Chinese President Xi Jinping and Ukrainian counterpart Volodymyr Zelensky.
Hong Kong CNN  — 

Chinese leader Xi Jinping and his Ukrainian counterpart Volodymyr Zelensky spoke by phone Wednesday, in their first known conversation since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, as Beijing ramps up efforts to position itself as a potential peacemaker in the grinding conflict.

Zelensky, who has long expressed interest in speaking with Xi, said he had “a long and meaningful phone call” with the Chinese leader that lasted for an hour. “We discussed a full range of topical issues of bilateral relations. Particular attention was paid to the ways of possible cooperation to establish a just and sustainable peace for Ukraine,” Zelensky said in a statement.

“There can be no peace at the expense of territorial compromises,” said Zelensky.

In a readout, China’s Foreign Ministry quoted Xi as telling Zelensky that “mutual respect for sovereignty and territorial integrity is the political basis of China-Ukrainian relations.” Xi also reiterated Beijing’s point that China’s “core position” on the Ukraine conflict is to “promote peace and talks.”

In a subsequent briefing Wednesday, China’s Foreign Ministry said it would send an envoy to Ukraine and other countries to help conduct “in-depth communication” with all parties to achieve a political settlement. The envoy, Li Hui, is the Special Representative of the Chinese Government on Eurasian Affairs, and served as the Chinese ambassador to Russia from 2009 to 2019.

The call between Xi and Zelensky comes weeks after Xi made a state visit to Russia and met Vladimir Putin in March, when the Chinese and Russian leaders made a sweeping affirmation of their alignment across a host of issues — including their shared mistrust of the United States.

The long-awaited call also comes days after China’s top diplomat in Paris sparked furore across Europe for suggesting in an interview that former Soviet republics had no status under international law. The comments were perceived as potential nod to Putin’s view that Ukraine should be part of Russia — and risked undermining China’s on-going efforts to repair its image in Europe, including by positioning itself as a potential mediator between Russia and Ukraine.

Beijing has so far refused to condemn Russia’s invasion of Ukraine or call for a withdrawal of its troops, instead urging restraint by “all parties” and accusing NATO of fueling the conflict. It has also continued to deepen diplomatic and economic ties with Moscow, despite its claims of neutrality.

Beijing’s lopsided position is also apparent in its diplomatic engagements with Moscow and Ukraine.

Wednesday’s phone call is the first time Xi has spoken to Zelensky since Russia invaded Ukraine in February last year. In comparison, Xi has spoken to Putin five times since the invasion — including a face-to-face at the Kremlin when the Chinese leader visited Moscow last month and another in-person meeting at a regional summit in Central Asia last September.

Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova said on Wednesday that Moscow had taken notice of China’s willingness to facilitate negotiations with Ukraine following the phone call between Xi and Zelensky.  

“We note the readiness of the Chinese side to make efforts to establish the negotiation process,” Zakharova said during a press conference on Wednesday.

However, she said she also noted that under current conditions negotiations are unlikely and blamed Kyiv for rejecting Moscow’s initiatives.

Diplomatic consternation

Reports that discussions were underway between China and Ukraine to arrange a call for their leaders first surfaced in March, in the lead-up to Xi’s state visit to Russia.

The reported efforts were widely seen by analysts at the time as part of China’s attempt to portray itself as a potential peacemaker in the conflict.

But the call didn’t materialize for weeks after Xi and Putin met in Moscow. Following a trip to Beijing, European Commission chief Ursula von der Leyen told reporters earlier this month Xi had reiterated his willingness to speak with Zelensky “when conditions and time are right.”

More recently, the remarks by China’s ambassador to France Lu Shaye, who said during a television interview last week that former Soviet countries don’t have “effective status in international law,” have caused diplomatic consternation, especially in the Baltic states, with Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia summoning Chinese representatives to ask for clarification.

Officials including from Ukraine, Moldova, France and the European Union also all hit back with criticisms of Lu’s comments.

China later distanced itself from Lu’s comments saying he was expressing a personal opinion, not official policy.

CNN asked Chinese Foreign Ministry official Yu Jun if the timing of the Xi-Zelensky phone call had anything to do with the backlash. “China has issued an authoritative response to the remarks made by the Chinese ambassador to France,” he said. “And I have been very clear on China’s position (on the Ukraine crisis).”

The last publicly reported contact between Xi and Zelensky was on January 4, 2022, weeks before the invasion, during which the two leaders exchanged congratulatory messages to celebrate the 30th anniversary of diplomatic bilateral ties.

Potential peace maker

China began to ramp up efforts to position itself as a potential peace maker in the conflict earlier this year, releasing a proposal for a political solution to the crisis on the one-year anniversary of Russia’s invasion.

But the vaguely-worded proposal has been viewed as a nonstarter in the West and Ukraine, as it included no provision that Moscow withdraw its troops from Ukrainian land. China’s positioning as a mediator was also viewed critically as Xi visited Moscow but had still yet to speak with Zelensky.

The timing of Wednesday’s call between the two leaders could indicate that Xi believes there is a possibility for progress, according to Rajan Menon, director of the Grand Strategy Program at the Washington-based think tank Defense Priorities.

“Xi Jinping doesn’t want to put political capital behind an effort that then blows up in his face. (The Chinese side) wants to succeed as they did in the mediation between Tehran and Riyadh,” he said, pointing to Beijing’s role in brokering a restoration of diplomatic relations between Saudi Arabia and Iran earlier this year. In this case, this could mean Putin indicated to Xi that he was willing to talk to Kyiv, Menon added.

However, there remains significant political distance between the two sides when it comes to acceptable conditions for peace, as well as an on-going belief from each that they can prevail against the other on the battlefield and during the spring offensive, Menon said.

“Therefore, we shouldn’t expect anything to happen (immediately), but what is clear is that the Chinese have now indicated that they are going to take concrete steps in the direction of mediation and that is not insignificant,” he said, adding that it remained to be seen whether China would adjust its own proposed political solution in the process.

CNN’s Uliana Pavlova contributed to this report.