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Why China's man for peace in Ukraine might be the 'best possible choice' for Russia

Li Hui, Beijing’s ambassador to Moscow until 2019, has decades of diplomatic experience in the then-Soviet Union and its remnants after it collapsed.
Li Hui in Moscow in 2016, when he was the Chinese ambassador to Russia.
Li Hui in Moscow in 2016, when he was the Chinese ambassador to Russia.Evgeny Biyatov / Sputnik via AP file

He once wrote that China needs a “powerful Russia.” Now the man tasked by Beijing to bring Kyiv and Moscow to the negotiating table is raising eyebrows in Ukraine and among its Western allies who are already skeptical about China's claims to be a neutral peace broker.

Senior Chinese diplomat Li Hui will travel to Europe as China’s “special representative” to the conflict, in a bid to help bring about a cease-fire and ultimately a resolution to the war, which is threatening to descend into a bloody stalemate.

For Moscow, Li is “the best possible choice” for someone to mediate talks with Ukraine, according to Alexey Maslov, director of the Institute of Asian and African Studies at Moscow State University.

“Moscow will not be worried because he really understands Russian politics,” according to Maslov, who says he has known Li personally for 10 years.

Li was China’s ambassador to Moscow for a decade until 2019, and has decades of diplomatic experience in the then-Soviet Union and its remnants in the years after its collapse. He is a renowned Russophile and a fluent Russian speaker, among the few foreigners awarded the prestigious Medal of Friendship by President Vladimir Putin.

He is now Beijing’s special representative for Eurasian affairs.

Li enjoys reading great Russian writers such as Leo Tolstoy and Fyodor Dostoevsky, Maslov said, adding, “He really understands the Russian soul, he understands the Russian psychology, the Russian mentality.”

For his part, Li has often praised the Sino-Russian relationship. Four years after he wrote in a 2016 Russian Foreign Ministry newspaper article that China needs a "powerful Russia," he composed a 2020 essay for the Communist Party-affiliated Chinese People’s Institute of Foreign Affairs, writing that Beijing and Moscow would stand “back-to-back and shoulder-by-shoulder.”

“The two sides will, as always, show firm support for each other’s efforts to uphold one’s own sovereignty, security, territorial integrity and other core interests,” he wrote.

Russian President Vladimir Putin presents a state award to Li Hui at the Kremlin
Russian President Vladimir Putin presents a state award to Li Hui at the Kremlin in May 2019.Dmitry Azarov / Kommersant/Sipa via AP file

Russia is increasingly reliant on that support. 

Sanctioned and condemned after the annexation of Crimea in 2014, Russia invaded Ukraine last year expecting to swiftly depose or defenestrate the government of President Volodymyr Zelenskyy. Instead, its poorly equipped and poorly led forces were beaten back by highly motivated and Western-backed Ukrainian troops, which reclaimed much of the ground initially occupied by the Russian forces.

Li’s expected visit to several European countries may be a bid to allay concerns about where Beijing’s diplomatic loyalties lie, given that China has previously heralded its “no limits” partnership with Russia, lent it rhetorical and financial support, and refused to condemn last February's invasion.

It is an uneven partnership.

Sanctions have pushed Russia to rely further on China, selling it record amounts of oil that has allowed it to soften the economic storm imposed by its global pariah status. Beijing has, in turn, been able to exert an increasing amount of leverage on Moscow, cementing a key ally in the geopolitical confrontation with the United States.

In Li, China is sending to Ukraine “certainly someone well-versed in relevant affairs and capable of playing a positive role in facilitating talks for peace,” Foreign Ministry spokesperson Mao Ning said at a briefing Thursday. “China will continue to work with the international community to play a constructive role for the political settlement of the Ukraine crisis.”

Indeed, Li’s deep knowledge of Russia “should not necessarily be seen as working in favor of Russia, but more as a tentative of appointing somebody who can interpret accurately China’s position,” said Zeno Leoni, who lectures in defense studies at King’s College London. He will “understand where mediation is possible and where not between Russia and Ukraine.”

Ukraine's government itself has stayed positive publicly about Li. Kyiv hopes that Li’s “deep knowledge of our region will help him to communicate impartially and effectively with all parties,” Foreign Ministry spokesman Oleg Nikolenko told NBC News in a statement.

To be truly successful in brokering peace, Li will have to bring both sides to the negotiating table. So far, the two sides are far from this point.

Ukraine has demanded the complete restoration of its territorial integrity, including Russian-annexed Crimea, payments of war damages and punishment for war criminals.

While Russia has not recently stated its objectives at any negotiations, officials have said they would accept nothing less than the full demilitarization of Ukraine, no accession to NATO and the regions that have referendums to join Russia remain part of Russia.

Sending Li as an envoy “doesn’t help bridge that gap” in trust between Ukraine and China, Michael Horowitz, head of intelligence at Le Beck International, a Bahrain-based risk management consultancy, said in an email.

“Beijing may feel its ties with Russia will eventually be viewed in a more positive light, if and when Ukraine is ready to talk,” he added.

China is playing a “long-game here, trying to position itself as a ‘peacemaker,’ to appeal to Europe among others,” Horowitz said. “They understand this is a long-shot, but they bet that at some point talks are inevitable, and are throwing their hat in the ring.”

Li also has met officials from other post-Soviet states that have more testy relationships with Russia, a sign that Beijing wants to carve its own place internationally and will not be dictated to by Moscow.

Last year, he visited Beijing’s embassy in Georgia — a country that fought a war with Russia in 2008 — and said their nations “have always respected each other and treated each other as equals,” according to the Chinese Foreign Ministry website.

And, in 2005, he met with a Ukrainian delegation to Beijing, the website’s records show, and said that “China would like to enhance cooperation with Ukraine to jointly promote the continuous development of bilateral relations.” This was a time when Ukraine was run by a pro-Western government.

These efforts at outreach do not appear to have paid off, yet. Western officials are so far skeptical of Beijing’s claims to be a neutral peace broker.

“Thus far, China has not shown itself to be unbiased when it comes to supporting Russia,” a senior Biden administration official said last week after a call between Chinese President Xi Jinping and Zelenskyy.

Another administration official added more details about American thinking on Li's appointment and China's posture toward Russia and the war:

“They haven’t condemned the invasion, they are still buying Russian oil at bonus prices for Putin, they’re still sending dual use items although not lethal aid, they have to show they can be a real arbiter.”

Skepticism from Ukraine and its Western allies was always likely, Michele Geraci, a professor at the University of Nottingham in the United Kingdom, said Friday.

But for Beijing, Li was a pragmatic choice because the war “has created problems for China which trades with both Ukraine and Russia,” he said, adding, “They want to go back to business with the rest of the world.”

Li, he said, was someone who knows Russia and can negotiate with Ukraine. “At the end of the day, war is won by the strongest army, not by rule of law unfortunately,” he added.