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The Global South’s lost dream of mediated peace in Ukraine

The G20 summit may prove that Vladimir Putin has annoyed too many countries with significant clout in international affairs.

By Lawrence Freedman

2.  All Members shall settle their international disputes by peaceful means in such a manner that international peace and security, and justice, are not endangered.

3.  All Members shall refrain in their international relations from the threat or use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of any state, or in any other manner inconsistent with the Purposes of the United Nations.

Charter of the United Nations, Article 2

One of the more persistent narratives surrounding the Russo-Ukraine War is that through a combination of information and diplomatic campaigns Russia has denied Ukraine the support it might have been expected to get from the “Global South”. While the countries of the southern hemisphere have never actively supported Russia or endorsed its aggression many have abstained in key votes in the United Nations and refused to engage with Western sanctions.

The explanations for this tend to focus on past connections with Russia and irritation with the West more than a lack of sympathy for Ukraine. The governing African National Congress in South Africa, for example, recalls Soviet support in the long struggle against Apartheid. India has found Russia a useful strategic partner in the past and a source of advanced weapons. China and Russia entered into what was described in glowing terms as a friendship “without limits” prior to the full-scale invasion. Meanwhile the West has been criticised for the attention devoted to Ukraine’s plight compared with the relative indifference to the humanitarian catastrophes of the ongoing wars in Africa and the Middle East. During the war’s early stages the Biden administration framed the conflict as one between democracy and autocracy, which did not impress many of the relatively autocratic governments in this grouping. Lastly, they consider the US and its allies, notably the UK, hypocritical about a “rules-based international order” given their actions in Iraq, Libya and elsewhere.

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Yet this narrative has become more nuanced over the course of this year. Part of this is due to the efforts of Volodymyr Zelensky, the Ukrainian president, and the Biden administration to improve relations with these countries. Part is due to irritation with Russia over its stubborn and wholly unrealistic stance on what might serve as the basis for a peace settlement. In addition, there is the harmful impact of Russia’s actions on food and energy prices. For all these reasons, these countries are starting to find an equidistant position harder to sustain and are starting to take diplomatic initiatives of their own. These may be harder for Russia to resist than those sponsored by the West.

“Global South” is one of those convenient shorthands that can keep conversations on international relations going without the need to list lots of different countries. If taken too seriously, as if this represents a homogenous group with a shared agenda, the label can soon become misleading. It is the latest in a sequence of attempts to group countries according to what they are not instead of who they are.

During the Cold War those deliberately staying outside the main alliances became part of the Non-Aligned Movement. They were eventually combined with states with a deliberate policy of neutrality (such as Sweden and Switzerland) as the Neutral and Non-Aligned. Those many developing countries outside the main blocs were lumped together as the Third World, as they were not part of either the “First”, capitalist world or the “Second”, communist world.

After the end of the Cold War these labels appeared dated and unhelpful because they did little justice to the variety and agency of these countries. It also became apparent that an important feature of this new age was that several of these countries that were behind the West on many key economic indicators were nonetheless showing considerable dynamism. They were not only catching up but also had some shared interests that were distinctive from those of the West. The most important of these countries were identified as the Brics — Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa.

In addition to their growing economic importance they also included the world’s most populous countries. While this was another grouping that started as a convenient shorthand it eventually became an actual political entity with its own summits. They all tend to complain about attempted US “hegemony” and argue for more multipolarity. They dislike America’s regular resort to economic sanctions, reflected in proposals for the de-dollarisation of the world economy. The Brics group does however exclude countries in similar positions, such as the populous Indonesia and the rich Saudi Arabia. It already has internal debates about whether to invite more members.

[See also: Ukraine must go to war with itself]

The West of course has its own institutions, such as Nato and the EU, both of which have grown in size since the end of the Cold War and provide a degree of integration that is absent from other regional institutions (such as Asean and Mercosur). There is also the Group of Seven (G7) industrialised countries (the US, the UK, Canada, France, Germany, Italy and Japan) which meets annually, always with the EU and usually with other invited friends and relations. It was the G8 until Russia was expelled after the 2014 annexation of Crimea, with one consequence being that there was one less place for diplomatic communications between Russia and the West. The obvious place – the UN Security Council – has been paralysed because of Russia’s veto.

There is one other grouping that is large enough to bring together the main international players, more inclusive than either the G7 or Brics, and crucially a place where these different perspectives and interests can come together. That is the G20, formed in 1999 in response to an economic crisis but now with a wider agenda. It is made up of Argentina, Australia, Brazil, Canada, China, France, Germany, India, Indonesia, Italy, Japan, Mexico, Russia, Saudi Arabia, South Africa, South Korea, Turkey, the UK, the US and the EU. This also meets annually. Indonesia hosted the last summit; India will host the next in September. This is therefore an altogether more complicated picture than simply “the West” versus “the Rest”, or one in which few states count apart from the permanent members of the Security Council.

The complexity of the evolving international system has become more evident as countries work out their responses to the Russo-Ukraine War.

A common complaint from non-Western countries mirrored that of internal critics of Western support for Ukraine – far too much effort is being put into stoking the fires of war by sending arms to Ukraine and not enough into “diplomacy” to end the war. There is a persistent hope that “dialogue” might find a common-sense way out of the morass. This line has appealed to those who wish to sound progressive even while supporting a vicious, nationalist aggressor state, or “realists” who take it for granted that at some point Ukraine will have to concede territory to Russia. Those taking this view also tend to assume that the US is in the position to get a deal done because it can lever Kyiv into a compliant position.

This was always a dubious proposition. It would not be a good look for Joe Biden, and certainly would be divisive within the alliance, to attempt to strong-arm Ukraine into an unequal treaty that Russia would probably not honour anyway. Most importantly, Vladimir Putin has not offered any encouragement to those urging active negotiations. Early in the war the two sides were exploring a possible settlement, looking for language on the Donbas, Crimea and neutrality with which they both could live. That proved elusive, and the Ukrainian position hardened once Russian atrocities were revealed as troops abandoned their positions close to Kyiv. Now Putin demands that Ukraine must agree to the permanent loss of territory unilaterally claimed for Russia, which is even more than it currently occupies. That is not going to happen.

The “peace camp” has thus faded in the West. The most serious proponents argue that preparations must be made for when the time is “ripe”, accepting that this is not yet and must await changing attitudes in Kyiv and Moscow. The agreed Western stance follows Ukraine’s: Russian behaviour, along with its claimed objectives, means that there is no basis for negotiations. The only development that is likely to shift Russian views is evidence that it is losing the war, and so the main effort needs to be put into helping Ukraine with its military operations.

This has created a gap which many non-Western countries have been eager to fill, casting themselves in the role of peace-makers. The process began last February when China stepped forward with its own proposals. Because of Xi Jinping’s “no limits” partnership with Putin, and the accompanying anti-Nato rhetoric, these were treated sceptically. Zelensky, however, appreciated at once that taken at face value they were more favourable to Ukraine than Russia. The core principles – staying in line with the UN Charter and respecting national sovereignty, territorial integrity and international humanitarian law – give no support to seizing the territory of a neighbouring state and bombing its cities. Later this was followed up by a discussion between Xi and Zelensky and closer diplomatic relations between the two.

We have now had other initiatives from Brazil, African countries, and most recently Saudi Arabia. The last of these initiatives was Brazil’s. Although it condemned the Russian invasion, it has not supported sanctions against Moscow or arms to Ukraine. After Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, the president, welcomed Sergei Lavrov, the Russian foreign minister, to Brasilia and objected to Western arms deliveries as prolonging the war, he came under heavy criticism. He then declined an invitation from Putin to visit Russia, but repeated “Brazil’s willingness, together with India, Indonesia and China, to talk to both sides of the conflict in search of peace”. Yet he has not spoken directly to Zelensky and now seems disillusioned. His initiative made little headway, leading Lula to conclude that neither Putin nor Zelensky were ready. “Brazil’s role is to try to arrive at a peace proposal together with others for when both countries want it.”

The African initiative began on 16 May when it was announced by Cyril Ramaphosa, president of South Africa. In June representatives from South Africa, Egypt, Senegal, Congo-Brazzaville, Comoros, Zambia and Uganda visited both Ukraine and Russia. It was not a great success. As the delegation arrived in Kyiv the city was struck by Russia missiles. Then, on 17 June, when they met Putin, the Russian president showed no interest in a plan that required accepting Ukraine’s internationally recognised borders. One South African academic, Professor William Gumede, observed that the African leaders were humiliated: “Putin didn’t even bother to listen to the delegation, basically interrupting them before they’d even finished speaking, implying there was no point in discussing anything as the war would continue.”

This was then followed in late July by the Second Russia-Africa Summit, in St Petersburg, postponed from October 2022, when it would have taken place in Ethiopia. At one level Russia might have counted this a success as 49 delegations attended, although this only included 17 heads of state (compared with the 43 who attended the first summit in 2019). But some of the continent’s most important leaders were present, including Ramaphosa and Abdel Fattah el-Sisi of Egypt. One of the odder features of the event was that also in St Petersburg, and meeting with African leaders, was Yevgeny Prigozhin, apparently not in disgrace after his June mutiny against the Russian Ministry of Defence, and whose Wagner group has a significant presence in the Central African Republic, Libya, Mali and Sudan (and now potentially Niger).

[See also: “The guy I was before the Russians captured me has died”]

This meeting came not long after Russia had decided to abandon the grain deal which had allowed Ukraine to export grain (32.8 million tonnes last year) from its Black Sea ports, on the grounds that Western sanctions restricting the export of Russian grain and fertiliser had not been lifted (though these are actually exempt from sanctions). The end of the agreement means that shortages will grow and prices rise. At the summit Ramaphosa and other African leaders pleaded with Putin to restore the initiative, which was already causing hardship on the continent. To no avail. When Putin offered to donate some grain free to the neediest countries, Ramaphosa thanked him politely and then added: “We would like the Black Sea to be opened to the world market. And we… are not coming here to plead for donations for the African continent… our main input here is not so much focused on giving and donating grain to the African continent.”

Nor was there any progress on peace negotiations. Putin had no objections to the African mission continuing but he offered no hope that he was changing his position or his transparently false claim that the West had really started the war.

Adding further to the chill, Putin acknowledged after the summit that he would not be travelling to Johannesburg for the Brics summit that starts on 22 August, as this was less “important than me staying in Russia”. The actual reason was that the South African government could not guarantee that Putin would not be arrested and sent to The Hague. The International Criminal Court’s (ICC) arrest warrant for Putin, issued in March, for the war crime of deporting Ukrainian children, is restricting his ability to travel. South Africa, along with 122 other states, has ratified the Rome Statute and is obliged to arrest Putin if he shows up in their jurisdiction. The South African government did try to find a way out of this predicament, arguing to the ICC that arresting Putin would be tantamount to a declaration of war and would undermine peace efforts. In the end they had to abandon this effort. Without a guarantee of immunity, Putin clearly decided it was too risky to travel. Instead he will join the summit by video while Lavrov will represent Russia in person. 

The developing frustration with Russia was reflected in the most important initiative thus far – a two-day summit held in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, from 6 to 8 August, hosted by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (often referred to as MBS) on how to achieve peace in Ukraine. Saudi Arabia is another country with which Russia has been trying to improve relations. In particular they have cooperated on oil production cuts to raise prices. Although Western nations encourage countries only to buy Russian oil below a $60 ceiling price, for now it is selling oil at closer to $65, helping push up revenues.

The Biden administration has also been making moves to improve relations with the Saudis, despite starting in a critical mode because of the kingdom’s human rights records (and especially the murder of the journalist Jamal Khashoggi in 2018). It is engaged in an effort to get Israel and the Saudis to establish diplomatic relations. MBS’s sympathetic view of Ukraine was evident when Zelensky was hosted in May at an Arab summit, also in Jeddah. There Zelensky urged Arab leaders not to turn “a blind eye” to Russian aggression.

Following this the crown prince called a large international conference and invited Ukraine and not Russia. Even more notable was that the other invitees (some 40 states) did not appear to find this a turn-off. It was not surprising that the US and EU turned up. But the presence of China, India and South Africa was significant. Had this been the other way round, and Russia had been invited and not Ukraine, this would have been considered an enormous diplomatic defeat for Kyiv and its supporters.

Russia made clear that it was unhappy with its exclusion. Sergei Ryabkov, the deputy foreign minister, grumbled that without Russia the talks had not “the slightest added value”. He described the meeting as “a reflection of the West’s attempt to continue futile, doomed efforts” to mobilise the Global South behind Kyiv. At the same time he insisted that Russia remained open to a diplomatic solution to end the war, and would respond to any sincere proposals. When Putin’s spokesman, Dmitri Peskov, was asked by a New York Times journalist whether Russia wants to occupy new Ukrainian territories, he answered: “No. We just want to control all the land we have now written into our constitution as ours.” Yet this includes not only Crimea, but also the territories of the Donetsk, Luhansk, Kherson and Zaporizhzhia oblasts, not all of which are currently occupied by Russia. “There are currently no grounds for an agreement,” added Peskov. “We will continue the operation for the foreseeable future.”

[See also: Russia’s war on the future]

By contrast the Ukrainian delegation was pleased with the Saudi event. Zelensky’s head of staff, Andriy Yermak, spoke of “very productive consultations on the key principles on which a just and lasting peace should be built”. No consensus position had emerged, but the conversation between the different viewpoints was honest and open. Zelensky has said that he hoped that the Jeddah gathering will be a step on the road toward a global peace summit, possibly to be held later in the year. He has framed the talks as following the ten-point peace plan which he presented to the G20 last November. Saudi Arabia’s Media Ministry emphasised the importance of continuing consultations to pave the way for peace. Working groups are being establish to consider some of the specific problems raised by the war.

China’s representative, Li Hui, was described by an EU source as having “participated actively” in the sessions. He had not attended another informal meeting in Denmark in June. Also present was the national security adviser to Narendra Modi, the Indian prime minister. He shared the consensus view: “Dialogue and diplomacy is the way forward for a peaceful resolution of the Ukraine conflict. There is a need to uphold territorial integrity and sovereignty without exception by all states… India has regularly engaged both Russia and Ukraine at the highest levels since the beginning of the conflict and New Delhi supports a global order based on principles enshrined in UN Charter and international law.”

India will be hosting the next G20 meeting in Delhi from 9 to 10 September. Unlike South Africa, India has not signed up to the ICC so Putin would not be at risk of arrest should he decide to attend. He cannot, however, expect a warm reception, and should it come to talk of peace he will find little sympathy for his insistence on annexing a large chunk of Ukrainian territory. None of the leaders, other than Xi and perhaps Modi, will be keen on bilaterals. At the last G20 meeting in Bali, which Zelensky attended, Russian aggression was condemned. Russia is already seeking to prevent a similar communiqué emerging out of the Delhi summit. A preliminary meeting of finance ministers in July failed to agree to a communiqué because Russia and China objected to a reference to “immense human suffering”. Western states would not sign one that did not condemn the aggression.

Should Putin decide to attend the G20 the event may serve to underline Russia’s isolation as much as its power. He has annoyed countries that now have significant clout in international affairs, and make a point of not following an American lead, by insisting on terms for ending the war that contradict the principles of the UN Charter, and by pursuing strategies that push up energy and food costs for all countries at a time when most countries are struggling economically. This has created an opportunity for Zelensky to work hard on improving relations with these countries so that future peace initiatives are more likely to fit in with his vision than Putin’s.

For that reason we should not expect any early breakthroughs. Much still depends on what happens in the battles currently under way. It would, however, be too cynical to dismiss the current diplomatic initiatives as being irrelevant. They reflect the changing character of international relations, as countries such as Brazil, India and Saudi Arabia demonstrate their political muscle, but also the continuing importance of the UN Charter as one of the few fixed normative points. We are moving from the idea of a mediated peace, in which a country able to talk to both Moscow and Kyiv, such as Turkey or Israel, tries to broker an agreement that leaves both sides with honour satisfied, to a process which involves developing global pressure on Putin to back away from his stubborn insistence on Russia’s right to annex Ukrainian territory.

Lawrence Freedman is a regular contributor to the New Statesman. This piece originally ran on his Substack “Comment is Freed“.

[See also: Putin’s secret navy]

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