When conflict erupted between Russia and Ukraine in 2014, following Moscow’s support for Donbass separatists and its annexation of Crimea, European powers France and Germany played this role of mediator in what has been called the Norman format. The Belarusian capital became the scene of negotiations which finally led to the Minsk agreements. But the Minsk Accords have stalled, in part because Kyiv felt they were unfair because they were negotiated from a position of weakness.
Now, almost eight years later, the idea that Belarus could be a neutral party is laughable; Belarusian leader Alexander Lukashenko, dependent on Moscow after huge protests against his regime in 2020, has allowed Russia to use his territory to stage attacks. Although Ukrainian officials have in the past attended peace talks with their Russian counterparts in Minsk, this time they insisted that they be held near the borders between Ukraine and Belarus.
Paris and Berlin, meanwhile, risk being unacceptable to Putin as mediators. Germany provides the Ukrainian side with considerable firepower, including anti-tank weapons and Stinger missiles. France, meanwhile, has provided defensive equipment and more general support to Ukraine. French President Emmanuel Macron is the only Western European leader in regular contact with Putin, but he has given dark signals about the Russian president’s willingness to negotiate.
“That much, [Putin] refuses to stop its attacks on Ukraine”, Macron wrote on Twitter Thursday.
Could another world leader step in? Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett traveled to Moscow this weekend for an unexpected meeting with Putin. Bennett said later Sunday he was in touch with Russia and Ukraine and hoped to help broker peace.
“Even if the luck is not great – as soon as there is even a small opening, and we have access to all the parts and the capacity – I consider it our moral obligation to make every effort”, the Israeli leader told a cabinet. Meet.
Meanwhile, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan had a call with Putin on Sunday. According to a reading from Erdogan’s office, the Turkish leader “said that an immediate ceasefire would not only allay humanitarian concerns in the region, but also provide an opportunity for the search for a political solution” and ” renewed its call to “lead the way to peace together”, according to Reuters.
Turkey also said it hoped to host the Russian and Ukrainian foreign ministers at a diplomatic conference in Antalya which begins on Friday. Reuters reports that senior Russian diplomat Sergei Lavrov and Ukrainian Dmytro Kuleba have accepted the offer, although it is unclear whether either will be able to attend.
Both Bennett and Erdogan have attributes that could make them desirable third parties. Israel is a longtime US ally, while Turkey is a full member of NATO – but the two sometimes have strained relations with other Western allies. Ankara is one of the few buyers of American and Russian weapons, much to Washington’s chagrin. Both nations have their own interests in ending the war: Israel is home to large Russian and Ukrainian diasporas, while Turkey’s struggling economy does not want further disruption for the millions of Russians and Ukrainians who visit every year.
But Israel and Turkey have had their own differences with Russia, particularly over Moscow’s support for Bashar al-Assad’s government in Syria‘s civil war. Complicating matters further is the detail that Turkey is the supplier of a type of armed drone used by Ukraine against invading Russian forces.
There are few better candidates, however. Last week at the United Nations General Assembly there was a massive show of support for a resolution calling on Russia to end the war. Even the Taliban in Afghanistan and the military junta in Myanmar have signed on. Israel and Turkey too.
Only five countries voted against the motion, a motley crew made up of Belarus, Eritrea, North Korea, Russia itself and Syria – hardly beacons of diplomacy. But 35 other countries abstained, including powers like India and China that have so far tried to avoid choosing sides in the conflict.
India has offered to facilitate the peace talks, although as a big buyer of Russian arms many analysts consider it too scared of Moscow’s wrath. But some diplomats from Western Europe, and even from Ukraine itself, believe that the road to peace may lie not through New Delhi but through Beijing.
In an interview with El Mundo published on Friday, European Union foreign policy chief Josep Borrell said that when it came to negotiating a peace agreement, there was no alternative: “It must be China, I’m sure.” Borrell told the Spanish newspaper: “We didn’t ask for it and they didn’t ask for it, but since it has to be a power and neither the United States nor Europe can be [mediators]China could be.
Kuleba, Ukraine’s foreign minister, said in an online press conference on Saturday that he had been assured by officials in Beijing that “China is interested in stopping this war”, adding that the war was against China’s interests and that Chinese diplomacy had “enough tools to make a difference.
But even though China dominates Russia, it remains at odds with the West on many issues and rarely mediates in international disputes. Some analysts doubted he would support the negotiations. “They are not in a neutral position,” John Delury, professor of Chinese studies at Yonsei University in Seoul, told the Financial Times. “They are much closer to Russia.”