China is still “testing the ground” of whether it wants to engage fully in a peace process to end Russia’s war against Ukraine, the Ukrainian foreign minister has said.
Dmytro Kuleba told the Financial Times that Beijing had not yet decided whether to invest fully in brokering a negotiated end to the war or to intensify its support for Moscow, including through the supply of weapons.
“China is testing the ground, in terms of the peace process, whether the moment has come for them to play a role or not,” Kuleba said.
Beijing has still not conceded to requests from Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelenskyy for a conversation with his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping despite China’s attempt to position itself as potential peacemaker. The two leaders have not spoken since Russia’s full-scale invasion in February last year.
Western capitals have expressed scepticism about China’s statement of principles for ending the war, which it issued last month. But officials in Kyiv are keen to engage with Beijing.
Kuleba said China’s foreign minister Qin Gang earlier this month assured him that China would not provide weapons to Russia. Kyiv has seen no evidence that it is already doing so.
But Kuleba said he made clear to Chinese officials that “it is very inappropriate to try and put on the same footing the military support provided to Ukraine and military support provided to Russia.
“Ukraine is exercising its right to self-defence to protect its territorial integrity. And therefore countries who provide weapons to Ukraine, they help to defend the UN Charter.”
Countries providing arms to Russia would “become accomplices in the crime of aggression and in the violation of the territorial integrity of a sovereign country,” he said.
“If the fundamental principle of the Chinese foreign policy is respect for territorial integrity, then we don’t see any kind of rational explanation or argument why it is legitimate to provide weapons to Russia.”
Days before the invasion, China’s president referred to a “no limits partnership” with his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin, and Xi visited Moscow on a state visit last week in a show of support for the Kremlin. But Kuleba said Ukraine’s intelligence assessment was that Russia was “completely furious with Chinese attitudes and the lack of support coming from China”.
China “will not allow Russia to collapse” but “they need a weak Russia to make concessions to China, to provide their resources”, he said.
Russian oil and gas exports to China have rocketed over the past year as western markets have been all but closed off.
Ukraine is gearing up for a counter-offensive later this spring in an effort to drive Russian troops out of the south and east of the country. For many Ukrainians and their western supporters, it is seen as a decisive moment for Kyiv to achieve a battlefield breakthrough or risk leaving a stalemate that deters further US and European support and pushes Ukraine towards a painful compromise.
But Kuleba said the narrative of a make-or-break moment was dangerous for Ukraine, because if it faltered it would strengthen those in the west who want to push Kyiv into a compromise with Moscow.
“We should counter by all means the perception of the counter-offensive as the decisive battle of the war,” he said.
All wars are a series of battles, he added, and if this offensive is seen as critical but does not result in the “100 per cent liberation of our territory” then “some people may say this was the last decisive battle and now we have to think of an alternative scenario. For Kyiv, there is no alternative to full restoration of territorial integrity.”
Kuleba said every government currently supporting Ukraine had a minority of voices who would press for a slowdown in aid and a ceasefire, even if the “present dominant mainstream” was a sense of resolve to keep pushing back against Russia.
“They’re everywhere, in Washington, in Berlin, in Paris, in London. They will try to do something creative along the lines of a Minsk III,” he said. He was referring to the Minsk I and Minsk II agreements, brokered by Paris and Berlin, which failed to bring an end to the war in the Donbas in eastern Ukraine, and which many Ukrainians regarded as favourable to Moscow.
Asked whether western governments were deterred from giving Ukraine greater military support, including long-range weapons, because of fears of Russian escalation, Kuleba said: “The escalation argument is an excuse, not an argument.”
Every Ukraine request for more advanced weaponry from the west had initially been met with concerns that the Kremlin could step up the war, embroiling Nato, or even resorting to the use of tactical nuclear weapons, he said. “This argument failed every time.”
The US has so far refused to provide Ukraine with longer-range missiles for its Himars precision-guided rocket system out of concern that they could be used to strike targets in Russia.
Ukraine says it needs such a strike capability to hit command and control centres, weapons storage and concentrations of troops which the Russia military has moved out of range of the missiles already supplied to Kyiv’s forces.
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