A routine television interview has sent waves of anger and suspicion through Europe, undermining China’s efforts to position itself as a neutral peace broker and diplomatic rival to the United States.

Beijing appeared to be struggling on Monday to contain the fallout from comments by its top diplomat in Paris, who caused an uproar by questioning the legitimacy of former Soviet states.

the comments they were the latest twist in China’s complex and sometimes uneasy relationship with the mainland, which is seeking closer economic ties and being seen as a possible mediator between Russia and Ukraine.

Lu Shaye, China’s ambassador to France, said the Eastern European countries that gained their independence after the fall of the USSR in 1991 had no «effective» sovereign status under international law.

Chinese Ambassador to France Lu Shaye during a celebration of the 2022 United Nations Chinese Language Day in Paris on April 21, 2022. Li Yang/China News Service via Getty Ima

What China thinks is crucial, because it says it wants to play a neutral mediator role in the conflict. In reality, he has provided financial and rhetorical support to Moscow, and the ambassador’s comments only increased unease and disbelief among Kremlin critics.

Officials reacted with fury, especially in Baltic countries Latvia, Estonia and Lithuania, which constantly fear meddling and even attacks from neighboring Russia.

Meanwhile, in Ukraine itself, presidential adviser Mykhailo Podolyak wrote on Twitter«If you want to be a major political player, don’t parrot the propaganda of Russian outsiders…»

Lu has «turned the table away from China’s intention to be any kind of mediator between Russia and Ukraine.» tweeted Sari Arho Havrén, an adjunct professor at the George G Marshall European Center for Security Studies, a research organization run by the US and German militaries. «Not recognizing Ukraine as a sovereign state, exactly as Russia claims, makes China 100% on Russia’s side.»

On Monday, the Beijing government appeared to downplay Lu’s comments, emphasizing China’s preferred role as an honest broker in the war and any Russo-European conflict.

«China respects the sovereignty, independence and territorial integrity of all countries,» Mao Ning, a spokesman for China’s Foreign Ministry, said at a daily briefing when asked about the comments. Mao added that Beijing was one of the first countries to establish diplomatic connections with the newly independent states in the early 1990s.

The spokesman did not directly address Lu’s comments, which came in an interview with French news channel LCI on Friday.

Lu, one of China’s self-described «wolf warrior diplomats» who has stirred controversy since he was sent to Paris in 2019, was asked whether Ukraine should control Crimea, its peninsula that was illegally annexed by Russia in 2014.

For Ukrainians and most Europeans it’s a no-brainer, but Lu was wrong. “That depends, she said. “There is the story. Crimea at first was Russian, right? It was Khrushchev who gave Crimea to Ukraine in the Soviet Union era,” he added, referring to Nikita Khrushchev, who was a Soviet leader in the 1950s and 1960s.

Then he expanded this thought to other countries.

«Regarding international law, even these countries of the former Soviet Union» do not have a status that is «effective in international law, because there is no international agreement to consolidate their status as a sovereign country,» he said.

The French Foreign Ministry noted in the uproar that followed that China was among many countries that recognized Ukraine’s borders, including Crimea, when it became independent.

Europe is grappling with how to approach China.

Some, like French President Emmanuel Macron, are wary of following aggressive US bilateralism. Some of the largest European countries, namely Germany, are economically dependent on their large trade relationships with Beijing.

But Lu’s comments were not seen as less explosive.

Putin has similarly regularly questioned Ukraine’s legitimacy, arguing that it was never really a proper country in its own right. And the Baltic states fear it could use similar logic to make aggressive claims on them, too.

Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia said they would summon their respective Chinese ambassadors.

Lithuanian Foreign Minister Gabrielius Landsbergis tweeted: «If anyone is still wondering why the Baltic States don’t trust China to ‘negotiate peace in Ukraine’, here is a Chinese ambassador arguing that Crimea is Russian and that the borders of our countries have no legal basis».

The EU’s foreign affairs chief, Josep Borrell, said in a statement that the ambassador’s comment was «unacceptable.»

The 27-nation bloc would «assess and recalibrate the strategy towards China» at a meeting of foreign ministers on Monday, he was quoted as saying by Reuters, and Lu’s comments will be part of the discussion.

“We will have to continue discussions on China, it is one of the most important issues in our foreign policy,” he said.