China resumes shuttle diplomacy as Ukraine war drums get louder

French President Emmanuel Macron assertively stands by his remarks on February 25, 2024 about sending troops to Ukraine

The Chinese Foreign Ministry announcement on Wednesday that Beijing’s Special Representative on Eurasian Affairs Li Hui will set out from home on March 2 on a “second round of shuttle diplomacy on seeking a political settlement of the Ukraine crisis” may seem a mismatch. 

Just two days earlier, French President Emmanuel Macron spoke up that he wouldn’t rule out the possibility of putting Western boots on the ground in Ukraine in order to prevent a Russian victory. Li Hui is expected to visit Russia, the EU headquarters in Brussels, Poland, Ukraine, Germany and France. 

The Chinese spokesperson Mao Ning kept the expectations low by  adding that “Behind this, there is only one goal that China hopes to achieve, that is, to build consensus for ending the conflict and pave the way for peace talks. China will continue to play its role, carry out shuttle diplomacy, pool consensus and contribute China’s wisdom for the political settlement of the Ukraine crisis.” 

Macron spoke up after a summit of European leaders in Paris on Monday. But in diplomacy, there is always something more than what meets the eye. Macron later insisted that he had spoken quite deliberately: “These are rather serious topics. My every word on this issue is weighted, thought through and calculated.” Nonetheless, representatives of most of the 20 participating countries at the Paris conclave, especially Germany, later took a public position that they had no intention to send troops to Ukraine and were strongly opposed to participation in military operations against Russia. 

The French Foreign Minister Stephane Sejourne since explained that the presence of Western military in Ukraine might be necessary to provide some types of assistance, including de-mining operations and instruction of Ukrainian soldiers, but that did not imply their participation in the conflict. 

The White House reaction has been a reaffirmation that the US would not send troops to Ukraine. The National Security Council spokeswoman Adrienne Watson said in a statement that Biden “has been clear that the US will not send troops to fight in Ukraine.” The NSC spokesman John Kirby also denied that US troops could be sent for de-mining, arms production or cyber operations. However, Kirby underscored that it would be a “sovereign decision” for France or any other NATO country whether to send troops to Ukraine. 

Interestingly, though, two days after the White House reacted, Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin added a caveat during a hearing at the House Armed Services Committee that if Ukraine falls, Russia and NATO could come into a direct military conflict, as the Russian leadership “won’t stop there” if Ukraine is defeated. “Quite frankly, if Ukraine falls, I really believe that NATO will be in a fight with Russia,” Austin said. 

What emerges out of this cacophony is that quite possibly, the ground is being prepared for a soft landing for the idea of western military deployment in Ukraine in some form going forward. Within hours of Austin’s testimony on Thursday, Russian Foreign Ministry Spokeswoman Maria Zakharova wrote on the Telegram channel, “Is this an overt threat to Russia or an attempt to cook up an excuse for Zelensky? Both are insane. However, everyone can see who the aggressor is — it is Washington.” 

The NATO has been steadily climbing the escalation ladder while the Russian reaction has been by and large to rev up the “meat grinder” in the war of attrition. But then, it is the Ukrainian carcass being ground and that doesn’t seem to matter to the Brits or Americans. 

There was a time when attack on Crimea was deemed to have been a “red line.” Then came the October 2022 Crimean Bridge explosion — on the day after the 70th birthday of Russian President Vladimir Putin. Well, Russia successfully repaired the bridge and reopened it to traffic. An emboldened West thereupon began a string of attacks against Russia’s Black Sea Fleet. 

Russia repeatedly alleged that the British, along with the US, acted as spotters, supplying the Kiev regime with coordinates of targets and that the attacks against the Black Sea Fleet were actually literally conducted under the direction of British special services. The Russian MFA spokesperson Maria Zakharova said yesterday, “In general, the question that should be asked is not about Britain’s involvement in separate episodes of the conflict in Ukraine, but about the unleashing and participation of London in the anti-Russian hybrid war.” Indeed, recent reports mentioned that none other than the UK’s Chief of the Defense Staff Admiral Tony Radakin played a significant role in developing Ukraine’s military strategy in the Black Sea. 

In retrospect, a NATO roadmap exists to bring the war home to Russia, the latest phase being a new air strike campaign against the Russian oil and gas industry. The escalation on such scale and sophistication is possible only with the direct or indirect participation of NATO personnel and real-time intelligence provided by the US satellites or ground stations. Equally, there is no more any taboo about what Ukraine can do with the weapons the NATO countries have provided. 

Lately, the CIA began to brazenly speak about all that, too. The New York Times featured an exclusive news article Monday that a CIA—supported network of spy bases constructed in the past eight years going back to the coup in Kiev in 2014, that includes 12 secret locations along the Russian border. 

Suffice to say, while on the diplomatic track, Russia’s repeated attempts to halt the fighting have been ignored by the West — the Istanbul negotiations in late March 2022; Putin’s proposal for a freeze on frontline movements and a ceasefire as early as autumn 2022, and then again in September 2023 — the CIA and Pentagon have been working hard to achieve victory at all costs.

Even after September 2023, Putin signalled willingness to freeze the current frontline and move to a ceasefire and even communicated this through a number of channels, including through foreign governments that have good relations with both Russia and the US. But the faction that wants to crush Russia militarily at all costs has prevailed. Austin’s remark on Friday suggests that this passion seems to be impervious to facts on the ground.

Make no mistake, on February 24, Canada and Italy joined the UK, Germany, France and Denmark to sign 10-year security agreements with Kiev. These agreements underscore a collective commitment to Ukraine’s sovereignty and its aspirations to join the NATO military alliance, implying that their aim is a long-term confrontation with Russia. And Europe is now discussing the deployment of boots on the ground in Ukraine.

In this foreboding backdrop, what is it that Li Hui can hope to achieve as he meets up with the deputy head of the department Mikhail Galuzin, a middle ranking Russian diplomat in the foreign ministry, on March 3? Succinctly put, while China’s interest in resolving the Ukrainian crisis is not in doubt, Li Hui’s “shuttle diplomacy” can only be seen as an effort to understand the current positions of the parties, as the situation has changed since May 2023 when he last touched base — and the fact remains that there are active discussions about further steps regarding the conflict in the West after the failure of the Ukrainian counteroffensive. 

Conceivably, this upgrade of the opinions of the parties will enable Beijing to make decisions about its actions. A potential Europe trip by President Xi Jinping is also being talked about that may include France. 

China is painstakingly rebuilding trust with the European powers and both sides eye pragmatic cooperation despite geopolitical frictions. China remains intrigued by Macron’s advocacy of Europe’s “strategic autonomy.” Meanwhile, the spectre of Donald Trump haunts both Europe and China, which, hopefully, may boost the latter’s chances at winning Europe’s trust.