How more neutral states can mediate peace talks in Ukraine

The G20 Summit this week showed that many countries don’t want to take sides, and some can be enticed to help end the war.

This year’s G20 Summit reaffirmed two concepts many Western policymakers continue to deny: non-Western countries do not wish to isolate Russia and that they prefer immediate peace talks to end the fighting in Ukraine.

As the Indonesian president and G20 host Joko Widodo said, “We have no other option, collaboration is needed to save the world.” Months after unprecedented American and European sanctions, it has become clear that they have failed to “cripple” the Russian economy or result in a troop withdrawal. Seemingly, the response to each sanctions package is more sanctions. Instead, sanctions relief should be offered to encourage meaningful negotiations.

While the Biden administration is reportedly taking more action on the diplomatic front, the West and its allies — merely 14 percent of the world’s population — remain steadfastly committed to economic warfare but have failed to play a constructive role in ending actual warfare. Meanwhile, other world leaders have positioned themselves in neutral positions that enable them to function as mediators between Russia and Ukraine as well as, more crucially, between Russia and the West. The lifting of sanctions, for example, can be one way to  enhance some countries’ willingness, ambition, and ability to mediate effectively.

Turkey’s active engagement, starting before the Russian invasion in February, has reduced the risk of a global famine thanks to a grain deal it helped realize. Meanwhile, the West has not merely just failed to offer Ankara any rewards for this achievement but in effect continued to punish it. Despite President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s pledge that Turkey will use the Russian payment transfer system Mir, both private and state-owned banks suspended its use following pressure from the U.S. Treasury. With skyrocketing inflation and depletion of its hard currency reserves, Turkey could greatly benefit from Russian tourism, especially now that Russians have been de facto banned from the West, yet is prevented from truly harnessing such potential due to Western sanctions.

Turkey’s growing regional influence and independent foreign policy makes it uniquely able to not simply mediate but possibly even offer its own concessions if the right incentives are presented. Diplomatic normalization between Ankara and Damascus, which is already being explored, could act as a sweetener in mediation efforts, something that is unlikely to come from the West. Alongside this, Turkey can continue to function and flourish as a parallel import node for the Russian economy without the looming threat of secondary sanctions. This can offer Russia much needed technology while boosting the beleaguered Turkish economy, perhaps the incentives needed to revive negotiations in Istanbul.

Saudi Arabia’s mediation efforts have been relatively small but noteworthy, including helping to broker a prisoner swap that included some Westerners. Concurrently, the oil giant has not just refused to isolate Russia but it is also importing Russian oil itself.

For Saudi Arabia to remain a constructive partner, it should not be forced to choose sides. In exchange for sanctions relief, the Kingdom can mediate efforts while concurrently assisting Russia’s most vital sector, such as by providing spare parts for the energy sector, which may be Russia’s largest medium-term challenge. Rather than threatening unworkable measures to counteract OPEC+, Western countries could encourage Riyadh to leverage its relationship with Moscow. Washington’s preference for punitive measures risks simply pushing Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman closer to President Vladimir Putin, much in the same way as the dual containment strategy has pushed Russia and China closer together.

President Volodymyr Zelenskyy has expressed shock at Israel’s unwillingness to provide Ukraine with Iron Dome but it’s entirely logical from Tel Aviv’s point of view. The Israeli security state has an incentive to see a militarily robust Russia, which has the capacity to restrain Iranian influence in Syria.

Russo-Western decoupling has led Russia to actively seek closer ties to Iran. Decades of sanctions experience makes Tehran a useful ally for Moscow in everything from automobile components to drones. Rather than emboldening Israeli hawks, the U.S. government could use Israel’s instinctive antagonism towards Iran for peaceful purposes in Eastern Europe. In March, the country’s prime minister visited Moscow. This backchannel grew cold but its revival could contribute to multi-track diplomacy. Like with Turkey, the ability to trade freely in otherwise sanctioned sectors could act as a positive inducement.

Arguably the countries with the most potential influence, namely China and India — both of which support a ceasefire and negotiations — have been given few reasons to get involved. Continued U.S. antagonism of China on the issue of Taiwan and a stubborn refusal to accept India’s pursuit of an independent policy has resulted in neither country wanting to be caught on the wrong side of Western sanctions while at the same time refusing to adopt their own. For both countries, diplomatic involvement runs the risk of potentially alienating both Russia and the United States/West with little direct benefit. Without guarantees of short or medium-term benefits, neither country is likely to budge.

High-levels of sector-specific economic interdependence might convince both to get involved if there is risk minimization, like immediate benefits such as lifting some sanctions. China and India could both potentially benefit from a wide-open market, especially in technology, that has been largely abandoned by Western businesses. China’s high-tech manufacturing sector coupled with India’s strength in IT services can do much to fill this shortage with relatively limited competition. The willingness of both states to further integrate economically with the Russian Federation while simultaneously carefully refusing to flagrantly ignore Western sanctions means both are well-positioned to engage both Russia and the West, if it is in their own national interests. Sanctions exemption could be one such interest.

Some G20 governments may be able to play complementary roles. Mexico’s President Andrés Manuel López Obrador has advanced and hosted talks to resolve the Venezuelan crisis and recently launched a peace initiative for Ukraine. Brazil’s reelected Lula da Silva balanced friendly relations with both the United States and Iran as an interlocutor and can potentially do the same for the United States and Russia. Mediation contributions can enhance both countries’ aspiration for middle power status, transcending their regional positions. Instead of obsessing with the preservation of hemispherical hegemony, Washington should encourage bold initiatives that enhance the prestige of such states.

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American sanctions are rarely temporary. The Kremlin likely assumes that Western sanctions on Russia are permanent, regardless of the conflict’s outcome. Washington’s desire to incapacitate Russia means Moscow sees little economic value in negotiations beyond the financial cost of military expenditure. According to chairman of Joint Chiefs of Staff General Mark Milley, “there’s an opportunity to negotiate” that should be seized. Now may be the moment to do so.

Lifting sanctions hindering trade between Russia and its non-Western economic partners may be a tangible benefit that can convince Russia to come to the negotiating table. Potential short-term benefits to be reaped may be a hard pill for Western politicians to swallow but the fundamental choice facing them is “Which is worse, Russian economic gains or an indefinite conflict that could one day fully drag in NATO and the United States?”

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