Ukraine’s ‘Counteroffensive’ in the Global South

The low-profile and high-impact meeting in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, on August 5 and 6 was never intended to produce a road map for ending the war in Ukraine; neither was it a summit, since the invitations sent to some 40 countries specified the level of representation as national security advisers.

Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman meets Volodymyr Zelenskyy in Jeddah at a previous occasion in May. Photo: Saudi Foreign Ministry / Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

It can, nevertheless, be called a peace conference, following up on the meeting in Copenhagen, Denmark, on June 24, and preparing the ground for a wider peace summit proposed by Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy.

A unique format

What makes the format of the Ukraine-initiated meeting, for which Saudi Arabia agreed to provide a venue, unique is that it brought together members of the US-led Western coalition and key states of the Global South, which generally prefer to keep a safe distance from the war (Nezavisimaya gazeta, August 3).

The main purpose was to grant Ukraine an opportunity to impress upon the countries that are worried about the costs and risks of maintaining their traditional ties with Russia — such as India, Brazil or South Africa — that the only road to peace leads through a full withdrawal of Russian forces from all Ukrainian territories (Kommersant, August 3).

With or without Russia

The Kremlin noted sourly that it would monitor the proceedings, and mainstream commentators confidently predicted the meeting would end in failure (Izvestiya, August 3). The main argument was that it made no sense to discuss ways and means of ending the war in Ukraine without Russia, which has allegedly consolidated its influence in the Global South (Rossiiskaya gazeta, August 3).

The argument might appear sound, but it omits the increasingly obvious fact that it makes even less sense to discuss peace initiatives with Russia, as Moscow’s formal annexation of five Ukrainian regions (Crimea being the first) leaves no space for even minimal compromises (The Moscow Times, July 31). The Ukrainian leadership can only indicate its readiness to negotiate peace arrangements with a post-Putin regime in Moscow, assuming that the commitment to prolonging the Kremlin’s aggression would expire with the departure of the autocrat obsessed with asserting Russia’s “greatness” through territorial expansion (, July 31).

Blocking Russian intrigues

The meeting in Jeddah signified a key success in Ukrainian policy aimed at blocking and rolling back Moscow’s intrigues in the Global South, which reached a new high at the Russia-Africa Summit on July 27 and 28 (, August 2). President Vladimir Putin made an extraordinary personal effort at courting the 17 leaders who opted to come to St. Petersburg, but the lavish entertainment was a poor compensation for the plain refusal to revive the “grain deal,” canceled a week prior to the pompous event (Meduza, July 28; see EDM, July 31).

The African leaders were keen to combine their peace initiative with a compromise that would allow the resumption of wheat and corn exports from Ukraine by sea; however, the extra-short joint statement that the Kremlin finally released a week after the meeting made clear that their efforts were wasted (, August 4). Another worrisome development for many African countries is Putin’s warm embrace of the leaders of the military coups in Mali and Burkina Faso, which indicates that the Wagner Group could expand its activities in the trouble-rich Sahel region, perhaps even toward Niger (Svoboda, August 1).

Moscow pundits were certain that China would abstain from partaking in the Jeddah meeting, much the same way it had skipped the meeting in Copenhagen; thus, Moscow’s disappointment was all the more palpable when Beijing announced on August 4 that Special Representative for Eurasian Affairs Li Hui would attend the discussions in person (RBC, August 5; RIA Novosti, August 5). It was perhaps a bit of an over-statement calling Li Hui’s participation a “super-breakthrough,” as Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba did, because no deviation from Beijing’s Chinese “peace formula” could be expected (Interfax-Ukraine, August 4).

Yet, even this carefully worded position paper contains the point on Ukraine’s territorial integrity. As such, it is possible for Ukrainian diplomats to elaborate on it and build a broad consensus in the Global South for the restoration of Ukraine’s internationally recognized borders through the full withdrawal of Russian troops (, August 5). In Chinese foreign policy, a distinct new emphasis is being placed on facilitating stability in global markets driven by the need to overcome the country’s worrisome economic slowdown, and the escalation of tensions in the Black Sea following Moscow’s cancellation of the “grain deal” does not fit this approach (, August 4; The Bell, August 5).

Russian oil exports

Ukrainian threats to Russian oil exports from Novorossiysk add a new urgency to the question of Moscow’s falling petro-revenues, which pertains to the delicate issue of Moscow’s relations with the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries cartel, particularly with Saudi Arabia (Izvestiya, August 4). The unpleasant surprise of Saudi involvement in organizing the Ukraine-friendly meeting in Jeddah has produced a stream of speculations about the true intentions of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (, August 4).

Moscow is perfectly aware that a few countries, Saudi Arabia being one, as well as India and Turkey, are able to benefit from the market distortions caused by the war, which does not make them sympathetic toward Russia’s stance, as Putin’s uneasy dialogue with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan seemingly confirms (Nezavisimaya gazeta, August 2). What gradually transpires is that the extra profits these states extract come at the expense of the Russian economy, which is profoundly affected by Western sanctions and is now experiencing the negative impacts from accumulated stress in the financial system, including the declining value of the ruble and rising inflation (The Moscow Times, August 3).

A diplomatic counteroffensive

No amount of anti-colonial, Western-bashing rhetoric emanating from Moscow can make Russia an attractive and reliable partner for key states of the Global South; however, Ukraine cannot count on gaining their support by commanding the moral high ground. It is rather too obvious for Brazil, India and South Africa, who will come together in two weeks at the BRICS summit in Johannesburg (where Putin will be present only virtually), that the massive economic support the West provides Ukraine means less funds for humanitarian aid to the poorest counties.

Thus, Ukraine needs to convince these countries that it is able to cut the long war short, and its diplomatic “counteroffensive” can succeed only if its brigades achieve greater success on the battlefield. Ukrainian resolve and Western unity make Russia’s defeat nearly inevitable, and the meeting in Jeddah has conveyed to the states of the Global South that every contribution they are able to make in accelerating this outcome answers their collective interests.

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