The war in Ukraine is entering an uncertain but consequential phase. Ukrainian forces are preparing to mount a long-awaited counteroffensive that could see significant Russian military defeats, a costly setback to Ukraine, or a modified version of the status quo. Beijing is grappling with this uncertainty by expanding its diplomatic involvement and positioning itself to stanch a Russian military defeat or, perhaps more likely, opportunistically seize on Western political trends to drive wedges between the transatlantic alliance.
Beijing Sees Diplomatic Opportunities Vis-à-Vis Europe
According to Beijing’s authoritative state-run People’s Daily, Special Representative of the Chinese Government on Eurasian Affairs Li Hui will travel to Ukraine, Poland, France, Germany, and Russia to “communicate with all parties on the political settlement of the Ukraine crisis.”
Several aspects of this statement are notable. Beijing is attempting to create a framework that pointedly excludes the United States, the United Kingdom, and NATO from its efforts to reach a “political settlement” in Ukraine.
Additionally, Beijing, in keeping with Moscow’s preferences, also continues to refuse to characterize the “crisis” as an invasion or a war. It’s also worth noting that Li Hui, Beijing’s diplomatic representative, was the Chinese ambassador to Russia for nearly a decade, spent decades in Russia and the Soviet Union, and was awarded a rare Medal of Friendship by Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Beijing’s selection of an unambiguously pro-Kremlin figure to mediate between Moscow and Ukraine suggests it will continue to hew to a “pro-Russian neutrality” and seek maximalist or near-maximalist aims in the Ukrainian conflict.
Indeed, Moscow and Beijing may have been buoyed by growing probability that the United States will sharply curtail aid to Ukraine or even withdraw from NATO in 2025. Former U.S. President Donald Trump is currently experiencing a popularity boomlet and could very well return to the White House in January 2025. He would almost certainly transform the United States’ European policy, if elected.
Trump has previously threatened not to defend NATO against Russia; he might have pulled the United States out of NATO had he been reelected, according to his former national security advisor. Trump’s election could lead to a post-NATO United States, with profound consequences for Ukrainian sovereignty.
There is a growing recognition in Europe and elsewhere that Trump could return. French President Emmanuel Macron’s April comments in Beijing about needing autonomy from the United States corresponded with a surge in Trump’s polling numbers. Similarly, NATO’s former chief, Anders Fogh Rasmussen, has said Trump could sabotage the war.
Although Trump’s return would present opportunities for Beijing in Europe, other developments present risks for the world’s most powerful autocracy. Belarusian strongman Alexander Lukashenko appears to be facing severe health problems. There are plausible reasons to believe he may already be dead.
Lukashenko’s unexpected demise would be a major wildcard for both Moscow and Beijing, impacting the ongoing invasion of Ukraine.
Turmoil within Belarus could severely degrade Russia’s ability to conduct the war in Ukraine. Russian military forces launched the invasion of Ukraine from Belarusian territory. Moreover, while Belarusian forces have not entered Ukraine, they have repeatedly threatened to cross the border, requiring Kyiv to divert military resources for a possible contingency. If Belarus is effectively removed from the war due to domestic political instability, Kyiv could reposition forces from the northern front to other theaters.
Russian pressures on Belarusian sovereignty are already serious but will likely continue to grow. During Belarus’ August 2020 protests, for instance, Russian state media employees staffed the Belarusian national broadcaster after regular employees walked out. Moscow has also sought to limit Minsk’s sovereignty, including by placing tactical nuclear weapons on Belarusian territory.
Beijing has fully supported Moscow’s interests in Belarus and perhaps even hinted it supports annexation, as China’s embassy in Moscow has repeatedly included Belarus-related updates under its China-Russia relations site.
But Russian annexation of Belarus is by no means a certainty, especially in the short run. Moscow does not have the bandwidth for additional challenges and is afraid of provoking resistance from within Belarus, especially given its military struggles in Ukraine. Additionally, Beijing and Moscow often find Belarus’ nominal independence useful. Belarus has traditionally been an active diplomatic player, including during the ill-fated Minsk process, while its nominal sovereignty may have enabled backdoor trade and investment exchanges between China and Russia.
Given its interests in Belarus, as well as its constraints due to the war in Ukraine, Moscow will seek to ensure that any succession in Minsk is a quiet affair – but also confirm that any successor to Lukashenko accepts a continuing erosion of Belarusian sovereignty. Moscow will almost certainly continue to enjoy Beijing’s implicit or even explicit support in this effort.
In any event, Belarus will remain a major uncertainty in the months ahead, especially if Lukashenko’s health fails him.
Beijing Is Positioning Itself Diplomatically to Respond to the Counteroffensive
Another major uncertainty is, of course, Ukraine’s long-awaited and symbolically important counteroffensive. Both Kyiv and Moscow have been seeking to manage expectations, as high-ranking Ukrainian officials are talking to the Western press about the difficulties of advancing against entrenched Russian forces, while Moscow has been seeking to prolong a military stalemate in the hopes of demoralizing Kyiv’s Western backers.
The significance of the counteroffensive is debated, as many Western analysts are urging policymakers to look beyond the next few months, consider Ukraine’s long-term military and economic needs, and understand that the current counteroffensive is highly unlikely to produce the same gains as seen in the September 2022 Kharkiv counteroffensive.
A collapse of the Russian front appears much less likely than in September. Russian armed forces have had ample time to entrench positions, while the Russian military now enjoys higher force density, thanks to the drafting of 300,000 Russian soldiers and the employment of mercenaries from the Wagner Group.
But another Russian military disaster can’t be ruled out. The Russian intelligence leadership and general staff have performed abysmally in the lead-up to the invasion and throughout the war, yet Putin has shown no inclination to replace politically loyal subordinates. In addition to poor leadership, Russian troops appear to be suffering from poor morale, although this element is admittedly hard to measure.
Beijing’s appointment of Li Hui appears aimed, in part, at hedging against another Russian military disaster. If another Russian rout materializes, a more active Chinese diplomatic effort could prove useful to Putin, as Beijing might seek to use the carrot of negotiations as a means to ease military pressure on Moscow.
More likely than a Russian military disaster, however, is some modified version of the status quo, albeit with Ukraine in control of greater amounts of its own territory. In this scenario, Beijing would also seek to position itself as a deal-maker to European audiences, especially if it appears that the United States is on the verge of abandoning Ukraine or even withdrawing from NATO in 2025.
In the event of a quasi-stalemate in Ukraine (and especially in the event of a Trump re-election in the United States), Beijing and Moscow could play good-cop, bad-cop with the Europeans. China could use negotiations to present itself to European interlocutors as one of the few grown-ups left in the room, even as it used its weight to support Moscow’s interests in Ukraine.
Chinese Diplomacy Amid Uncertainty
There are three major elements at play in Ukraine: Western political commitment, especially after 2024; a potential leadership transition in Belarus; and, of course, the Ukrainian counteroffensive. While maintaining its unambiguously pro-Russian neutrality, Beijing is enhancing its diplomatic presence in Ukraine in order to mitigate the consequences of an (unlikely) Russian military disaster. Beijing also believes, likely correctly, that it can capitalize on the potential or actual return of Trump to improve its relative standing in Europe and drive a wedge into the transatlantic alliance.