Third-Party Mediation: Who Should Mediate between Russia and Ukraine?

Third-party mediation is often effective at helping disputants reach a mutually satisfactory agreement. But finding the right mediator for the job can be difficult, as the war in Ukraine shows.

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As Russia’s assault on Ukraine grows more brutal by the day and bilateral talks between the two nations fail to bear fruit, third-party mediation has been widely proposed as a means of negotiating peace. By creating a buffer between disputants, promoting constructive problem solving, and offering aggressors a face-saving exit, third-party mediation has a proven track record of de-escalating and resolving conflicts around the world.

But to engage in third-party mediation, parties must agree on a trusted, neutral third party as mediator. In the early weeks of the war, numerous candidates have been proposed, particularly Israel, the Vatican, and China. We explore the pros and cons of each potential mediator based on its perceived neutrality and willingness to engage in the crisis.

Israel

At the urging of the German government, Israeli prime minister Naftali Bennett began acting as a messenger between Russia and Ukraine soon after the invasion began. He traveled to Moscow to meet with Russian president Vladimir Putin on March 5 and has spoken numerous times with him and, separately, with Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky, according to the Washington Post.

Rather than engaging the parties in negotiation, Bennett, who has led Israel for less than a year, has primarily passed messages between the two sides, Israeli officials told the Post. These efforts have contributed to both Putin and Zelensky softening their negotiating stances, the officials suggested, with the Russian president becoming more open to accepting Ukrainian sovereignty and the Ukrainian president stating that his nation is unlikely to join NATO (North Atlantic Treaty Organization).

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Bennett is well-positioned to mediate the dispute because “Israel is one of the few countries that has good working relations with both Russia and Ukraine,” writes Tia Goldenberg of the Associated Press. Israel has provided humanitarian aid to Ukraine but not military assistance. Bennett has not condemned Putin publicly for the invasion or imposed sanctions on Russia.

But third-party mediation carries significant risks for Bennett. In Israel, he has been criticized for not being tougher on Russia. Moreover, Israel “cannot afford to anger” Putin in negotiations, writes Goldenberg, given that Israel counts on the Kremlin for security coordination in Syria and wants to influence Russia in its negotiations over Iran’s nuclear program. “Any wrong move and relations with Putin could sour,” according to Goldenberg.

The Vatican

On February 25, the day after Russia began its attack on Ukraine, Pope Francis visited the Russian embassy to the Vatican to “express his concern about the war,” in the Vatican’s words, according to the National Catholic Reporter. Rather than publicly condemning Russia for its unprovoked aggression, the Holy See (the universal government of the Catholic Church) called for a cease-fire and offered to mediate.

In its recent history, the Catholic Church has attempted to remain relatively neutral in international conflicts in order to lead third-party mediation more effectively behind the scenes. The Vatican’s diplomatic service has helped to mediate conflicts between factions in South Sudan, the United States and Cuba, and Argentina and Chile, according to Reuters.

But as civilian casualties mounted in Ukraine, Francis broke somewhat from tradition. During his Angelus prayer on March 5, he characterized the invasion as a “barbaric” and “unacceptable armed aggression,” a “massacre” carried out for “no valid strategic reason” that had unleashed “rivers of blood and tears”—though he continued to avoid condemning Russia by name.

Zelensky and Ukraine’s ambassador to the Vatican have said they would welcome a mediation by the Holy See. But the Vatican’s secretary of state, Italian Cardinal Pietro Parolin, said on March 13 that there had been “no signs” that Russia would as well, reports the online Catholic newsletter Crux. Due to Francis’s forceful tone and the strained history between the Russian Orthodox Church and the Catholic Church, it seems unlikely that Putin would approve the Holy See as a neutral broker of a third-party mediation process.

China

Due to its growing partnership with Russia, many observers view China as uniquely positioned to lead a third-party mediation between Ukraine and Russia. China has repeatedly offered to do so, according to the Post.

On February 4, 20 days before Russia invaded Ukraine, Chinese president Xi Jinping and Putin signed a joint cooperation agreement that attested to a “friendship between the two States [that] has no limits.” The two nations made new economic, trade, and other commitments.

If China’s aim was to “corner” the United States by allying with Russia, Putin’s attack on Ukraine put that goal on hold, writes Yale University professor Stephen S. Roach in Project Syndicate. China risks being economically isolated by its association with Russia, just as Russia has been by Western sanctions, writes Roach. Moreover, the conflict has tightened bonds between the European Union (EU) and the United States.

Clearly, China has motivations to persuade Putin to end the war on Ukraine and might do so by threatening to walk away from their strategic partnership, according to Roach. “Russia’s prospects are bleak, at best; without China, it has none at all,” he writes.

But China appears reluctant to lead a third-party mediation. Although Beijing has expressed support for Ukraine’s sovereignty, it has affirmed its partnership with Russia, avoided direct criticism of Moscow, and reiterated its long-standing commitment to staying out of other nations’ affairs.

China could be reluctant to jeopardize its relationship with Russia and risk standing alone against “a hostile Western bloc,” writes Bucknell University professor Zhiqun Zhu in The Hill. And with Xi facing appointment to a third term as General Secretary of the Chinese Party this fall, he may not want to risk a high-profile mediation failure.

Rather than expecting China to mediate a lasting peace agreement, EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell is leaning on China to try to broker a cease-fire with Russia and bring Moscow to the negotiating table, according to Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL).

Does Third-Party Mediation Stand a Chance?

In crisis negotiations, high-profile parties are often proposed as potential mediators. But as we’ve seen, lack of trust, fear of failure, and prospective mediators’ personal interests can make it difficult to get talks off the ground. Because they carry less baggage, neutral professional mediators unconnected to a conflict may be a better choice.

Sometimes a bigger problem looms: One party is simply unwilling to engage in third-party mediation. “Everybody who reaches out to Putin is welcome to do so,” an EU diplomat told RFL/RE. “So far, he has not shown nor expressed to anyone any readiness to enter into any negotiations [or] mediation.”

How have you gone about choosing mediators for third-party mediation?

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Build powerful negotiation skills and become a better dealmaker and leader. Download our FREE special report, Negotiation Skills: Negotiation Strategies and Negotiation Techniques to Help You Become a Better Negotiator, from the Program on Negotiation at Harvard Law School.


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