June 5, 2023
SINGAPORE – Ukraine is willing to accept China as a mediator only if Beijing can get Russia to withdraw from all the territories it has seized.
That is the message from Ukraine’s Defence Minister Oleksii Reznikov in response to China’s quest for a role in negotiating a peace settlement.
“Give me evidence that Russia is ready to live in peaceful coexistence with Ukraine. The first signal should be full liberation of Ukrainian territories. Let them show us a goodwill gesture and withdraw their armed forces from Ukrainian territory,” he said.
“After that, we will believe this negotiator has influence on Russia. If they do not, sorry, for what (reason) will we sit and waste our time?” he said.
Mr Reznikov was speaking to The Straits Times in an interview on Sunday, days after China’s special envoy completed a tour of Ukraine, Russia and major European capitals to find common ground to end the bloody war.
Mr Li Hui, China’s special envoy for Eurasian affairs, stressed territorial integrity of all countries but was silent on the question of whether China was pressing Russia to return the Crimean peninsula and parts of eastern Ukraine that are under its control back to Kyiv.
Mr Reznikov, who briefly met his Chinese counterpart Li Shangfu on the sidelines of the just-concluded Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore, said China appeared to have leverage over Russia, but its intent to press ahead was not clear.
“My perception is that China (has become) the older brother and Russia the younger brother. The older brother can persuade the younger brother to stop this bloody war.”
But that is more a hope than a belief, he added.
Few doubt that China’s word carries weight with an internationally isolated Russia after the two nations declared they had a “no limits” friendship ahead of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February 2022. But its neutrality as a broker is a subject of contention.
The war is soon expected to enter a decisive phase, with Ukraine reportedly ready to launch its long-expected counter-offensive against Russian forces with more advanced military equipment from Western allies.
Mr Reznikov brushed off Russian President Vladimir Putin’s allusions to using nuclear weapons on the battlefield. In March, Mr Putin revealed plans to station tactical nuclear weapons in Belarus, expanding the ability to strike along Nato’s eastern border.
“I’m sure that they are bluffing,” he said.
Mr Reznikov also cast doubt on the condition of the weaponry; Russia’s last nuclear test was more than 30 years ago. Additionally, both China and India – which have not condemned the Russian invasion – have drawn the line on the use of nuclear weapons.
The bigger worry for the world, Mr Reznikov said, ought to be the safety issues at the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant – Europe’s largest – which was taken over by Russia in March 2022. It could cause devastation much worse than previous disasters in Fukushima and Chernobyl, he warned. It is not being properly maintained and is subject to shelling, for which both sides blame each other.
“It is a serious threat to all of us, not only for Ukraine and Russia,” he said.
Mr Reznikov admitted that Ukraine had sustained casualties numbering “thousands and thousands”, but he still believed that Russia’s defeat was a matter of time.
“I’m absolutely sure that we will win this war because we have serious support from other countries. We have political, economic and military support from our friends. We will win this war.”
Asked how he would deal with a “defeated” Russia, he said Ukraine would seek reparation for wartime atrocities, bring war criminals to trial and, finally, plot a future.
“We will discuss the next security architecture in a world where Ukraine will have real guarantees of our independence, our sovereignty and prosperity.”