Ukraine’s Mediation Wars: The West vs. the Global South

Ukraine’s Mediation Wars: The West vs. the Global South

Mediation efforts by both the West and countries from the global South to bring an end to the war have yet to make meaningful progress.

As the war between Russia and Ukraine shows no signs of abating, the conflict is taking on new dimensions in scope and intensity. The war has spread far beyond the frontlines in eastern Ukraine. Ukrainian drones attack Russian energy infrastructure as far away as Tatarstan, while the Czech Republic’s transport minister warns of Russian efforts to hack into the European railway system. Another emerging element of the conflict is its potential mediation, which could be an important harbinger of not only the evolution and outcome of the war but also the international system as a whole.

Mediation efforts to end the war in Ukraine have been underway for as long as the conflict itself. Well before Russia launched its full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, a low-intensity conflict had been rumbling along since 2014, when Moscow annexed Crimea and supported a separatist movement in eastern Ukraine following the Euromaidan revolution in Kyiv.

The early conflict period also prompted mediation efforts by external players in various formats. One was the Trilateral Contact Group, which involved Ukraine, Russia, and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) as a mediator. Another was the Normandy Format, which involved France and Germany as mediators between Russia and Ukraine. These efforts occurred simultaneously—with the Trilateral Contact Group focusing on tactical issues while the Normandy Format focused on broader strategic issues—and led to the first agreement to end the war in Sep 2014. This agreement, known as the Minsk Protocol, focused on ending fighting in eastern Ukraine en route to a durable ceasefire.

However, the Minsk Protocol quickly fell apart, and the ceasefire it produced was short-lived. This was due to fundamental disagreements between the parties, including interpretations over the legality of the Euromaidan events. At that time, Moscow was participating in the conflict in eastern Ukraine in an informal capacity and positioning the separatist governments in Donetsk and Luhansk as legitimate actors with whom Ukraine should negotiate directly. Kyiv and the West, on the other hand, did not want to legitimize such actors, as all of these factors led to a breakdown in the Minsk Protocols. Subsequent efforts at re-establishing a ceasefire agreement—known as Minsk II the following year in 2015—similarly broke down.

Fast forward nearly a decade, and the same broad challenges to peace between Russia and Ukraine still exist. Only now has the war grown in scale, and its ripple effects have become global in nature. The war has intensified the standoff between Moscow and the West and led to a rewiring of the global economy and the international system. The West has increased sanctions against Russia, and Europe has dramatically decreased its imports of Russian oil and natural gas. At the same time, Moscow has expanded energy and economic ties with non-Western states like China, India, and the Gulf countries. These shifts have also been reflected diplomatically, with Ukraine’s Western integration efforts accelerating and Russia promoting alternative blocs in the Global South, such as the BRICS+ and the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), to challenge the West.

Such shifts manifest themselves in various actors’ approaches to mediation efforts over the Ukraine conflict. Given the intensity of the war, direct talks between Russia and Ukraine have obviously broken down. Instead, Ukrainian President Zelenskiy developed a peace formula” that has at its heart the removal of all Russian troops from its territory and the “restoration of its territorial integrity.” The United States and EU have supported this plan while taking punitive measures such as increasing economic restrictions against Russia and developing plans for the use of frozen Russian assets to fund Ukraine.

For its part, Russia has rebuffed the West as a mediator in the conflict, claiming that NATO’s military support for Ukraine in the war and the West’s additional punitive measures undermine any attempt by the EU or United States to mediate an end to the conflict. Russian officials have categorically dismissed Ukraine’s peace plan, stating that the “formula does not involve compromises or alternatives.” Instead, Russia has favored and promoted non-Western states as mediators, particularly countries it has become closer to amid its rift with the United States and EU.

Take, for example, China, which presented its own twelve-point peace proposal in February 2023, one year after Russia’s full-scale invasion. This plan includes the establishment of a ceasefire and “respect for sovereignty.” Still, it also calls for a stop to unilateral sanctions and has no mention of Russia returning the territory it seized from Ukraine, making the plan a non-starter for Kyiv. While Russia initially gave the proposal a lukewarm reception, Kremlin officials now state that this place is currently the “most reasonable.”

In the meantime, other states in the Global South have floated their own peace proposals related to the conflict. In June 2023, a team of seven African leaders visited Russia and Ukraine to promote a plan that included a mutual recognition of sovereignty and the continuation of grain exports from the two countries (which many African countries are highly reliant upon). While Putin and Zelenskiy each enthusiastically received this delegation, the plan was relatively vague and did not lead to any major diplomatic movement between Russia and Ukraine. Another plan led by Brazil was also floated, though it too was light on specifics.

Thus, the mediation efforts by both the West and countries from the Global South to end the war have yet to make meaningful progress. That is largely because the same fundamental issues that made mediation efforts unsuccessful throughout the previous decade continue to loom large. Only now, public attitudes within Ukraine have further hardened to compromise due to the intensification of the military component of Russia’s war in the country.

However, the evolution of the scope and diversity of mediation efforts themselves are highly instructive. Countries from the Global South are now much more active in diplomacy and mediation in the Ukraine conflict than just five to ten years ago. And while peace has remained elusive, there have been some limited successes of diplomatic conciliation, such as prisoner swaps between Russia and Ukraine that were negotiated by Saudi Arabia, UAE, and Qatar, while Turkey managed to mediate a grain deal along with the UN between the two countries that lasted for nearly a year before collapsing.

Unlike the West, each of these mediating states from the Global South had working relations with both Ukraine and Russia, facilitating their diplomatic activity. Now, Kyiv has launched its own efforts to reach out to the Global South to counter Moscow’s growing ties with these countries, including crucial swing states like India and Saudi Arabia, even as it continues to court traditional allies from the West.

Regardless of what happens in these diplomatic mediation efforts, there are realities that Russia, Ukraine, and the West must consider. For Russia, the reality is that Ukraine will not easily come into its fold and that it will continue to resist Russian efforts to seize its territory. For Ukraine and the West, the reality is that Putin is not likely to go anywhere anytime soon. Russia is preparing for the inauguration of Putin’s fifth term, and Russia’s long-time leader has only further consolidated his power domestically since the start of the war. Putin has positioned himself as the last defender of traditional values and Christian morality, appealing to a significant portion of Russia’s population and resonates strongly with the Far-Right in Europe. No matter when or how the conflict in Ukraine ends, Kyiv and the West will likely still have to deal with Putin.

Yet, how the war in Ukraine will end—as all wars inevitably do—is likely to leave a large imprint not only on the West but also on the Global South. In this way, the mediation and diplomatic efforts of these states and the efforts by Russia and Ukraine to shape them could reveal much about the evolution of the global system in the near future.

Eugene Chausovsky is the Senior Director for Analytical Development and Training at the New Lines Institute. Follow him on X: @eugenechausovsk.

Image: Gints Ivuskans /