ukraine does not have any powerful connections with China because China does not want it.” Ukraine has been trying to meet with Chinese officials for a long time, including at the World Economic Forum in Davos earlier this year, but has been repeatedly rebuffed. Even at the Shangri-La Dialogue, no meeting took place between Zelenskyy and Dong Jun, the Chinese defense minister. 

These repeated snubs have likely contributed to Ukraine’s growing impatience and the decision to criticize China openly. As the war drags on and evidence of China’s multifaceted support for Russia mounts, Ukraine appears to be losing patience with Beijing’s duplicitous stance. It is adopting a more confrontational approach to pressure Beijing and draw international attention to its role in the conflict.