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Diplomacy Watch: Gulf states join Turkey in push for Ukraine peace talks

Diplomacy Watch: Gulf states join Turkey in push for Ukraine peace talks

With chances for negotiations at a low point, several Middle Eastern leaders are trying to fashion themselves as peacemakers.

Analysis | Europe

The leaders of the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, and Turkey all met with Russian President Vladimir Putin this past week. Each statesman went in with one clear goal: burnishing his reputation as a potential mediator in the Ukraine crisis.

First up was Emirati President Mohamed Bin Zayed (MbZ), who met with his Russian counterpart in Moscow on Tuesday.

On Ukraine, MbZ’s goal was to “reduce military escalation, reduce humanitarian repercussions and reach a political settlement to achieve global peace and security,” according to the UAE’s foreign ministry.

Abdulkhaleq Abdulla, an Emirati academic who is close to the UAE government, put it in more florid terms in a tweet: “UAE President is the only world leader that can talk to President Putin to stop the drift to nuclear confrontation. He is doing it for peace, for Europe and for all of us. This is why he is [in] Moscow tomorrow.”

While it remains unclear how the meeting went, one thing is certain: the UAE’s messaging will fall flat in the West. 

The meeting came less than a week after OPEC+, of which the UAE and Russia are both members, voted to slash oil production despite concerns that such a move would worsen the global energy crisis. The decision drew a sharp backlash from U.S. officials, with some lawmakers calling for a full withdrawal of the U.S. military from the UAE.

In other words, the odds that the UAE can become a credible mediator are vanishingly small.

Meanwhile, Qatari Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani met with Putin Thursday during a regional summit in Kazakhstan, which came just days after the emir spoke with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky.

Doha’s relations with Moscow have suffered in recent months as the Gulf state has walked a tightrope between the Kremlin and its adversaries in the West. That could pose big problems for Qatar, especially given that Russia can make the tiny nation’s life difficult in a range of Middle Eastern affairs.

Given this context, the goal of the discussion was to defuse tensions between Russia and Qatar, according to Reuters. The Qatari leader also “emphasized support for all international and regional efforts to find an immediate peaceful solution to the Ukraine crisis and affirmed the necessity of respecting the sovereignty of states,” according to Doha.

Unlike the UAE, Qatar actually does have a chance of serving as a sponsor for Ukraine peace talks. Doha’s foreign policy focuses heavily on conflict mediation, and, given its role in U.S.-Taliban and Israel-Hamas negotiations, it has shown itself to be adept at bringing bitter enemies to the table. So, as nuclear risks continue to rise in Ukraine, we can only hope that the discussion went well.

The final meeting also came in Astana on Thursday, when Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan sat down with Putin. Since Russia’s invasion, Erdogan has been more committed to diplomacy than any other world leader, and his efforts have succeeded in at least mitigating some of the effects of the brutal conflict, notably through an agreement that restarted Ukrainian grain exports through the Black Sea.

As Turkey expert Sibel Oktay recently argued, the Turkish leader’s approach to the conflict is largely driven by a desire for self-preservation. 

“Turkey’s position in Ukraine is directly tethered to his political future,” she wrote, noting that Erdogan hopes his work on the crisis will translate into votes in next year’s presidential elections. “He needs popular support more than ever, and his Ukraine policy might just help him get it.”

Thursday’s talks reportedly focused little on the war itself. Instead, they centered on a new Kremlin proposal to export Russian gas via Turkey as an alternative to the Nord Stream pipelines, which pump natural gas from Russia to Germany.

Fortunately, Turkey’s defense minister appeared to have had a more constructive conversation with his Russian counterpart on Tuesday. According to a Turkish readout of the call, the pair shared a “​​common understanding” of the need for a ceasefire following a spate of Russian attacks on Ukrainian cities.

In other diplomatic news related to the war in Ukraine:

— Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said Tuesday that the Kremlin is open to Ukraine peace talks but has “not received any serious offers to make contact” from the United States, according to Reuters. State Department spokesperson Ned Price called Lavrov’s position “posturing,” adding that the administration doesn’t view the statement as “a constructive, legitimate offer to engage in the dialogue and diplomacy that is absolutely necessary to see an end to this brutal war.”

— Also on Tuesday, President Joe Biden said he has “no intentions” of speaking with Putin at next month’s G20 meeting, according to the New York Times. Biden did, however, say that he would accept an offer to talk with the Russian leader if the conversation focused on Brittney Griner, a basketball star who has been held in Russia since February on what Washington considers politically motivated charges. (The State Department walked this back Wednesday, saying that any such talks would be between Secretary of State Antony Blinken and his Russian counterpart.) In related news, the Washington Postprovided a glimpse into how U.S. leaders think about the potential for negotiations: 

“Privately, U.S. officials say neither Russia nor Ukraine is capable of winning the war outright, but they have ruled out the idea of pushing or even nudging Ukraine to the negotiating table. They say they do not know what the end of the war looks like, or how it might end or when, insisting that is up to Kyiv.”  

— On Wednesday, the UN General Assembly overwhelmingly voted to condemn Russia’s attempt to annex large swathes of eastern Ukraine, according to the BBC

— In a Sunday interview with ABC, former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Mike Mullen called for peace talks in Ukraine, citing the risk of escalation to nuclear war. “[A]s is typical in any war, it has got to end and usually there are negotiations associated with that,” Mullen said. “The sooner the better as far as I’m concerned.”

— Rafael Grossi, who heads the International Atomic Energy Agency, met with both Putin and Zelensky this week as he continues his efforts to create a demilitarized zone around the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant, according to the Washington Post. Fighting continues in the area around the Russian-controlled plant, spurring concerns that an errant projectile could create a nuclear disaster.

— In The Hill, international relations scholar A. Dirk Moses pitched a creative solution to the war:

“If Crimea is non-negotiable for both Russia and Ukraine, it is more urgent to negotiate a third option to resolve the security dilemma that control of this territory represents: UN governance of the region as an international territory over which neither party enjoys sovereignty. [...]

Naturally, relinquishing absolute entitlement to territory regarded as historically, economically and strategically significant would be painful for both sides. They would resist it. But this is not just a regional war. It has massive implications for global food and nuclear security. And waging the war is only possible because of the belligerents’ dense web of international military and economic relationships.”

U.S. State Department News:

In a Tuesday press conference, Price dodged a question about calls to send additional missile defense systems to Ukraine, noting that Western countries have already provided Kyiv with a range of such capabilities.

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