Editor’s Note: Galip Dalay is associate fellow, Middle East and North Africa Programme, Chatham House. He specializes in Turkish politics and Middle Eastern affairs. The views expressed in this commentary are his own. Read more opinion on CNN.
As Russian and Ukrainian delegations arrive Tuesday in Istanbul for peace talks, Turkey’s unique political position is under the spotlight. Could the nation that straddles Europe and the Middle East emerge as peacemaker?
As the war grinds on, a growing list of countries are exploring the possibility of mediating, stepping in to avert further bloodshed and the conflict spreading beyond Ukraine’s borders.
Earlier this month, Turkey hosted Ukrainian and Russian foreign ministers for a trilateral meeting in its southern city of Antalya. Afterward, the Turkish foreign minister visited both Moscow and Kyiv. Likewise, Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett visited Moscow for the same purpose. And China has signaled readiness for mediation. Potentially other countries, such as the United Arab Emirates, India or South Africa, might get in line to broker some kind of resolution.
Almost all countries that have vied for the mediation role have also engaged in a strategic balancing act between the West and Russia for some time. Serving an intermediary role is a way for them to prevent further catastrophe in the conflict, and project international stature. But it is also a way for them to avoid making difficult choices the war might force upon them, such as choosing or tilting toward one side more clearly.
But the list of fence-sitters in the Russia-Ukraine conflict is not confined to mediators. Many more countries have chosen to remain “neutral,” including Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan and Morocco. The rationale for abstaining differs between countries, but some reasons cut across.
The international system is changing. And the idea that the world is no longer Western-centric, and increasingly multipolar, is widespread in the non-Western world. It informs their policies toward Russia, and toward China as well.
As long as the dominant narrative of this war is put in a West/NATO versus Russia dichotomy, it will have little resonance in the non-Western world. Plus, the fence-sitting approach is also a way of signaling discontent with the US/Western policy.
It was illustrative that the rulers of the UAE and Saudi Arabia, who depend on the US for their security, refrained from taking calls from President Joe Biden earlier this month. This snub was meant to convey their displeasure with the United States for Washington’s insufficient support for their botched Yemen campaign.
From food and energy supplies to geopolitical vulnerabilities, many other factors also define their approach. For instance, in spite of its close military ties with the US, Egypt depends heavily on Moscow in terms of its food security. It also closely cooperates with Russia in Libya, with both supporting the warlord Khalifa Haftar. (Kyiv accuses Haftar of sending mercenaries to aid Russia in Ukraine.)
Likewise India, in spite of needing the West as a countervailing force against China, has long maintained close ties with Moscow; has purchased the Russian-made S-400 missile systems; and has pursued a policy of balancing between Russia and the West.