Setting the Negotiating Table: Kyiv’s View on the African Peace Initiative

No easy task: Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba warns that 'many tried and very few succeeded' at mediation. Image: Ukraine President's Office / Alamy

The latest attempt to broker a peace in the Ukraine conflict sees African leaders headed to Kyiv and Moscow for mediation efforts. RUSI Senior Associate Fellow Greg Mills spoke to Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba about Kyiv’s attitude towards peace negotiations.

Situated on Kyiv’s Mykhailivska Square, the neo-classical façade and columns of the Ukrainian Ministry of Foreign Affairs are offset somewhat by the collection of burnt and battered Russian materiel gathered in the square – a reminder both of the costs of complacency and of Ukrainian stoicism. The square is named for its close proximity to St Michael's Monastery, the seat of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church, whose walls have been plastered with pictures of Ukrainian casualties from the conflict.

Dmytro Kuleba, the youthful foreign minister, had returned the previous day from a trip to Africa, which criss-crossed the path of Sergei Lavrov – his Russian rival – who was making his way through multiple stops towards the BRICS summit in Cape Town.

The topic of our discussion was the forthcoming African peace mission, and the role of peace talks more generally in bringing the 15-month war with Russia to an end.

The Ukrainian government presented its 10-point peace formula in November at the G20 summit. Rejected almost immediately by Russia, this plan focuses on restoring safety around Europe's largest nuclear power plant, Zaporizhzhia, in Ukraine; ensuring food security, including the protection of Ukrainian exports; creating the conditions for energy security, including price restrictions on Russian resources as well as assistance in restoring Ukraine’s own power infrastructure, which has been damaged by Russian attacks; releasing prisoners of war and the estimated 20,000 Ukrainian children kidnapped and deported to Russia; restoring Ukraine’s territorial integrity; the withdrawal of Russian troops and cessation of hostilities, and the restoration of Ukraine's state borders with Russia; the establishment of a special tribunal to prosecute Russian war crimes; the prevention of ecocide and protection of the environment, with a focus on demining; preventing the escalation of conflict, including the creation of guarantees for Ukraine; and the need for a final peace agreement signed by all parties.

Since then, in February, China proposed a 12-point peace plan. Actually, this was less of a plan than a list of policy positions, since – as German Chancellor Olaf Schulz has noted – it does not call for the withdrawal of Russian forces from Ukraine.

The main similarity between the two plans is that they both want the war to end.

The main difference is that Ukraine wants Russia to pay for its invasion, while China is trying to avoid hurting its ally. China wants the war to end, given the cost to the global economy. It would, moreover, clearly benefit from inserting itself at the heart of European security. But a Russian defeat does not serve Chinese interests, particularly if it leads to President Vladimir Putin’s demise.

In fact, Beijing’s 12-point statement violates several core principles of effective mediation.

Suspicions have been raised about the African initiative's impartiality, particularly given South Africa’s convening role and its closeness with the Russians

For one, it privileges China’s interests in its argument for protecting the global economy.

It also empowers bad faith, by not calling for a Russian withdrawal; by describing the war as the ‘Ukraine’ rather than ‘Ukraine–Russia’ crisis; and by promoting a version of sovereignty which could conceivably lead to the annexed territories being ceded to Russia, an unacceptable concession for the Ukrainians to make even before they hit the negotiating table. The Chinese text also supports Russia’s claim that the invasion was prompted by Western expansionism and that Ukraine was developing weapons of mass destruction. There is no evidence of the latter; and Russia was the one doing the invading, while Ukraine has been fighting for its survival and the freedom to do as it chooses.

While the Chinese plan includes confidence-building measures around nuclear safety and prisoners of war, it does not strengthen tools for managing escalation, but rather calls for the removal of all unilateral sanctions – a critical restraining measure on Russia. And it seemingly ignores the fact that the Ukrainians had earlier published their own plan, meaning that China is ‘advocating for the abandonment of some key interests before ever reaching the proposed negotiating table’.

As such, this undermines trust in China’s good offices as a peace-broker, a failure that the forthcoming African peace mission would do well to heed.

A Fresh Initiative

South African President Cyril Ramaphosa is set to jet off in two weeks to Ukraine and Russia with an African presidential team including leaders from Comoros, Zambia, Uganda, Senegal and Egypt. There is no formal agenda for the African group, apparently, aside from being billed as a fact-finding trip. And suspicions have been raised about its impartiality, particularly given South Africa’s convening role and its closeness with the Russians.

Kuleba is crystal-clear in laying out the core conditions for Ukraine of any peace deal. ‘This is the war for freedom and the right to make our Ukrainian choices instead of accepting Russian choices imposed on us as if they were ours’, he says.

Even though he is ‘not aware of any specific initiative that they are coming with’, he welcomes the African mission to come to Ukraine ‘to talk and to see whether there is a space to do something and to come up with a specific proposal’. The foreign minister would like ‘to unite as many countries as we can’ around Ukraine’s own 10-point plan, thus representing a global consensus. ‘If anyone has ideas for an alternative peace proposal’, he says, this should respect two fundamental principles: it should not imply territorial concessions by Ukraine; and it should not lead to the ‘freezing’ of the conflict. ‘If this is the case, we are ready to sit down and talk on how to integrate your peace proposal with our peace proposal’, he says. ‘African nations would agree … that if the war takes place in your territory and if you were attacked, then you have the right to define the fundamental principles of the settlement. It shouldn’t be someone else who would impose these principles on you’.

‘I want [a South African audience] to understand what Russia does now towards Ukraine is exactly what the apartheid regime was doing against Namibia, Mozambique, Angola, Zimbabwe, trying to turn them into satellites by force’, Kuleba observes. ‘If your friendly attitude towards Russia is based on historical sentiments, this Russia is neither the Soviet Union nor the Russia that you used to know before last February. This is a different country’.

Also on the historical aspect, recalling that it was Ukraine – one of the original founding members of the UN – which chaired the UN sub-committee against apartheid, Kuleba claims that ‘Russia has privatised the legacy of the Soviet Union, but in real terms it was the legacy of all the republics comprising the Soviet Union’. And for those in Africa who favour Russia ‘not because of history but because of today, because of Russia’s policy … most likely they are either buying Russian propaganda, and it’s always bad when someone manipulates you, or maybe they are on the payroll, because we know how much Russia invests in making people broadcast their narratives. Whatever their reasons for favouring Russia are, this is a very bad idea’, he says. ‘And most importantly, Russia is going to lose. Strategically, Russia is already losing’, he adds. ‘From the policy perspective, it is always better to be on the side of the winner’.

While ‘every war ends at the [negotiating] table, our task is to bring Ukraine to the table in the strongest position possible', says Kuleba

On the credibility of Africans to negotiate a peace, including South Africa, ‘it is about what specifically you are doing to help end the war on just terms, not on any terms, but on just terms. And we understand that South Africa has a special relationship with Russia, and they cherish that relationship’, he says. ‘In the end it’s the choice of every country who they want to make friends with and to bear the consequences of that friendship. In the end, it’s the case for every country to decide, do they prefer respecting international law, or respecting their personal relations with leaders who violate international law, and who find themselves under investigation …’

The Wings of Peace

Any peace plan will fail if, like the Chinese variant, it prejudices the talks before they start. When the two sides finally get to the table, of course, that is where and when the horse-trading will begin. While it is folly to imagine that one side would make concessions at this stage, it is not inconceivable that both sides will have to ‘get’ something. For example, in exchange for leaving, Putin will need a face-saving concession, perhaps Ukraine not formally joining the EU or NATO for a set period – maybe as long as he is leader of Russia. Equally, the Ukrainians are going to need security guarantees, whatever the exact institutional arrangement.

Critically, says the foreign minister, ‘many tried and very few succeeded’ at mediation. ‘We learnt that if mediation is a sincere effort, then countries prefer to focus on resolving specific issues, like Turkey and the United Nations … [on] food security’. But there is ‘another type of mediation, which is mediation as an excuse, where you say I am not doing this and that, because I am going to mediate. Now, mediation is not about that’, he says. ‘Some try to mediate to solve problems, while others pretend they mediate to avoid solving problems. And it’s up to South Africa or any other country to make their choice’.

Kuleba realises that ‘you can win peace by winning on the battlefield on the one hand, and by enlarging a diplomatic coalition in favour of peace based on the idea of the restoration of Ukraine’s territorial integrity and sovereignty. These are the two wings of the dove of peace’. While ‘every war ends at the table, our task is to bring Ukraine to the table in the strongest position possible. No war ends when the peace document is signed, since every war is followed with sorting out the consequences of war’.

The ‘ultimate condition of everything’, he states, is the need for the Russians to leave Ukraine. ‘It is not us who invaded Russia,’ he recalls. ‘And we never had any plans to do so. It is Russia who invaded Ukraine … We will not tolerate any single Russian soldier on Ukrainian soil’, Kuleba says.

In this regard, he makes two points for African leaders based on his recent tours across Africa. First, ‘be on our side … while we are fighting the war’. And second, ‘here is what you and we can do together for the mutual benefit of our nations, and we can lay the foundations of this cooperation today … so that after the war ends we can already be benefitting from it’. This includes food security, the development of farming, the digitisation of public services, eradicating corruption, general trade, pharmaceuticals and cyber security.

‘Our problem is that, unfortunately – and I recognise that – since 1991 when Ukraine gained independence, we were absorbed by our internal issues and our return to the European political and legal space after spending 300 years as part of the Russian empire, and we were not paying … the level of attention to Africa that it deserves. So, most of the things that happened in our relations with Africa since 1991 were happening by inertia from Soviet times. And we lost a lot’.

Now, he says, ‘I work for the Ukrainian-African renaissance’.

Dr Mills has been in Ukraine for The Brenthurst Foundation.

The views expressed in this Commentary are the author’s, and do not represent those of RUSI or any other institution.

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Dr Greg Mills

Senior Associate Fellow and Advisory Board Member

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