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Ukraine seeks progress towards peace at Saudi Arabia talks

BusinessUkraine seeks progress towards peace at Saudi Arabia talks

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The Ukrainian flag floats in the air from the tower of the City Hall. 33rd anniversary of raising the Ukrainian flag in Lviv, western Ukraine, on April 3rd, 2023. 

Adrien Fillon | Getty Images

Senior officials from some 40 countries including the U.S., China and India held talks in Saudi Arabia on Saturday that Kyiv and its allies hope will lead to agreement on key principles for a peaceful end to Russia’s war in Ukraine.

The two-day meeting is part of a diplomatic push by Ukraine to build support beyond its core Western backers by reaching out to Global South countries that have been reluctant to take sides in a conflict that has hit the global economy.

President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, who hopes to agree principles for a summit of global leaders that he is seeking on the issue in the autumn, said it would be important to hold bilateral talks on the sidelines of the Jeddah meeting.

Speaking on Saturday, he acknowledged there were differences among the countries attending, but said the rules-based international order must be restored.

“Different continents, different political approaches to world affairs. But all are united by the priority of international law,” he said.

Russia is not attending, though the Kremlin has said it will keep an eye on the talks. Ukrainian, Russian and international officials say there is no prospect of direct peace talks between Ukraine and Russia at present, with the war raging.

A European Union official said there would be no joint statement after the meeting, but that the Saudis would present a plan for further talks, with working groups to discuss issues such as global food security, nuclear safety and prisoner releases.

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The official described the talks as positive, and said there was “agreement that respect of territorial integrity and (the) sovereignty of Ukraine needs to be at the heart of any peace settlement”.

The world’s top oil exporter Saudi Arabia, which has maintained contacts with both sides since Russia invaded Ukraine last February, has played a role in convening countries that did not join earlier meetings, Western diplomats have said.

China, which did not attend a previous round of talks in Copenhagen, is sending Special Envoy for Eurasian Affairs Li Hui, Beijing said on Saturday. China has kept close economic and diplomatic ties with Russia since the conflict began and has rejected calls to condemn Moscow.

“We have many disagreements and we have heard different positions, but it is important that our principles are shared,” he said.

Indian National Security Adviser Shri Ajit Doval has also arrived in Jeddah for the talks, the Indian embassy in Riyadh said on social media on Saturday. Like China, India has kept close ties with Russia and refused to condemn it for the war. It has ramped up imports of Russian oil.

Of the other countries in the BRICS group with Russia, China and India, South Africa has sent President Cyril Ramaphosa’s security adviser Sydney Mufamadi, and Brazil’s top foreign policy adviser, Celso Amorim, will join by videolink.

Saudi diplomacy

Western officials and analysts said Saudi diplomacy had been important in securing China’s presence at the talks.

Under de facto ruler Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, known as MbS, the kingdom has sought a bigger role on the world stage and has pushed to expand ties with major powers outside the old framework of its relationship with the U.S.

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Riyadh has worked with Moscow in recent years on oil market policy and, along with Turkey, it helped mediate a prisoner swap between Ukraine and Russia last year. Zelenskyy attended an Arab League summit in Saudi Arabia last year where MbS voiced readiness to help mediate in the war.

Saudi Arabia has also built a closer relationship with China over the past year, giving an effusive welcome to Chinese President Xi Jinping when he visited Riyadh in December, and seeking to join the China-led Shanghai Cooperation Organization.

In March, Beijing brokered a resumption of ties between Saudi Arabia and its arch regional foe Iran.

Kristian Coates Ulrichsen, Middle East fellow at Rice University’s Baker Institute, said China’s attendance sent a signal of support for Saudi Arabian diplomacy that built on other areas of recent Chinese-Saudi cooperation.

“Chinese participation in the talks is a boost to the Saudi narrative that their convening power and ability to leverage relationships is qualitatively different to Western parties,” he said.

However, China’s presence does not indicate it will ultimately agree to the results sought by Ukraine and its allies, said Yun Sun, director of the China program at the Stimson Center in Washington.

“Participating in a meeting only suggests the willingness to listen and discuss. It by no means suggests that China has to agree to anything in the end,” Sun said.

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