Saudi Arabia is hosting an unusual gathering of top security officials from some 30 nations, including the United States, for a Ukraine-led summit this weekend to discuss potential pathways toward negotiations to end Russia’s occupation of Ukrainian territory.
The catch is Russia isn’t invited to the gathering, which analysts say is likely to anchor around Ukrainian and U.S. efforts to persuade key nonaligned countries from the so-called Global South to publicly back Kyiv’s position on how any future peace talks should play out.
China, which has offered rhetorical support for the government of Russian President Vladimir Putin and has unsuccessfully pushed its own peace initiative in recent months, is among the countries sending representatives to the gathering in the Saudi city of Jeddah. India, another major power that has hedged its bets in the nearly 18-month war, also said Wednesday it will attend.
The meeting, which regional experts say is being used by Saudi Arabia to underscore its rising status as a global diplomatic broker, will mark the second time in as many months that a broad slate of nations have gathered to discuss a 10-point peace plan put forward late last year by Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy.
A previous meeting organized by the Zelenskyy government occurred in Copenhagen, Denmark, in June, and received limited media attention.
Officials say discussions in Jeddah on Saturday and Sunday will focus again on a specific “Peace Formula” put forward by Kyiv and, in similar fashion to the Copenhagen gathering, a range of nations who’ve waffled over the past year on whether to openly support Ukraine are slated to attend.
“This meeting will be about wooing this group of ambivalent nations,” said Donald Jensen, a former U.S. diplomat and member of the Russia and Strategic Stability project at the United States Institute of Peace.
“I suspect that NATO and the West want to lobby this group to support Ukraine,” he said in an interview, noting that “the West does not want negotiations to occur on Russian terms.”
Officials from major European Union nations and NATO backers of Ukraine are heading to Jeddah, along with delegations from Egypt, Chile, and several African nations that have had close relations with Russia in the past. Key nations from Group of 20, including India, Brazil, Indonesia, Turkey and Japan, will also participate in the talks.
The event comes at a moment of uncertainty over the future of a major Ukrainian counteroffensive that has made incremental gains against dug-in Russian forces along a 600-mile front line stretching across the nation’s east and south.
U.S. and NATO officials have publicly defended the counteroffensive, which has moved at a much slower rate than Kyiv and its supporters had hoped.
Watching from the sidelines
Russian officials say they will closely monitor this weekend’s summit in Saudi Arabia, but argue that it was Ukraine who made it clear that representatives from Moscow would not be welcome.
“Of course, Russia will follow this meeting,” said Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov. “We need to understand what goals are set and what will be discussed. Any attempt to promote a peaceful settlement deserves a positive evaluation.”
But Mr. Peskov also restated Moscow’s position that it currently saw no grounds for peace talks with Kyiv. Mr. Putin launched the war in February 2022 in hopes of a quick capitulation of the Zelenskyy government, but now finds himself bogged down in trench warfare trying to preserve modest Russian territorial gains in eastern Ukraine.
“The Kyiv regime does not want and cannot want peace, as long as it is used exclusively as a tool in the war of the collective West with Russia,” Mr. Peskov said on a call with reporters, according to the Reuters news agency.
The comments fit with past Russian statements in response to separate peace initiatives, including one put forward by the Chinese in March, and another by the Vatican in May. While Mr. Putin has more recently expressed guarded openness toward an African initiative, he has blamed Ukraine for undermining the diplomatic track while the Kremlin has shown no sign of willingness to give back Ukrainian territory occupied by Russian forces.
Fyodor Lukyanov, editor-in-chief of Russia in Global Affairs magazine, told the Russian publication Izvestia this week he expected little practical impact from the Saudi gathering, but the symbolism could boost Kyiv’s leverage.
“If we are talking about political signals, they will of course be sent; that’s perfectly natural,” Mr. Lukyanov said. “Ukraine, as one of the main organizers of the summit, is trying to show that Russia allegedly lacks serious international support, especially from a number of countries outside of the Western bloc.”
The head of Ukraine’s presidential office, Andriy Yermak, said in a statement this week that “the Ukrainian Peace Formula contains 10 fundamental points” and “should be taken as a basis, because the war is taking place on our land.”
Ukrainian officials have previously described their plan as including the restoration of Ukraine’s territorial integrity, the withdrawal of Russian troops, the release of all prisoners, a tribunal for those responsible for the aggression and security guarantees for Ukraine — effectively a complete repudiation of Russia’s stated war goals.
The Biden administration, which is sending National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan to the Saudi Arabia summit, has openly favored gradually increasing U.S. and NATO military aid for Ukraine over the prospect of pushing for a cease-fire or peace negotiations. U.S. officials have repeatedly said they would only support a final peace deal that was acceptable to the Zelenskyy government.
State Department Spokesman Matthew Miller suggested the Jeddah gathering will be about convincing as wide a slate of nations as possible to align against Russia’s ongoing invasion.
“It’s important that countries around the world hear directly from Ukraine about the horrors that have been unleashed on their country — about the attacks on civilians, about the attacks on schools, on hospitals, on apartment buildings and civilian infrastructure — that they hear about just how Russia has violated their territorial integrity, violated their sovereignty,” Mr. Miller told reporters.
He added: “If at some point Russia is willing to engage in meaningful diplomacy, I will not speak on behalf of…the president of Ukraine, but he has made clear in the past that he’d be willing to engage with them on such matters.”
While some in the American national security community say the U.S. administration lacks a clear strategy for the war’s endgame, many U.S. analysts credit President Biden for successfully rallying international support to counter Russia’s military aggression.
“Biden has done a good job on supporting Ukraine,” according to Bradley Bowman, senior director of the Center on Military and Political Power at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies think tank, who says the White House should continue to hold the line.
“I would encourage the administration and others to avoid applying pressure to Ukraine to make any concessions when Ukraine is experiencing the equivalent of a home invasion,” Mr. Bowman said in an interview. “When your neighbor is [being invaded] by a thug, you don’t say to your neighbor, ‘You really should make some concessions.’ No, you pass a baseball bat to your neighbor to try to help them beat back the invader because if you don’t, your home might be next.”
With regard to the Jeddah summit, Mr. Bowman acknowledged that it could be easy to take a cynical view, given that Russia will not be attending and there are questions with regard to the extent to which China will be participating.
“But if one studies diplomatic history, there are lots of meetings to facilitate meetings,” he said. “And in the end, this summit might be that. … The main benefit might be setting conditions for something that might follow later and might be more productive.”
Mr. Jensen was more circumspect.
“At this point, you have three peace plans. The Chinese one that went nowhere, the Vatican one that went nowhere and now this, which I expect to go nowhere,” Mr. Jensen said.
“What are we going to negotiate about?” he asked, asserting that what’s really at play is “an international diplomatic contest and battle for hearts and minds about staying behind Ukraine and not acquiescing to Russian terms.”
“The Russians don’t see negotiations as an end,” he said. “They see them as a tool for advancing their geopolitical interest and that’s where you have to be very careful.”
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