China Stays Silent on Bucha Killings, Despite Ukraine's Pleas

After a call between top diplomats in Beijing and Kyiv, the official Chinese news agency Xinhua said on Monday that "China sincerely wants peace in Ukraine." The talks appeared to touch on the humanitarian consequences of Russia's invasion but lacked any references to what Ukrainian officials are calling the "Bucha massacre."

After what was only the second publicized conversation since hostilities began between Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba and Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi, Kuleba said he was "[g]rateful to my Chinese counterpart for solidarity with civilian victims."

"We both share the conviction that ending the war against Ukraine serves common interests of peace, global food security, and international trade," Kuleba wrote on Twitter following his phone call with Wang, who thanked his opposite number for Kyiv's help in evacuating Chinese nationals from the country.

"It is China's historical and cultural tradition as well as its consistent foreign policy to safeguard peace and oppose war," China's foreign minister said, according to the readout carried by Xinhua. "On the Ukraine issue, China does not seek geopolitical interests, nor will it watch the event from a safe distance while sitting idle, or add fuel to the fire…the only thing that China wants is peace in Ukraine."

Wang reportedly told Kuleba to sustain the peace talks with Russia until a cease-fire and "eventual peace" are achieved. "Wang said the conflict will eventually come to an end, and what is important is to think over the past misery and preserve sustainable security in Europe," Xinhua said.

"Wang said he believes that Ukraine is capable of making choices that are in the fundamental interest of the people of the country," read Xinhua's notes of the Chinese officials remarks.

When the two foreign ministers last spoke on March 1—a conversation that was also initiated by the Ukrainian side—Kuleba asked Beijing to leverage its close relationship with Moscow and came away with the optimistic conclusion: "China is ready to make efforts to end the war through diplomacy."

A month later, fighting on the ground in Ukraine has experienced changes not by way of diplomacy, but thanks to fierce resistance that seems to have forced the Kremlin to alter its battle plans and modify its strategic objectives. China, meanwhile, has seen no reason to curtail its political support for Russia, and, in their latest talks, Wang saw fit to remind Kuleba of Moscow's security concerns regarding NATO.

Notably absent from all public references to the call—even Kuleba's tweet—was any mention of Bucha, the city northwest of Kyiv where Ukrainian authorities said hundreds of dead civilians have been found following the withdrawal of Russian troops from the area. Reports of mass graves and signs of summary executions have led to accusations of war crimes and even genocide. The Kremlin denies any involvement and says Bucha residents died at the hands of Ukrainian "Nazis."

While Kyiv spent the weekend directly calling on the West to take further action against Moscow, its approach to Beijing has been far more tactful, despite the myriad frustrations it might have about China's strategic alignment with Russia. It speaks to an understanding of the sensitivity of Sino-Russian ties in the 21st century, and in particular the personal relationship shared by Russian President Vladimir Putin and Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping.

Volodymyr Zelensky and his cabinet—by all accounts keen on a direct line to Xi —appear cognizant of the political consequences of pressing Beijing too hard in public. Lobbying for China's support is a diplomatic maneuver that, if not pursued with the utmost finesse, could cause the Chinese leadership to lose face and walk away.

However, when Beijing isn't involved, Kyiv hardly pulls its punches. Around six hours before tweeting about his call with the Chinese foreign minister, Kuleba went live on Twitter to address those still unsure about sending arms to Ukraine or debating the merits of isolating Moscow even further.

"After [seeing] the images from Bucha, after thinking about all the sufferings of Ukrainian civilians, I cannot politely call on and encourage; I can only demand. This is our demand: impose sanctions now—be serious in stepping up pressure on Russia," Kuleba said.

China is observing public holidays through April 5, and reporters haven't yet had the chance to put their questions about Bucha directly to Beijing. However, the Chinese representative to the United Nations, Zhang Jun, will have the opportunity to speak on the reported atrocities when the Security Council meets to review allegations of war crimes by Russian forces.

Zelensky is scheduled to address the 15-member council when it meets in New York on Tuesday. Vasily Nebenzya, Moscow's envoy to the UN, said Russia would present "empirical evidence" to show its forces were not involved in the killing of civilians.

On Monday, U.S. President Joe Biden doubled down on a description of Putin as a war criminal, while his national security adviser, Jake Sullivan, said the U.S. would impose another round of sanctions "this week." The European Union is expected to do the same with its own raft of punitive measures targeting Russia.

Ukraine, China Talk War But Omit Bucha
This combination of photographs shows Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba, left, and Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi. Kuleba and Wang held a phone conversation on April 5 to discuss Russia’s invasion of Ukraine but subsequent readouts did not include any references to Bucha, the Ukrainian town where officials say hundreds of civilians were killed by Russian forces. JANEK SKARZYNSKI/ANGELOS TZORTZINIS/AFP via Getty Images