28th Sep 2023


How EU can push China to live up to its 2013 guarantees to Ukraine

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Russia's periodic nuclear sabre-rattling is a typical example of Moscow's tactical messaging with regard to its war against Ukraine.

Unlike strategic messaging, which reflects Russian leaders' deep-seated beliefs concerning Ukraine, tactical narratives of Moscow's information warfare are extremely manipulative and usually appeal to the emotions, especially fear.

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  • (Photo: Anton Shekhovtsov)

And it is fear that underlies Moscow's nuclear threats — a fear of losing the war against Ukraine — aiming to put psychological pressure on Western capitals whose military support for Kyiv contributes to the strategic failure of Moscow's military adventures.

Russian leader Vladimir Putin first voiced his Ukraine-related nuclear threats in a 2015 propaganda documentary that marked the first anniversary of the illegal annexation of Ukraine's Crimea.

In that documentary, Putin said that he was ready to use nuclear weapons as a potential response to the Western attempts to prevent the Russian occupation of Crimea.

Although the documentary was aired in 2015, Russian propagandists had resorted to nuclear sabre-rattling since the very beginning of the Russian-Ukrainian war in February 2014.

It is true that Western capitals largely consider Moscow's nuclear sabre-rattling as a rhetorical sign of weakness and desperation — especially now, after a short-lived mutiny in Russia. The US consistently maintains that "there are no indications that Russia is preparing to use nuclear weapons".

And Russia's move to place a few tactical nuclear missiles on the territory of its satellite state, Belarus, was expectedly condemned by the EU but hardly recalibrated Nato's security arrangements.

Nevertheless, Western capitals should not become desensitised to Russian nuclear threats, and EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell's warning in October 2022 that the West's military response to Russia's use of nuclear weapons against Ukraine will result in the Russian army being annihilated was the right message to send to Moscow.

Zaporizhzhia fears

But Brussels can go further and warn Moscow that any nuclear incident — for example, at facilities such as Ukraine's Zaporizhzhia nuclear power station, which has been under control of the Russian occupation forces since March 2022 — will also be considered a nuclear attack.

Moreover, the EU can use Russia's nuclear threats to compel China to abandon its support for Russia.

The grounds for the EU's strategy in this direction is a document that the Chinese authorities apparently do not want the wider international community to know about. It is called "Joint Declaration to Further Deepen the Strategic Partnership", and was signed by China and Ukraine in December 2013.

The document upgraded China's 1994 nuclear security assurances given to Ukraine following the latter abandoning its world's third-largest nuclear weapons stockpile to Russia.

The 2013 declaration said that China commended Ukraine's accession to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons in 1994, pledged unconditionally not to use or threaten to use nuclear weapons against nuclear-free Ukraine, and — most importantly — further pledged to provide Ukraine corresponding security guarantees in case of a threat of an invasion of Ukraine involving nuclear weapons.

China's promises were in writing

What China pledged to Ukraine was surely not a nuclear umbrella, but the 2013 declaration still provides a basis to demand a more insistent approach to Russia than China currently exhibits.

Since the beginning the Russian-Ukrainian war in 2014 and following the Russian full-blown invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, China has clearly assumed an anti-Western and pro-Russian position. While Beijing pays lip service to the UN Charter that, in particular, states that "all members shall refrain in their international relations from the threat or use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of any state", it has consistently provided political and economic support for Moscow's land grabbing in Ukraine.

China's "Position on the Political Settlement of the Ukraine Crisis" — an apathetic "peaceful plan" that China reluctantly offered without even identifying Russia as an aggressor — essentially suggests freezing Russia's territorial gains in Ukraine, much to the Kremlin's satisfaction.

And that despite China's pledge to support Ukraine's efforts "to safeguard national independence, sovereignty and territorial integrity", according to the same 2013 declaration.

The EU should ask China a pivotal question: apart from the country's general responsibility for upholding the rules-based international order, will China honour its written commitments? Because what Beijing is doing now is the opposite of being true to its word. The EU should ask whether China is be willing to fulfil other obligations it undertakes, whether it should be trusted at all.

The EU has enough leverage to insist that China walks its talk with regard to Ukraine. Beijing has not only tactical but also strategic economic interests in the EU, and Brussels should make it clear that whatever benefits China derives from its support for Moscow, it is posed to lose more in the EU. Europe should go further than simply calling on China to press Russia to stop its war of aggression.

The EU's failure to impress the significance of the Ukraine issue on China will necessarily undermine Western attempts to find major allies among the nations of the Global South. Why should countries such as India take the EU's statements about the Russian invasion of Ukraine being an existential threat to Europe seriously, if the EU itself is not serious enough about challenging Russia's political allies such as India's rival China?

And conversely, if the EU demonstrates its resolve and the credibility of its statements about existential security challenges, it will command respect among the sovereign nations of the Global South — respect that will not only help Ukraine to win its defensive war but also contribute to the EU's long-term geopolitical standing.

Author bio

Anton Shekhovtsov is director of the Centre for Democratic Integrity in Vienna and author of three books: New Radical Right-Wing Parties in European Democracies (2011), Russia and the Western Far Right: Tango Noir (2017), and Russian Political Warfare (due 2023).


The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author's, not those of EUobserver.


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