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Washington Is Obstructing the Path to a Political Settlement in Ukraine

The U.S.’s rejection of China’s proposal for a negotiated settlement reveals that it is drawing benefits from the war.

People pay their respects as flowers are laid in front of a damaged multistory residential building, where a Russian strike killed 23 people, in Uman, Cherkasy Oblast, on April 30, 2023.

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The way President Joe Biden’s administration reacted to China’s offer to facilitate a political settlement of the Ukraine conflict clearly reveals Washington’s undeclared objective regarding that war. The contrast between the administration’s attitude toward China’s position and the attitudes of some of the United States’s allies is striking.

When Beijing published its “Position on the Political Settlement of the Ukraine Crisis” on February 24, marking the beginning of the second year since Russia launched its invasion of Ukraine, Washington immediately dismissed the initiative as a mere decoy, with President Biden telling ABC’s David Muir, “Putin’s applauding it, so how could it be any good?” He then added, “I’ve seen nothing in the plan that would indicate that there is something that would be beneficial to anyone other than Russia, if the Chinese plan were followed.”

And yet, other leaders saw what Biden couldn’t see — or didn’t want to see — which is that the very first of the Chinese declaration’s 12 points reaffirmed a principle that went against Russia’s interest in the ongoing war and in favor of Ukraine’s; namely, the principle of “sovereignty, independence and territorial integrity of all countries.”

This is indeed why Russian President Vladimir Putin did not “applaud” China’s position, contrary to Biden’s claim. In the joint statements to the press that Putin and Chinese President Xi Jinping gave on March 21, during Xi’s recent visit to Moscow, the Russian president declared, “We believe that many of the provisions of the peace plan put forward by China are consonant with Russian approaches and can be taken as the basis for a peaceful settlement.” Many of the provisions — in other words, not all of them.

Whereas Putin could fully support provisions such as “abandoning the Cold War mentality” (point two) and “stopping unilateral sanctions” (point 10), he could obviously not subscribe to the need to respect the sovereignty and territorial integrity of all countries, nor to point eight that states, “the threat or use of nuclear weapons should be opposed.”

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy understood that quite well for his part. In blatant contradiction with Biden’s assessment, he declared on the day China’s position was released, “China is talking about us…. I think what they are saying looks like respect for territorial integrity. It doesn’t mention the country, but it’s our territorial integrity that has been breached. Nuclear security was mentioned as well. I think this is in line with the interests — global interests and Ukrainian interests.” It is this very different attitude that allowed the April 26 phone call between Xi and Zelenskyy to happen, which Ukraine’s president commented as follows:

There is an opportunity to use China’s political influence to restore the strength of the principles and rules on which peace should be based. Ukraine and China, as well as the vast majority of the world, are equally interested in the strength of the sovereignty of nations and territorial integrity…. In compliance with the main security rules, in particular, the inadmissibility of threats with nuclear weapons and the proliferation of nuclear weapons in the world.

In fact, China did mention Ukraine specifically more than once when talking about territorial integrity. In explaining China’s official position on the war two days into the Russian invasion, on February 26, 2022, then-Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi clearly stated that, “China stands for respecting and safeguarding the sovereignty and territorial integrity of all countries and earnestly abiding by the purposes and principles of the UN Charter. China’s position is consistent and clear, and it also applies to the Ukraine issue.”

A few days later, on March 5, Wang reiterated the same to his U.S. counterpart, Secretary of State Antony Blinken. Ten days later, Qin Gang, China’s then-ambassador to the U.S. and its present foreign minister, published a piece in The Washington Post clearly stating that, “The sovereignty and territorial integrity of all countries, including Ukraine, must be respected.”

One key reason why Washington has closed its ear to Beijing’s implicit repudiation of the Russian invasion is, of course, that it does not want to hear what goes along with the Chinese position, especially the above-mentioned provisions that Putin could happily endorse but also China’s first point that also stated: “Universally recognized international law, including the purposes and principles of the United Nations Charter, must be strictly observed.… Equal and uniform application of international law should be promoted, while double standards must be rejected.”

After all, the very idea of respecting the sovereignty, independence and territorial integrity of all countries is alien to Washington as much as it is to Moscow. Whereas Washington champions these three principles against Russia in the case of Ukraine, it has violated them over time more than any other government and continues to do so — by means of drone and missile strikes, even if not by deploying troops on the ground since the 2021 Afghan debacle.

Contrasting reactions to Xi’s visit to Moscow last March followed the same pattern: condemnation on Washington’s part, along with insisting prophecies of imminent delivery of weapons by Beijing to Russia, whereas European Commission Vice President Josep Borrell, the high representative of the European Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, commented that Xi’s visit “reduces the risk of nuclear war” because the Chinese president has “made it very, very clear” to Putin that he wants “to minimize the risk of being associated with the Russian military intervention” — a comment that has hardly been reported by the media. Taking the opposite view to Washington’s prophecies, Borrell added that Chinese leaders “are not engaged militarily and there is no sign that they want to engage militarily.”

The very idea of respecting the sovereignty, independence and territorial integrity of all countries is alien to Washington as much as it is to Moscow.

Since the beginning of the present Ukraine crisis in 2021, this is the second major occasion on which the Biden administration has indulged in the business of predicting in a way that looks very much like if it actually wished for its prophecies to become self-fulfilling. When Moscow submitted on December 17, 2021, a draft agreement for a political settlement of the crisis around Ukraine, it was likewise dismissed by Washington. Instead of engaging in negotiations with Russia for an overall agreement to prevent the looming threat of war, the administration made repeated and frenzied announcements over several days that Russia was going to attack the next day — until it eventually happened.

There is good reason to believe that, far from trying its best to prevent the war, Washington wanted it to occur for the simple reason that the Russian invasion would be, and has been, a godsend for the U.S.’s hegemonic designs. One is entitled to believe likewise that Washington did very little to deter Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein from invading Kuwait in 1990 (some even maintain that then-U.S. ambassador to Iraq, April Glaspie, let Hussein believe that Washington would not even mind) because that invasion was equally a godsend for its hegemonic designs. In both cases, Washington’s global hegemony and allegiance of its Cold War allies were greatly enhanced, after years of decline.

If so, then what could be Washington’s goal in discarding collaboration with Beijing, which is the only possible way toward a political settlement acknowledging Ukraine’s territorial integrity? This, at the very moment when several indications, including the recent Pentagon leaks, point to Washington’s lack of belief in Ukraine’s ability to repel Russia’s troops out of the territory that they have occupied since last year, let alone inflict a massive defeat on them.

How should we explain the very important gap between Washington’s stance and European attempts to build on China’s offer of mediation, as illustrated by recent visits to Beijing by Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez, French President Emmanuel Macron, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen and German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock? Baerbock declared in Beijing, for instance, that, “In the same fashion as how China mediated between Iran and Saudi Arabia, we want China to use that influence to urge Russia to end its war in Ukraine.”

The key to this contrast lies in the fact that Western Europe is eager to see the war in Ukraine come to an end for the obvious reason summarized by Anthony Cordesman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a major bipartisan strategic think tank: “Our European partners and allies are suffering far more from the economic consequences of their support for Ukraine and rise in global energy costs than Americans” whereas the U.S. stands to derive “grand strategic benefits” from inciting Ukraine to pursue the war — “an investment whose benefits greatly exceed its cost.”

Zelenskyy grasped that difference very well a month into the war, when he very lucidly confessed to the London Economist on March 25, 2022, the following:

There are those in the West who don’t mind a long war because it would mean exhausting Russia, even if this means the demise of Ukraine and comes at the cost of Ukrainian lives. This is definitely in the interests of some countries. For other countries, it would be better if the war ended quickly, because Russia’s market is a big one [and] their economies are suffering as a result of the war.

Very true indeed, and as much as it is right to help Ukraine defend its territory and population against Russian aggression and wrong to seek to force it into capitulation, it is also in the best interest of the Ukrainian people to do everything possible to bring the war to an end on the basis of an acceptable compromise instead of thwarting every possibility to negotiate such a compromise — as Washington has been consistently doing before even the war started.

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