Why All Sides Are Calling For Peace Talks In Ukraine, And Nobody Means It
Russia says it's willing to negotiate for peace in Ukraine, but won't make any territorial concessions; meanwhile, China presents a half-baked peace plan. It's a masterclass in talking out of both sides of your mouth.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said this week that Russia was in favor of negotiation to end the war in Ukraine. But in the same breath, he added that there would be "no compromise" on what he described as "new territorial realities" — that is, the Russian annexation of parts of Ukraine.
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A perfect example of how to say you are ready to negotiate, while also saying you are not.
This trickery neatly sums up the situation. At this stage, no one is truly prepared to negotiate, but at the same time, they must act as if they are, to avoid looking like the one standing in the way of peace. This applies to Russia, which is still trying to use force to take over the entire Donbas region — only some of which remains under its control.
The same ambivalence can be found on the Ukrainian side, where President Volodymyr Zelensky presented a 10-point peace plan last autumn and has responded positively to every offer of mediation. But he has not given up on using force to retake the territories occupied by Russia, and is still asking allies for additional heavy weaponry to do so.
All flash and no substance
The logic is the same with China's proposed 12-point-plan for peace, which the government presented last week. On Monday, Belarusian dictator Alexander Lukashenko arrived in Beijing. The president is an ally of Moscow, but a pariah in much of the rest of the world. Chinese leader Xi Jinping is expected to travel to Moscow soon to meet Putin, for the 41st time since the two came to power.
It's pious hope for negotiations without any plan for the format or objective.
This diplomatic activity may give the impression that something is afoot, but it doesn't take a great cynic to see the weakness of the Chinese approach. First, Beijing did not consult with Kyiv in any meaningful way before announcing its peace plan; in fact, Xi has not found the time or the need to call Zelensky in the past year, instead sending head Chinese diplomat Wang Yi to meet with Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmitry Kuleba.
Furthermore, the Chinese plan is sorely lacking substance. People have focused on the use of the word "sovereignty" in the plan, which could respond to a Ukrainian demand, and on China's warning against using nuclear weapons. But the rest is a pious hope for negotiations without any plan for the format or objective.
Vladimir Putin taking part in a ceremony to open new stations on Big Circle Line of the Moscow Underground
Neutral or not?
China also needs to show it supports negotiation and that, as a responsible great power, it is acting accordingly. But there is a wide gap between this posturing and reality.
Optimists, including French President Emmanuel Macron, who immediately applauded the plan, see it as a first step. Beijing's obvious target audience is Europe, who Xi has urged not to participate in the new "Cold War" between the United States and China. French and Germans, in particular, are sensitive to this dimension and hope to carve out a third way.
This is Emmanuel Macron's ambition in his four-day trip to China scheduled for April. Ursula von der Leyen, President of the European Commission, may join Macron in China.
But so far, nothing suggests that China is truly neutral, particularly when it embraces Russian rhetoric about how the U.S. is responsible for the war. China may yet be called upon to play a role when the conflict ends, but that hour has not yet arrived.