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.

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.

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.

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.