Ukraine turns to China? How long will the honeymoon last?

Ukraine launched sanctions earlier this year to block China’s acquisition of key defense companies and deny China access to key aero-engine technology. After that cooling period, relations between the two sides are now revitalized and warming up again. What are the reasons behind the renewed closeness between the two countries? Some analysts believe that the two sides may be hoping to achieve different goals.

The phone call between the two heads of state is of great significance

Chinese leader Xi Jinping and Ukrainian President Zelensky spoke by phone on July 13, discussing cooperation in the fight against the epidemic and exchange of visits, among other topics. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Ukraine is preparing for Zelensky’s trip to Asia, of which Beijing may be one of the stops, and may include Japan, South Korea and India on the list of Asian powers, but the dates of the trip have not yet been finalized.

Ukrainian officials and local media consider this phone conversation to be of great importance. This is not only the first contact between Zelensky and the Chinese leader in his two years in power, but also a high-level interaction between the two sides after their relations were affected by the “Mada Sich” incident earlier this year.

Many politicians in Ukraine believe that the “Madashiki” case is not a simple investment acquisition, but a possible loss of sensitive high-end Ukrainian technology, which has touched a red line. Ukraine has always pursued a European and pro-Western strategy, and is an important ally of the United States in Eastern Europe and on the Russian border. Therefore, the renewed signs of warming relations between Ukraine and China are of particular concern.

Saying what Beijing loves to hear, congratulating the Chinese Communist Party on its centennial

In addition to the phone conversation, Zelensky and his “People’s Servants” party congratulated the Chinese Communist Party on its centennial. The head of the party’s parliamentary group, Arakhamiya, and another party leader, Korneenko, also gave an interview to Chinese official media. Arakhamiya said that Ukraine should learn from China’s experience in economic development, and even stressed that his party shares a common philosophy with the Communist Party of China, which is to serve the people. Other MPs from the “People’s Servants” party have recently spoken out more frequently in the Ukrainian media praising China’s achievements.

Arakhamiya’s and others’ statements are actively used by the Chinese Communist Party’s propaganda machine. However, they have attracted a lot of criticism in Ukraine. Some critics argue that the “People’s Servants” party has morphed into a servant of the CCP. But the “People’s Servants” party argues that today’s Communist Party is different from the Soviet Communist Party of the past, for which communism is only a title and a label.

In Ukraine, legislation was enacted several years ago specifically to condemn and eliminate communism, and the Soviet-era secret police files of the Communist Party have now been made public. Some current affairs analysts in Ukraine have warned that Zelensky and others’ interactions with the CCP could threaten the voter support base. However, the “People’s Servants” party is still the largest party in parliament. After two years in power, Zelensky still enjoys a high level of popular support in Ukraine, which is uncommon compared to several of Zelensky’s predecessors.

Chinese influence continues to grow

A Ukrainian lawmaker said that in addition to Zelensky’s “People’s Servants” party, the other two major parliamentary parties, the one led by former Prime Minister Tymoshenko and the main opposition party supported by the Russian-speaking population in the east, also congratulated the Communist Party on its centennial. Thus, it is clear that China’s influence in Ukraine is quietly expanding.

Ukraine and China also signed an important document at the end of June, which involves the provision of low-interest loans to Ukraine for the construction of infrastructure such as airports, roads, railroads and ports, as well as the continuation of economic and trade cooperation between the two sides. In addition, Ukraine hopes to actively participate in China’s Belt and Road projects.

In recent years, China has surpassed several of Ukraine’s major neighbors, including Russia and Germany, to become the country’s largest trading partner. This has further deepened Ukraine’s economic dependence on China, especially in the agricultural sector. Ukraine’s main exports to China have also become more homogeneous, mainly iron ore, agricultural products, corn and sunflower oil, as well as other grains. Ukrainian Prime Minister Shmigali said on Facebook on the 17th that Ukraine’s commodity exports continue their growth trend, with exports to China increasing by 50% in the first five months of this year.

Push for vaccine diplomacy cum pressure

Ukraine in late June withdrew its signatures from a document on the UN Commission on Human Rights that involved 40 countries and condemned China on the issue of Xinjiang. Media reported that China had threatened Ukraine with a cut-off of vaccine supplies.

China is making a major push for vaccine diplomacy in Ukraine. Local media reports that China has now provided 2 million doses of vaccines, which could account for more than a third of the vaccines currently available in Ukraine. China has also pledged to provide another 5 million doses of vaccines.

A sculpture of the Ukrainian poet Shevchenko in dialogue with the ancient Chinese poet Du Fu was also unveiled at the Ukrainian embassy in Beijing more than a week ago to mark the 10th anniversary of the strategic partnership between the two countries, with the participation of many senior Chinese officials.

Disillusioned with the West, voices emerge to adjust foreign policy

At the same time, there is now a growing debate in Ukraine about whether Ukrainian diplomacy should be adjusted and whether Ukraine should turn to China.

Aleksandrovich, an informal adviser to the Ukrainian president’s chief of staff in the field of defense and security, recently told a Ukrainian media outlet that if the West pressures Ukraine to implement the Minsk agreements, Ukraine will not accept such pressure and Ukraine will turn to China.

Influential Ukrainian political scientist Karashev also said at a press conference in Kiev a few days ago that he does not exclude that Ukraine will get closer to China and Kiev’s foreign policy will turn sharply around.

The Minsk agreements, which require Ukraine to amend its constitution, weaken Kiev’s central authority and legitimize Russian-backed separatist forces and armed forces in eastern Ukraine, are considered to be a document that the Ukrainian army was forced to sign six years ago to save the country’s fate when it was surrounded by Russian troops and faced total annihilation. The agreement is moreover considered to be a program and script for Putin’s solution to the Ukrainian problem. Russian political scientist Piontkovsky even said metaphorically that Putin could use the agreement to embed the separatist forces in eastern Ukraine as a tumor in the Ukrainian muscle and achieve the purpose of controlling and weakening Ukraine at any time.

Want to establish special relations with the U.S. and use the China card to pressure the West

Other Ukrainian political analysts believe that Western powers want Ukraine to accept the Minsk agreement from the point of view that the U.S. is now focusing on China in the Asia-Pacific region, as well as Germany and France, which do not want to stimulate Putin too much in the direction of Ukraine and cause new shocks in relations with Russia, thus hindering the Western grand strategy.

After the U.S.-Russia summit in Geneva in June, there is a growing sense of crisis in Ukrainian politics and society. Many commentators say that Germany and France have explicitly rejected Ukraine’s membership in NATO. Even if we take a step back, Ukraine would like to establish an alliance with the U.S. similar to that of the U.S.-Japan, U.S.-Korea, and U.S.-Australia, which are not members of NATO, because that is the only way to protect Ukraine’s security. But this would also be tantamount to dragging the United States and other Western allies more into Ukraine’s affairs.

Whether this goal for Ukraine will be achieved may be answered after Zelensky’s visit to the White House. Ukrainian presidential press spokesman Nikiforov said on the 17th that Ukraine is stepping up preparations for Zelensky’s visit to the United States, which could take place at the end of July and the beginning of August.

It is in this context that Ukraine started playing the China card, expecting to achieve its goals in negotiations with Western powers. The timing of Zelensky’s phone call with Xi Jinping is very intriguing, as Ukrainian media have noted. The call came on the eve of Zelensky’s visit to the United States, and on the day of the call Zelensky had just finished a meeting with Angela Merkel in Berlin. But Zelenski’s meeting with German Chancellor Angela Merkel was widely seen as very unsuccessful, and Zelenski did not get anything he wanted.

The Chinese card has boundaries, concentrating only on trade and economy and not touching military-technical cooperation

Another Ukrainian political scientist Fyshchenko believes that Ukraine will now play the China card in a measured way and will not cross the line, because Ukraine knows where the bottom line is: it will not touch the red line of military-technical cooperation with China.

Ukrainian political scientist Bergerebinsky said that Ukraine still wants Chinese funding the most, as it has been for successive governments.

Bergrebinsky: “As in the past, the current Ukrainian government is interested in Chinese investments and wants to expand economic and trade cooperation with China. There are no problems in this area. China’s position is more moderate and restrained. China states its support for Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity, and these are enough for Ukraine.”

Ukrainian political scientists say that China may also be interested in other areas of Ukraine beyond science and technology. For example, acquiring large Ukrainian agricultural companies and fertile Ukrainian black land, and participating in the transformation of Ukraine’s deep-water ports.

After the collapse of the Soviet Union, Ukraine played a key role in facilitating the upgrading of China’s military science and technology development. Some Russian scholars even believe that Ukraine was behind China’s lunar exploration project, engines for Long March rockets, etc. In some projects, Ukraine even sold complete design drawings to China cheaply. However, with the change of wind in U.S.-China relations, China may not be able to obtain technology from Ukraine as easily as it did in the past.