Several countries are vying to lead negotiations
As the Ukraine war remains in an entrenched stalemate, thoughts are turning to peace. At last November’s G20 summit, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky unveiled his peace plan, the basis for a possible summit in February.
The chances of securing an agreement are not high. Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov rejected Zelensky’s conditions, while UN Secretary-General António Guterres himself judged last month that “the military confrontation will go on” and “we’ll have to wait for a moment in which serious negotiations for peace will be possible”. Yet, as Ukraine and Russia consider what shape a ceasefire may take, nations have been jostling to position themselves as possible guarantors for an eventual truce.
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The United Arab Emirates has remained steadfastly neutral over the Ukraine conflict. Maintaining strong trade ties with Russia has not stopped the Arab nation from simultaneously negotiating a trade deal with Ukraine and voting at the UN to condemn Russia’s September annexation of four Ukrainian regions. The UAE could therefore be in a good position to guarantee any peace agreement. President Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed Al Nahyan has expressed his readiness to mediate between the two and the UAE has already facilitated talks between Russia and Ukraine on prisoner exchanges and the resumption of Russian ammonia exports.
An unlikely contender, last week Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni announced that “Italy is ready to be a guarantor of the peaceful process”. While its own wartime history proves how easily Italy can slip between both sides of a conflict, the Italian government is unlikely to be Zelensky’s first choice of arbiter or guarantor. Although Meloni has herself remained a staunch supporter of Ukraine, the PM’s coalition partners will ring alarm bells in Kyiv.
Forza Italia leader Silvio Berlusconi has been caught on tape calling himself one of Putin’s “five real friends” and discussing their “gifts and sweet letters”. Deputy Prime Minister Matteo Salvini — a man who once toured Moscow wearing a T-shirt depicting Putin’s face — suggested last September that the West should rethink sanctions, making Italy’s chances of effecting a reconciliation highly dubious.
Perhaps one of the surprises of the war has been the central role played by Turkish President Recep Erdoğan. Supplying Ukraine with weaponry while ratcheting up trade with Russia, Erdoğan already has a host of diplomatic successes to his name, including brokering prisoner swaps between Ukraine and Russia as well as orchestrating July’s UN-backed deal resuming Ukrainian grain deliveries from the Black Sea.
Turkey enjoys goodwill among both parties and stands a good chance of acting as a future guarantor, with Zelensky having discussed his readiness to accept Turkey undertaking such a role as early as April last year.
Former Prime Minister Naftali Bennett’s attempts to mediate between the two sides in the early stages of the conflict faltered, in no small part due to his administration’s hardline approach to Russia. While former Foreign Minister (and briefly Prime Minister) Yair Lapid denounced Russian “war crimes”, Benjamin Netanyahu’s return to the premiership has marked a shift in Israel’s policy towards Ukraine. Following his appointment as Foreign Minister, Eli Cohen spoke by telephone with Lavrov — the first such call since the invasion — and announced the draft of a “responsible” new policy on the conflict, suggesting he would “speak less in public” about Ukraine.
Engaging more constructively with Russia makes Israel a likelier guarantor overall. Israel enjoys the support of the US to mediate and seasoned statesman Netanyahu has deep personal ties with Putin. However, Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba’s labelling of Israel as a “difficult country” in response to Cohen’s comments suggests Ukrainian reluctance could prove an obstacle.
China and America 🇨🇳 🇺🇸
In using the Ukraine invasion to reassert Russia’s great power status and take back what he deems “historical Russian lands”, Putin may well refuse to sit around a negotiating table with anyone less than a great power. Sanctions and diplomatic isolation have increased Russia’s dependence on China, another possible contender. Indeed, China’s has financial interests in Ukraine, and in September last year President Xi Jinping expressed “concerns” regarding the war, suggesting an interest in pushing for peace.
As the biggest supplier of weapons and aid to Ukraine, America also has the leverage to bring Ukraine to the table and be taken seriously as a guarantor. Ukrainian officials have been discussing US security guarantees to protect the country from another invasion as far back as April. As such, these two countries may well end up being the two most likely suitors.