China to skip Ukraine summit, rivals swap prisoners

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Authorities say 75 prisoners of war have been handed over to the Ukrainian armed forces in a swap.
Authorities say 75 prisoners of war have been handed over to the Ukrainian armed forces in a swap.

China will not attend a Ukraine peace conference in Switzerland next month because it does not meet its expectations, which include both Russia and Ukraine taking part, the Chinese Foreign Ministry says, as the two sides in the conflict exchanged prisoners for the first time in months.

Seventy-five Russian soldiers “who were in mortal danger” have been sent back by Ukraine, the defence ministry in Moscow said.

In return, 75 prisoners of war were handed over to the Ukrainian armed forces, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy confirmed.

Both sides also exchanged the bodies of dead soldiers. 

Ukraine received 212 remains back and the Russian side received 45 bodies.

The last major prisoner exchange between the two sides took place in February.

Switzerland is seeking broad-based turnout from different parts of the world for the summit in mid-June, which it hopes will lay the groundwork for a peace process in Ukraine.

Russia was not invited and dismisses the talks as meaningless without its participation.

“The arrangements for the meeting still fall far short of China’s requests and the general expectations of the international community, making it difficult for China to participate,” Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Mao Ning said at a routine briefing.

“China has always insisted that an international peace conference should be endorsed by both Russia and Ukraine, with the equal participation of all parties, and that all peace proposals should be discussed in a fair and equal manner. Otherwise it will be difficult for it to play a substantive role in restoring peace.”

China briefed some diplomats this week that it had declined the invitation, saying its conditions had not been met, four sources told Reuters earlier.

The conditions included that the conference should be recognised by both Russia and Ukraine, there should be equal participation by all parties and there should be fair discussion of all proposals, one of the sources said.

“We are very sorry that the Chinese side does not use the opportunity to present its position on the platform of the summit in Switzerland,” a spokesperson for the Ukrainian embassy in Beijing said in a statement to Reuters.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov suggested on Thursday that China could arrange a peace conference in which Russia and Ukraine take part.

During a visit to China this month, Russian President Vladimir Putin said Ukraine may use the Swiss talks to try to get a broader group of countries to back Zelenskiy’s demand for a total Russian withdrawal.

Putin also expressed backing for China’s plan for a peaceful settlement of the crisis, saying that China had a full understanding of what lay behind the crisis.

The Swiss foreign ministry said it noted the conditions for China’s participation have not yet been met, particularly as Russia is “currently not involved” in the peace conference.

“For Switzerland, Russia’s involvement in the peace process is also essential. The (ministry) it is working actively to involve Russia in the peace process,” it added.

The Swiss ministry, which has previously underlined its desire to involve Russia in the peace process, said more than 80 countries had confirmed attendance for the conference.

Russia and China proclaimed a “no limits” relationship just days before Russia launched its invasion of Ukraine in February 2022 but China has so far avoided providing actual weapons and ammunition for Russia’s war effort.

China put forward a 12-point paper more than a year ago that set out general principles for ending the war but did not get into specifics. 

China and Brazil last week signed a joint statement calling for Russia-Ukraine peace talks.

Ukraine in January invited Chinese President Xi Jinping to participate in the planned summit of world leaders in Switzerland. 

Zelenskiy this week urged US President Joe Biden to attend but the US has not confirmed who it will send.

China’s ambassador to Switzerland in March said China would consider taking part in the conference. 

Chinese representatives attended one preparatory meeting for the summit last summer in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia.

China’s special envoy for Eurasian affairs, Li Hui, has carried out three rounds of shuttle diplomacy between various European and Middle Eastern countries, Ukraine and Russia since the invasion began.

In the latest round this month, China put forward proposals on supporting the exchange of prisoners of war, opposing the use of nuclear and biological weapons and opposing armed attacks on civilian nuclear facilities, according to a Chinese foreign ministry readout.

with DPA

Reuters