Chinese View on Russia-Ukraine Conflict

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Russia-Ukraine conflict ‘could further escalate in 2023;’ negotiation impossible before ‘key change in battlefield’
By Yang Sheng
and Xu Yelu

Black smoke rises over Ukraine’s capital Kiev on October 10, 2022. Photo: VCG

Russia and Ukraine recently accused each other of having no sincerity for negotiations to end the conflict, and Russian President Vladimir Putin said he will sign a decree on retaliatory preventive measures against the introduction of a cap on prices for Russian oil on Monday or Tuesday. Analysts said the confrontation between Russia and the US and the military conflict in Ukraine could be further escalated in 2023.

“I think I will sign the decree sometime on Monday or Tuesday. These are precautionary measures,” Putin told reporters on Thursday, according to TASS. As of press time, there has been no information released by Russia about the decree.

The Russian side will wait until the final parameters of the EU embargo are clear, as it doesn’t understand what can take the place of Russian oil products in Europe, Russian Deputy Prime Minister Alexander Novak said, according to TASS on Monday.

“Europe used to be a key market for the sale of our oil products. Let us wait and see what decisions they will make in the long run. So far, we don’t know what can take the place of our fuel,” Novak said.

On December 5, an embargo on maritime oil supplies from Russia to the European Union came into force. The EU, the Group of Seven (UK, Germany, Italy, Canada, USA, France, Japan), as well as Australia, agreed on a price cap for Russian oil supplied by sea at $60 per barrel. The US, EU and UK are banning their companies from providing transport, financial and insurance services to tankers carrying oil from Russia at a price above the “agreed level.”

Chinese analysts said Russia is showing its determination and strength for a long-term struggle with not only Ukraine but also the US and other Western countries, and not only in the military field but also in the economy. And in 2023, Russia may take decisive action to end the conflict as the Kremlin needs to create a relatively stable and positive environment for the 2024 presidential election. Meanwhile, to what extent the West can continue offering huge amounts of financial and military assistance to Kiev is in question, so it’s very likely that there will be a further escalation of the conflict next year, they noted.

Far from negotiations

Russia is ready to negotiate with all parties involved in the war in Ukraine but “Kiev and its Western backers have refused to engage in talks,” Putin said in an interview with Russian state media aired on Sunday.

“We are ready to negotiate with everyone involved about acceptable solutions, but that is up to them – we are not the ones refusing to negotiate, they are,” Putin told Rossiya 1 state television.

However, Mykhailo Podolyak, an adviser to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy, said on his Twitter account that Putin needed to return to reality and acknowledge it was Russia that did not want talks.

The current deadlock over the Russia-Ukraine conflict is due to the fact that the Kremlin says it will fight until all its aims are achieved, and Russia will not abandon the territories it has already gained, while Kiev says it will not rest until every Russian soldier is ejected from all of its territory, including the Donbass region and Crimea, which Russia treats as its own territories, experts said.

Yang Jin, an associate research fellow at the Institute of Russian, Eastern European and Central Asian Studies at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, told the Global Times that neither side wants to give up something it already has to make a deal with the other, which is why hopes for negotiations are still far away.

Song Zhongping, a Chinese military expert and TV commentator, said, “If you can’t get it by force from the battlefield, then you won’t be able to get it from the negotiating table,” and this applies to both sides, which believe that they are able to further change the current situation by military means, and this is the reason why intense battles in the Eastern and Southern Ukraine continue, and Ukraine-launched attacks within Russian territories will also increase.

Cui Heng, an assistant research fellow from the Center for Russian Studies of East China Normal University, told the Global Times on Monday, “For Russia, 2023 is a crucial year, because the Putin administration needs to prepare for the 2024 election. If Russia cannot consolidate what it has gained or even makes too many compromises to the US and Ukraine, Putin’s 2024 agenda would be in trouble, so it’s impossible for Russia to adjust its conditions for talks.”

“For Ukraine and the US, room for negotiations is also limited, because Zelensky’s speech to the US Congress during his visit to the US has also set a high tone at the moment. At this point, US policymakers are pressured by ‘political correctness,’ so even if they want to talk to Russia to find a way to ease tensions and let the difficult economic situation at least take a break, they won’t dare change their tough stance against Russia,” Cui noted.

For US President Joe Biden and the Democrats, pulling support from Ukraine in 2023 is also unlikely. With a US presidential election taking place in 2024, the topic of Ukraine will not be challenged by Republicans too much due to “political correctness,” and when Biden performs poorly on domestic issues, he will not hesitate to use Ukraine as a card to serve his reelection chances, Cui said.

More importantly, US policymaking is greatly influenced by the military-industrial complex and the strategists who want to keep using Ukraine to weaken Russia and undermine the EU, so interest groups will also impose difficulties on any potential Russia-US talks, experts said.

But to what extent the economies of the US and other European countries can afford such large amounts of financial and military assistance is in question, and in 2023 the terrible economic situation and changing public opinion could weaken the Western support for Ukraine, analysts said.

Danger of greater conflict

With the deteriorating situation, some observers are concerned about a direct conflict between Russia and the US, as Washington has decided to deliver more weapons including Patriot air defense systems to Ukraine, and Russia has warned that it will destroy those US weapons once they have been transported to Ukraine.

“Of course, we’ll take them [Patriot systems] out, 100 percent!” Putin said in an interview on Sunday.

But some Chinese observers have different views on this.

Cui from East China Normal University said, “There is no necessity and no realistic condition for direct conflict between Russia and the US. It is in the interests of Washington to keep the conflict as a proxy war without massive US casualties.”

Song said there is one possible scenario where the US becomes directly involved in the Russia-Ukraine conflict. “If the US believes that targeting facilities in Russia and even its top leader will boost internal unrest to threaten the ruling position of the Putin administration, then Washington might take risky action to end the conflict, but this will surely cause an all-out conflict between two of the world’s major military powers.”

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