In an interview with the French TV channel LCI on Friday (21 April), the career diplomat Lu Shaye said the countries that used to be part of the Soviet Union “do not have an effective status under international law”. These nations span the Eurasian landmass and include the Baltic states, which are now members of the EU and Nato.
When asked whether Crimea, the peninsula illegally annexed by Russia in 2014, is part of Ukraine, Lu replied: “It is not that simple.” He then went on to say that Crimea “was Russian at the beginning”. In common with the vast majority of UN member states, China has not officially recognised the annexation of either Crimea or the four Ukrainian regions Russia declared as its own last year. However, Lu’s statement represents one of the most full-throated endorsements of the Kremlin narrative on Ukraine from a Chinese official since the war began.
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Lu’s comments aren’t in line with official Chinese policy; indeed, Beijing on Monday (24 April) retreated from them. The foreign ministry spokesperson Mao Ning told reporters that “China respects the sovereign status of the republics after the disintegration of the Soviet Union“. What Lu said is also in contradiction with international law. The 15 states that were formerly part of the USSR have been recognised by virtually the entirety of the international community. They have been signatories to countless treaties since independence in 1991. They are sovereign states like any other, a fact that has not been seriously put into question for more than three decades.
Lu is one of China‘s prominent “wolf-warrior” diplomats, and has made provocative statements before. He has called for Taiwanese people to be “re-educated” and blamed “foreign forces” for seeking to spark “colour revolutions” during last year’s anti-lockdown protests in China.
Lu’s comments on the ex-Soviet states come at a sensitive time for European diplomacy regarding China. A succession of European leaders, including Emmanuel Macron and Ursula von der Leyen, have recently visited Beijing. They met with the Chinese leader Xi Jinping with the aim of convincing him to oppose Russia’s war in Ukraine. That aim has so far been left unrealised, with Beijing instead scoring a win after Macron called for Europe not to become “vassals” to the US by following the American position on Taiwan (a Chinese invasion of which was war-gamed by US Congress last week, as Katie wrote about here).
Lu’s baseless words risk undermining China‘s attempt to present itself as a peacemaker in Russia‘s war in Ukraine, particularly in the minds of European leaders. EU states have already rallied behind the countries whose legitimacy Lu questioned. Some 80 EU lawmakers on Sunday (23 April) called on the French foreign minister Catherine Colonna to declare Lu “persona non grata” as his remarks were “a threat against the security of France’s European partners”.
Perhaps more than anything, Lu’s intervention serves as a brutal reminder that, beyond the usually conciliatory rhetoric, China’s alliance with Russia is growing deeper, a topic Katie explored in depth in her must-read cover story for last week’s New Statesman.
This article first appeared in the World Review newsletter. It comes out every Monday; subscribe here.
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