KYIV, Ukraine (AP) — Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said he and Chinese leader Xi Jinping had a “long and meaningful” phone call Wednesday, their first known contact since Russia invaded Ukraine over a year ago, and Beijing appointed an envoy to pursue a “political settlement.”
The hour-long call came two months after Beijing, which has long been aligned with Russia, said it wanted to act as a mediator and a month after Xi visited Moscow. The call also coincided with indications that Ukraine is readying its forces for a spring counteroffensive.
Zelenskyy was upbeat about the conversation, which offered him the chance to insert his views into what had been a bilateral dialogue between Moscow and Beijing. Russian President Vladimir Putin is eager to keep Xi close as a counterweight to the United States, which has sided with Ukraine.
“I believe that this call, as well as the appointment of Ukraine’s ambassador to China, will give a powerful impetus to the development of our bilateral relations,” Zelenskyy said on Facebook.
An official readout on his website called the conversation “productive” and said it leads the way toward “possible interaction with the aim of establishing a just and sustainable peace for Ukraine.”
Zelenskyy emphasized the need to regain all Ukrainian lands and stated, “There can be no peace at the expense of territorial compromises.” In an indirect reference to U.S. reports that China had considered supplying weapons to Russia for its war, Zelenskyy’s office said he asked countries to refrain from doing so because “any support — even partial — is converted by Russia into the continuation of its aggression, into its further rejection of peace.” China has said it won’t supply weapons to either side in the conflict.
The Chinese Foreign Ministry said Beijing’s “core stance is to facilitate talks for peace,” announcing that an envoy — a former ambassador to Russia — would visit Ukraine to seek a “political settlement.”
The ministry’s statement struck a positive tone, giving a nod to Kyiv’s insistence that its territory cannot be broken up by Russia’s annexations and making clear that Beijing values its longstanding ties with Ukraine.
“Mutual respect for sovereignty and territorial integrity is the political foundation of China-Ukraine relations,” the statement said. “China’s readiness to develop relations with Ukraine is consistent and clear-cut. No matter how the international situation evolves, China will work with Ukraine to advance mutually beneficial cooperation.”
Analysts expressed skepticism about the prospects for peace.
The call balances China’s dialogue with Russia by showing it is “recognizing Ukraine’s leadership and indicating Ukraine is an important entity,” said political science professor Kimberly Marten of Barnard College at Columbia University in New York.
But, she added in an interview with The Associated Press, unless undisclosed details reveal otherwise, “it’s a non-starter. It’s pro-Russian. I would not guess that this holds a lot of significance for ending the war.”
She noted the Chinese statement didn’t call for Russia to leave occupied areas or brand Russia as an aggressor, and refers to the situation as “a crisis, rather than a war.”
Elizabeth Wishnick, of the U.S.-based think tank CNA and Columbia University’s Weatherhead East Asian Institute, noted in an email to AP that the Chinese statement about the call contains “no mention of a Russian troop withdrawal, which, to my mind, makes this a less than serious initiative and unlikely to contribute in any major way to ending the war, which will likely be decided on the battlefield.”
In Moscow, Russian Foreign Ministry spokesperson Maria Zakharova commended China’s approach, praising Beijing’s “readiness to strive to establish a (peace) negotiations process,” while slamming Kyiv’s “rejection of any sound initiatives aimed at a settlement.”
The White House described it as a positive development, allowing Xi to hear Ukraine’s view of the “illegal, unprovoked invasion.”
“We think that’s a good thing,” White House National Security Council spokesman John Kirby said.
Talks between the two leaders had been anticipated for weeks, after China produced a 12-point proposal to end the fighting, although it did not contain details.
Russia and Ukraine are far apart in their terms for peace. The Kremlin wants Kyiv to acknowledge Russia’s annexation of the Crimean Peninsula and the Ukrainian provinces of Donetsk, Kherson, Luhansk and Zaporizhzhia, which most nations have denounced as illegal. Ukraine has rejected the demands and ruled out any talks with Russia until its troops pull back from all occupied territories.
Zelenskyy said in an interview with the AP last month that he hadn’t spoken with Xi since the war began and invited him to visit Ukraine.
China has announced it was keen to act as mediator in the war that has reenergized NATO. Xi’s position reinforces China’s claim that it’s neutral in the war, despite blocking U.N. efforts to condemn the Kremlin’s invasion.
While Zelenskyy has moved his country closer to NATO and persuaded alliance members to send Ukraine sophisticated weapons to help defeat Russia, Beijing has echoed the Kremlin line in accusing the West of provoking the conflict and “fanning the flames” by arming Kyiv.
When China called in February for a cease-fire and peace talks between Ukraine and Russia, Zelenskyy cautiously welcomed Beijing’s involvement but said success would depend on actions, not words.
Putin warmly welcomed Xi to the Kremlin, in what was seen as a powerful message to Western leaders that their efforts to isolate Moscow over the fighting in Ukraine have fallen short.
Also on Wednesday, Zelenskyy used the 37th anniversary of the world’s worst nuclear disaster at Chernobyl to repeat his warnings about the threat of a new atomic catastrophe during his country’s war with Russia.
Zelenskyy drew a parallel between the Chernobyl accident on April 26, 1986, to Moscow’s brief seizure of that plant and its radiation-contaminated exclusion zone following its full-scale invasion of Ukraine.
“Last year, the occupier not only seized the (Chernobyl) nuclear power plant, but also endangered the entire world again,” Zelenskyy said in a Telegram post in English.
In other developments Wednesday:
—Ukrainian and Russian officials announced the latest prisoner exchange, saying 44 Ukrainian and 40 Russian POWs were released this week. The head of the Ukrainian presidential office, Andriy Yermak, said on Telegram that the Ukrainians included soldiers, sailors, border and national guards, and two civilians.
—The head of the southeastern Zaporizhzhia Regional Military Administration, Yurii Malashko, said Russia struck 19 civilian areas with 53 artillery attacks, six rocket attacks, seven drone attacks and one airstrike overnight.
—At least two civilians were killed and 13 others were wounded in Ukraine since Tuesday, the presidential office said.
—An Italian journalist in Ukraine, Corrado Zunino, was injured and his interpreter Bogdan Bitik killed in the southern city of Kherson. Zunino, a correspondent for La Repubblica daily, told the newspaper he suspected Russian snipers hit him after passing through Ukrainian-manned checkpoints.
McDonald reported from Beijing. Yuras Karmanau in Tallinn, Estonia, and Andrew Katell in New York contributed.
Follow AP’s coverage of the war in Ukraine at https://apnews.com/hub/russia-ukraine