Zelensky has also repeated earlier calls for mediation towards a cease-fire. The problem is “who” and “why”. The total lack of trust between Ukrainians and Russians, which is there to last, requires the participation of a third party. European or American representatives are too involved to be accepted by Russians, even if one cannot discard the intervention of a personality emerging from backstage. Obvious intermediaries such as the OSCE or the UN have their own rules of engagement, which are unfit to act quickly, in an armed conflict zone. There have been no shortages of other candidates to mediate, especially when everyone believed that the fighting will end after a week maximum.
A month later, the situation is more fluid. The sanctions have been enlarged for political reasons, without properly encompassing their economic and financial consequences. Biden and European leaders have asked for other countries to join and threatening them with retorsions in case they should help Russia to soften the consequences of those sanctions. Time passing, many leaders have been more aware of the risks of making the wrong choice, in terms of international discredit but, more importantly, unsure of reactions back home. On the other ways, there are laurels to be collected in case of a successful mediation and grass to be cut under the feet of regional or trade rivals.
Russia can only dream of splitting the transatlantic links, and weakening the European members’ solidarity. At least for a while, as EU countries are still not much affected by their sanctions or Russian counter-sanctions. But, the same way that Putin did overstate the impact of Slavic brotherhood in a country his armed forces were invading, EU might overstate the resilience of its own population emerging from 2 years of life in the shadows of COVID’s crisis.
Since 24 February, the Kremlin has multiplied official meetings, including at presidential levels, with non-Western leaders. The list includes potential mediators who are palatable for the West and for Ukraine, such as Israel or Turkey. Russian targets countries with which they have cultivated good relations, at official and informal levels, for 20 years, and that can side with Russia. For Moscow, it is enough that they abstain during votes or resist Russia’s exclusion from global institutions. It understands the vulnerability of some countries to Western pressures, or that some, such as China or Saudi Arabia, have their own geopolitical objectives. Russians look more for neutrality than open support.
Moscow’s other attention is about trade, financial services, energy and natural resources. Its contingencies plans are an enlargement of previous measures adopted in 2014, in response to previous sanction. Knowing that the new ones are there to stay, the Kremlin has been strengthening links with its OPEC+ partners, who want to keep energy prices at sustainable level to protect the global economy, but are reluctant to increase their production to cut the prices just because the West wants to isolate Russian companies. The American efforts to find alternative energy supplies to cut the Europeans’ dependency are not exempt of contradictions. Qatar gas is hardly more democratic gas than the Russian one. Venezuela and Iran are considered potential partners despite being themselves under American sanctions. Saudi Arabia is courted by those who yesterday shunned them to protest against the repressive regime, the murder of the journalist Kashoggi, and recent execution of 81 prisoners.
President Biden has indirectly contributed to the Russian narrative. This time, in the plane flying him to Poland after the 3 Brussels’ summits, he has threatened companies tempted to help Russia to circumvent sanctions. They will, he said, expose themselves to “secondary sanctions”. As he had just managed to coax EU and G7 members to join the harshest sanctions against Russian companies and individuals, the threats can only concern non-Western countries, where the image of the West is much tarnished. They are tired of being treated as proxies for Western economic or geopolitical games; they perceive conditionalities as post-colonial paternalism; they do not need Kremlin-sponsored propaganda to believe a narrative about Western attempts to change regimes. Washington’s attempts to divide the world into “goods” (pro-Western) and “bads” (pro-Russian or pro-Chinese) and oblige countries to take side, helps Russians to consolidate their narrative through the world.
In many aspects, Moscow is building its own “coalitions of the willing”, and without surprise has put the accent on the BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China, South Africa, and lately Mexico). This organisation has members on all the continents, it has been structured, notably after the crisis of 2008, that hit the world after a financial scandal in the US. Their agendas include discussions on global security, climate and economic changes. It has created a bank and adopted exchanges mechanisms that might be importantly for Russia to face the sanctions and for BRICS members to defeat “secondary” sanctions.
Those countries might have divergent interests, even some hostility in the case of India and China, but they reject a so-called “fake” multilateralism, under Washington’s leadership. Americans and Europeans are also associated with military dictatorships in Latin America, apartheid in South Africa, the spread of “Arab springs” which bruised former regimes without delivering the democratisation and jobs the population was expecting. They do not need Russian propaganda to remember their past. Their leaders have refused to condemn the Kremlin, just expressing solidary and sorrow for the victims, or calling for peace initiatives. Among them, China is a case in itself, because of its size, economic might and increasing geopolitical weight.
As such, Beijing is courted by both Russia and the West, and growingly offended by the threats of president Biden, and lately NATO. In the BRICS countries, China is often surpassing Russia in the information front, thanks to a larger media net, which are encouraging anti-Western feelings, rejecting calls to join the sanctions and to break cooperation with Russians on the sanctions list. For instance, in Latin America, Spanish- and Portuguese-language services of Chinese official outlets have put the responsibility for the war in Ukraine on the United States “the empire of lies”, which is “deceiving the world” with fabricated information about a war that they have instigated.