WARSAW — Ukraine awaits President Xi Jinping's visit to the Kremlin this week with apprehension, fearing that China may ultimately decide to supply its strategic ally with arms, influencing the outcome of the war.
Beijing seeks to depict itself as a neutral party to the conflict, neither condemning nor explicitly supporting the Russian offensive.
While China insists on respect for the principle of Ukraine's territorial integrity, it has also given real diplomatic support to Moscow since the invasion in February last year.
Lacking any lever of influence, Ukraine hopes that pressure from its Western allies on the Chinese leadership will help to preserve this fragile balance.
"Ukraine's expectations are at a minimum level: for things not to deteriorate," Sergiy Solodky, first deputy director of New Europe Center think tank in Kyiv, told AFP.
The topic is so sensitive that Ukrainian authorities do not wish to comment publicly on the trip, planned from Monday to Wednesday during which Russian President Vladimir Putin and Xi are supposed to meet at least twice.
"Ukraine will follow this visit closely," a senior Ukrainian official told AFP, speaking on condition of anonymity.
"For us it is critically important that China maintains its policy of unwavering respect for the territorial integrity of other countries," the official said, in reference to how Russia has claimed the annexation of five Ukrainian regions.
At the same time, the United States in February accused Beijing of considering supplying arms to Russia as its invasion has got bogged down.
"We're confident that the Chinese leadership is considering the provision of lethal equipment" to Russia, CIA director William Burns told CBS in February.
According to media reports, this could include ammunition and drones. China has strongly denied the claims.
Up until now only Iran has supplied attack drones to Moscow, which uses them in particular to target Ukrainian energy infrastructure.
US officials say Chinese companies are already supplying Russia with non-lethal equipment.
"If they start supplying arms, that would be a serious problem for us," another senior Ukrainian official said in early March, speaking on condition of anonymity.
CHINA 'NOT PICKING UP'
Ukrainian National Security and Defence Council secretary Oleksiy Danilov has downplayed the likelihood of such supplies, however.
"China... will not be complicit with Russia," he said in an interview published Friday.
Ukrainian analyst Yurii Poita, currently a visiting research fellow at the Taipei-based Institute for National Defence and Security Research, also sees such supplies as unlikely at this stage.
"We are not expecting supplies of Chinese tanks, aviation or multiple launch rocket systems in the short term," he told AFP.
For the moment, China is in fact seeking to position itself as a possible mediator. In late February, Beijing published a 12-point position paper calling for Moscow and Kyiv to hold talks.
But contrary to claims from Ukraine and Western powers, it does not mention the withdrawal of Russian troops from Ukrainian territory. It also criticizes "unilateral" sanctions imposed on Russia.
Western countries rejected the document but Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, anxious not to irritate Beijing, said "we need to work with China".
Despite sporadic conversations between China and Ukraine's foreign ministers, Zelensky has not spoken to Xi since the start of the Russian invasion, while saying publicly he would like to.
"Zelensky has been trying to communicate with Xi since August", but "China isn't picking up," said Poita.
According to US media, there could be such a conversation after the Chinese president's visit to Moscow, but "no breakthrough will happen", Poita predicted.
Both economically and geopolitically "Russia is very important for China, much more important than Ukraine", which Beijing sees as the "Russian sphere of influence, like a grey zone" between the East and West, he added.
Kyiv has "never really developed a policy on China" and has not had an ambassador to Beijing for two years, Solodky said, and therefore, "there's no point in hoping that China will suddenly hear us".
© Agence France-Presse