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Diplomacy Watch: Ukraine and Russia are (quietly) talking

Diplomacy Watch: Ukraine and Russia are (quietly) talking

A new report sheds light on secretive channels between the warring parties.


Ukrainian officials continue to engage in direct, back-channel discussions with their Russian counterparts, with “tough” and “unpleasant” in-person meetings happening along the border between the two countries and in Istanbul, according to a new report from the Washington Post.

The reported topics of conversation are far more limited than the early days of the conflict, when a ceasefire or even a peace deal appeared possible. The officials focus instead on practical issues like prisoner swaps, and the return of Ukrainian children who have been taken to Russia.

The report sheds useful light on the status of diplomatic efforts related to the war, including the role of international intermediaries and mediators. Turkey, Qatar, the UAE, the Vatican, and Saudi Arabia are the main state-level players in this regard, and the International Committee of the Red Cross has also played a role.

One notable area in which Ukrainian and Russian officials have never engaged in one-on-one meetings is the question of Ukrainian grain exports, which largely flowed via the Black Sea prior to the war. According to the Post, the talks “took place in a four-sided format: Turkey; the United Nations; Ukraine and Russia, which was represented by Defense Ministry officials.”

These discussions resulted in one of the only positive diplomatic signs since the war began: the Black Sea Grain Initiative, which created corridors for shipping much-needed foodstuffs through the Russian blockade. Rustem Umerov, who has since become Ukraine’s defense minister, helped lead the Istanbul-based talks, a role made easier by Umerov’s fluency in Turkish, the Post notes.

But Russia killed the deal earlier this year over allegations that the West had not upheld its side of the bargain, which Moscow says included a relaxation of sanctions on fertilizers and related chemicals.

When it comes to prisoner swaps, Ukraine views Turkey and Saudi Arabia as key players whose role “ensured that Russia was less likely to back out, to avoid angering two of Moscow’s important partners,” the Post writes.

The report also reveals the complex role played by the Vatican, which has led on efforts to return noncombatants like military cooks and medics. The Holy See, under Pope Francis, has attempted to rebuild ties with the Russian Orthodox Church, led by Patriarch Kirill.

While the war has put a strain on those efforts, some aspects of the rapprochement between the Christian denominations are paying off, according to the Post. Ukraine reportedly passes lists of prisoners to the pope’s envoy in the country, who then sends the names to the Holy See. Next, Vatican officials forward the documents to the Russian Orthodox Church, and Kirill himself brings them to the Kremlin’s attention.

The most positive revelation in the Post’s reporting is the news that “groups of children have come back to Ukraine on a semiregular basis” following direct negotiations with Russia, which has quietly felt the pressure of the International Criminal Court warrant against President Vladimir Putin for alleged unlawful transfers of Ukrainian children from Russian-occupied areas.

Groups of Ukrainian children “have been dropped off at a far western part of the Ukraine-Belarus border, cross over by foot, and are met in Ukraine by Save Ukraine, a nongovernmental organization,” the Post writes.

In other diplomatic news related to the war in Ukraine:

— Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan moved forward a parliamentary proposal to ratify Sweden’s accession to NATO, putting Stockholm one step closer to joining the alliance, according to AP News. But another obstacle remains: Hungary, whose ruling party has accused Swedish officials of telling “blatant lies” about the state of the country’s democracy, pushed back a vote on the issue until at least next month. One ruling party lawmaker said there was “little chance” that Hungary would ratify Sweden’s accession to NATO this year.

— With dwindling support for Ukraine aid at home, U.S. President Joe Biden has started making the argument that its massive new funding proposal will be a boon for the American economy, according to Politico. The new line, which is a far cry from previous arguments about defending democracies and the rules-based order, is in large part aimed at Republicans who see Ukraine as a distraction from other priorities and are intent on expanding the U.S. defense industrial base. This angle will likely draw fire from progressives, who often note that military spending is far less effective at creating new jobs than other kinds of government investment.

— Russia withdrew its ratification of the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty on Wednesday, opening the door to a new era of nuclear weapons testing amid increased tensions between Washington and Moscow, according to Reuters. Putin framed the decision as an effort to “mirror” the U.S. position on the treaty, which it signed but never ratified. While Russia claims it will only resume testing if the U.S. does so first, new reporting from CNN shows that both countries have expanded their nuclear testing facilities in recent years.

— The Biden administration’s public support for alleged Israeli war crimes in Gaza has led to charges of hypocrisy from many leaders in the Global South who have bristled at Western claims of moral clarity regarding the war in Ukraine, according to the Washington Post:

When the war in Ukraine first broke out, Palestinians were elated by the tough stance taken by Western capitals against one country occupying another’s land, said Nour Odeh, a Ramallah-based Palestinian political commentator. ‘But it seems that occupation is only bad if the guys who are not on your side are doing it.’ (...)

There is a perception that the West ‘cares more about Ukrainian refugees, about Ukrainian civilians suffering, than we do when they are suffering in Yemen, in Gaza, in Sudan, in Syria,’ said Hanna Notte, a Berlin-based Eurasia analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

That helps illustrate why the West has failed to woo countries like India and Turkey into supporting sanctions against Russia. Given the situation in Gaza, that effort is unlikely to succeed any time soon.

U.S. State Department news:

In a Monday press conference, State Department spokesperson Matthew Miller said the U.S. is “deeply concerned” about Russia’s ongoing detention of an American-Russian journalist for Radio Free Europe, who faces charges of failing to register as a foreign agent and has been in Russian custody since June. “We have requested consular access; so far it has not been granted. We will continue to press for it,” Miller said, adding that “we have not even been officially notified of her arrest by the Russian Government.”
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