2 March 2022

The prospects for any serious role for diplomacy in the Ukraine crisis at the moment seem negligible.
For Russia’s neo-fascist, psychopathic and utterly deluded leader is evidently determined to use any means necessary (including medieval siege warfare against cities) to achieve a military ‘victory’, irrespective of its economic costs, the war crimes charges against him already being drawn up, and what his military advisers might be trying to tell him. Estimates vary wildly of the number of troops required by the Warsaw Pact to suppress the Prague Spring in 1968 but half a million seems now to be widely believed, and the Russians have nothing like that number in Ukraine, also the second largest country in Europe after Russia itself. Occupying a state of this size – now an ocean of anti-Russian hatred and germinating a well-funded, well-organised, and well-armed partisan resistance – must be giving the Kremlin’s generals nightmares. So what role, if any, for diplomacy?

Talks between Russian and Ukrainian delegations at the Belarus border started a few days ago but they are probably little more than a charade. At the time of writing they appear already to have stalled, for while the Russians have piously announced their readiness to proceed to a second round, the Ukrainians have not yet this time shown up. Each side will no doubt see them chiefly as an opportunity to take the measure of the other while seeking to demonstrate to the world that they are exploring a peaceful solution. But these motives are certainly stronger for the Russians because their anxiety even for a ceasefire is hardly convincing, to put it mildly, and because they are obviously anxious to keep major states such as China and India sitting on the fence in the UN’s main organs.

There is no role for embassies on the spot either, for the Russians started the full evacuation of all of their missions in Ukraine on 23 February and staff at the Ukraine embassy in Moscow began to leave for Latvia three days later. (Since Russia does not recognise Ukraine as a state, I suppose it would be idle to pursue the question of whether Ukrainian diplomats bothered to invite any other embassy in Moscow to serve as a protecting power for its premises during their absence.) Meanwhile, reminiscent of the withdrawal of embassies from Paris to Tours during the Prussian siege of the French capital in 1870–1 and from Petrograd to Vologda in 1918 following the Bolshevik Revolution, most embassies in Kyiv moved to the safer location of Lviv in the west of Ukraine close to the Polish border. Since then the Dutch have re-located again, to a spot just inside Poland (thereby I assume becoming in effect a consular outpost of their Warsaw mission), and the Norwegian embassy’s staff have gone straight to Warsaw. It is probably just a matter of days before the rest of the embassies take one or other of these options.

That leaves the possibility of mediation, which is where my hopes rest at the moment. As usual in a serious international crisis, numerous potential mediators have offered their services in this one. Most promising is China, followed by Turkey. Among no doubt many others (Update 6 March: now including Israel and Saudi Arabia), Pope Francis appears to have been given short shrift by the godly Mr Putin, despite his extraordinary personal visit to the Russian Embassy to the Vatican on 25 February. As for the alleged offer to mediate by Roman Abramovitch, the oligarch who owns Chelsea FC and has said nothing publicly to alter the belief that he remains closely connected to Mr Putin, I think that this can be safely forgotten (declaration of interest: I am an Arsenal fan). China has normal relations with Russia and abstained in the anti-Russian vote in the Security Council the other day. It also has no interest in any escalation of the war. It has the muscle. I hope, too, that it shares the cogent view of the early eighteenth century French diplomat, François de Callières, that ‘It is … the interest of a great Prince to employ ministers to offer his mediation in quarrels that arise between Sovereigns, and to procure peace to them by the authority of his mediation. Nothing,’ he concluded, ‘is more proper to raise the reputation of his power, and to make it respected by all nations.’ A great increase in Beijing’s prestige would be a small price for the West to pay for the survival of Ukraine and the end of the threat of a wider war in Europe engineered by a successful Chinese mediation of this crisis.
Post script 5 March 2022: Turkey, a NATO member which has resisted joining economic sanctions against Russis, is making a strong bid.