Authors: Chan Kung & He Jun
While conflict between Russia and Ukraine continues raging on, the pace of what Kremlin calls a “special military operation” in Ukraine appears to slow down. Although the Russian military said that the operation was carried out as planned, many analysts believe that it did not follow the plan in full scale, and instead the Russian force appears to be in a deadlock. Ed Arnold, an analyst with Britain’s Royal United Services Institute, remarked that, “at the current rate of Russian losses … we do have indications that this operation would be unsustainable within about three weeks”.
If the stalemate continues, this will be detrimental to both Russia and President Vladimir Putin. It appears that the Russian army is not as strong as many once believed. In the face of Ukraine, a country with a territory of 600,000 square kilometers and a population of more than 42 million, the performance of the Russian army is rather unlike during the Russo-Georgian War in 2008.
In fact, the war has proven to be a disaster for both Russia and Ukraine as well. It has already caused 2 million Ukrainian refugees fleeing to Europe, and if the war escalates, humanitarian crises could quickly worsen. For Russia, the war has triggered extensive and severe sanctions from the West, covering almost all aspects of economy, finance and capital markets, technology, consumption, aviation, culture, art, energy, industry, the internet, and investment. Regardless of whether Russia wins the war against Ukraine or not, the full range of Western sanctions will have a devastating blow to the Russian economy, in effect “downgrading” Russia’s national economy and capabilities. The overall destruction of national capabilities and influence under joint sanctions is the process of “denationization” as encapsulated by ANBOUND earlier.
How should China react against this impasse that could lead to a lose-lose situation? We believe that China can consider acting as a “constructive mediator” in the Russia-Ukraine conflict, pushing for both countries to reach a ceasefire through active mediation, and facilitate peacemaking through negotiations.
First of all, for China to play the role of “constructive mediator”, its most important objective is certainly to promote peace. We have previously pointed out that in the context of the escalating conflict between Russia and Ukraine, the pursuit of peace has become the world’s most earnest desire. Now and in the future, the “powers for peace” will surely converge into a major force internationally, and China can become an important promoter or even leader of it. As it stands, peace is actually a hard power that is often being neglected. Actively promoting peace and having the ability to do so is a manifestation of a country’s hard power. Only those who insist on peace can become the final victors.
Indeed, since the conflict between Russia and Ukraine broke up, Chinese leaders have increasingly emphasized the importance of peace. During a video summit with French President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Olaf Scholz on March 8, President Xi Jinping expressed his strong concern over the large-scale humanitarian crisis caused by the conflict, and that he was deeply grieved by the re-emergence of war on the European continent. Regarding the situation in Ukraine, Xi pointed out that “all efforts that are conducive to the peaceful settlement of the crisis must be supported”. “The pressing task at the moment is to prevent the tense situation from escalating or even getting out of control”, he added. Xi also emphasized that there is the need to jointly support the peace talks between Russia and Ukraine, and encourage the two sides to keep the momentum of negotiations, overcome difficulties, and bring about peaceful results. “We need to shoulder our responsibility to bring more stability and certainty to a turbulent and fluid world”, he said. From this point of view, China’s role as a “constructive mediator” is fully in line with Xi’s proposition.
Secondly, a significance for China to assume the position of “constructive mediator” is for it to strive for geopolitical and diplomatic space in its future development. In this wave of all-rounded sanctions against Russia imposed by the West, China has attracted much attention because of its comprehensive strategic partnership with Russia. In the eyes of the outside world, China has the ability to influence Russia and play an important role in reaching a ceasefire between Russia and Ukraine. Whether China can persuade Putin to agree for ceasefire remains to be seen, but the expectations of the international community are worthy of attention. An analysis by Asian Times believes that China does indeed possess the opportunity to act as a mediator in the Russia-Ukraine conflict, “because it is not compromised by the mistakes that led to the crisis, and because it has good relations with the antagonists and a working dialogue with Europe. The odd man out, of course, would be the United States”. Under the current geopolitical situation, the United States and the United Kingdom, as the initiators of sanctions against Russia, are unlikely to play a positive role in promoting peace. If China could bring about peace through its mediation efforts, it will play a constructive role that neither the United States nor the United Kingdom could do well. When this war is finally over, which it eventually will, China would gain more international space for its constructive peace-promoting role.
Thirdly, as a “constructive mediator” to promote peace, China’s effort also has the interests of both Russia and Ukraine in mind, and it can especially reserve development space for Russia. A previous analysis of ANBOUND shows that the sanctions imposed on Russia by the West have created “denationization”, a geopolitical tool second only to war. The longer the policy of “denationization” is implemented, the greater it will hit Russia. Ben Wallace, Secretary of State for Defense of the United Kingdom, said that regardless what happens to Ukraine in the future, Putin has lost his global influence, “President Putin is a spent force in the world and he is done, his army is done … and he needs to recognize that”.
If China can play a role in promoting a timely ceasefire between Russia and Ukraine before Russia is seriously “denationized”, this will help Russia to reduce losses, preserve some of its national capabilities which, and prevent the situation to get out of control. After the Russia-Ukraine crisis is over, global geopolitical pattern will be restructured. The weakening of Russia’s state will be inevitable, and China’s external environment will also undergo great changes. Therefore, it is crucial for China to plan for coming geopolitical changes right now.
Lastly, with the United States and NATO insisting not dispatching troops to fight in Ukraine and not setting up a no-fly zone there, the Ukrainian government and the ruling party’s views on the country’s future have changed as well. According to media reports on March 9, Ukraine’s ruling party Sluha Narodu has issued a statement saying that it would not join NATO in the next few years. At the same time, it proposed that Russia should legally recognize Ukraine’s state status and guarantee that Kyiv would not be threatened. This statement is significant, as this is the first time that Ukrainian authorities have expressed how Kyiv views Russia’s demand for state neutrality. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said on March 9 that he was ready to make some compromises, and his relevant parties also needed to do that as well. These signals mean that Ukraine will likely accept some kind of compromise negotiating conditions if it has to fight against Russia independently. For the Russia-Ukraine negotiations, this “softening” is a positive signal that is conducive to reaching an agreement.