LONDON - Ukraine has rejected a Chinese suggestion to consider an immediate ceasefire in the country’s war with Russia.
In a statement issued on Wednesday after a day of closed-door meetings with Ambassador Li Hui, China’s special mediator in the conflict, Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba said: “Ukraine does not accept any proposals that would involve the loss of its territories or the freezing of the conflict.”
The failed diplomatic effort comes just as the war is growing in intensity, with the Ukrainian military making final preparations for its long-expected offensive and the Russians accelerating missile attacks on Ukrainian cities and military installations.
China’s mediation effort never stood much of a chance, partly because of the widespread belief among Ukrainian officials that, despite its declarations of neutrality, Beijing is supporting Russia’s position in the war and partly because China’s plan to end the war seems to just consist of calls to stop the fighting, something that would leave the Russians in occupation of approximately 17 per cent of Ukrainian territory.
The fact that Mr Li, the Chinese envoy, is an old “Russia hand” – having spent more than a decade as Chinese ambassador to Russia, where he authored articles praising the “back-to-back and shoulder-by-shoulder” relations between Beijing and Moscow – did not help his Ukraine mission either.
The Chinese mediation effort also came at an unfortunate time, just as Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky was confronted with similar offers of mediation and ceasefires from Pope Francis and Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva.
President Zelensky, who claims that no deal is possible until all Russian troops leave his country, rejected all these initiatives as irrelevant.
“It’s not a question of the Vatican, America, Latin America, China, of any country in the world offering us mediation,” said Mr Zelensky, claiming that the real problem is Russian President Vladimir Putin, whom the Ukrainian leader has branded a “killer”.
Nor is there any evidence that Russia is currently interested in a ceasefire.
Over the past two days, the Russian military has fired at least 60 missiles at Ukrainian targets from land, sea and air, the heaviest such barrage in many weeks, with most of the attacks aimed at Ukrainian installations around the capital of Kyiv, but also at the southern Ukrainian port city of Odesa, which the Russians had previously tried unsuccessfully to occupy.
Russia’s key objective is to destroy Ukrainian air defences – particularly US-supplied Patriot anti-aircraft missile batteries – before Ukraine’s armed forces launch their long-expected offensive.
If Russia succeeds in its objective to deprive Ukraine of air defences, the skies will be open for the Russian air force, which until now has not played a vital role in the fighting, to blunt the incoming Ukrainian land-based offensive.
As an indication of how significant this operation is for Russia, the authorities in Moscow claim that they have used a top-of-the-range Kinzhal missile – a hypersonic, air-launched ballistic missile also technically capable of carrying a nuclear warhead – to destroy one Ukrainian Patriot battery. If confirmed, it would be a heavy blow to the Ukrainians, who have only a handful of Patriot systems.
But the Ukrainians deny this and instead boast that they downed no less than six Russian Kinzhal missiles in attacks on Kyiv earlier this week, a feat which, if confirmed, would be extraordinary, since Russia claims that its super-fast-flying Kinzhals are unstoppable.
There are also reports that four Russian aircraft were recently shot down over Russia’s airspace in an ambush set up by the Ukrainians, who moved their anti-aircraft defences closer to the border with Russia in an apparent attempt to warn off the Russian air force from mounting any operations over Ukraine’s skies.
Evidently, both sides are now preparing for their biggest military showdown.
Meanwhile, Western governments are discarding their reservations about delivering highly sophisticated weapons to Ukraine.
Britain’s decision to supply the Ukrainians with its Storm Shadow cruise missiles could be a turning point in the war.
The weapons are capable of destroying fortified Russian positions up to a distance of 300km and may force the Russians to relocate their ammunition stores farther away from current battle lines, potentially weakening Russia’s ability to withstand the forthcoming Ukrainian offensive.
Renewed heavy fighting over the past few days around the eastern Ukrainian city of Bakhmut, in which the Ukrainians now claim to have the upper hand, is most likely designed as a decoy intended to mask the real objective of the Ukrainian offensive.
But the fight to control the airspace above Ukraine is genuine.
Either way, it is clear that, at least for the moment, guns continue to speak louder than any ceasefire talks.