A strange idea of neutrality
It is well known that “third party status” of the mediator with respect to the parties, the dispute and the interests at stake represents a preliminary condition for a qualified conduct of mediation. Moreover, the need for the mediator to be effectively “third” in relation to the dispute nevertheless allows concepts of independence and impartiality to be interpreted with a certain flexibility.
During the current Russian-Ukrainian conflict, however, comes to the fore — with a certain brutal objectivity — a rather different conception of neutrality.
Given that the intervention of a third party is necessary, it is precisely on the methods of selecting a credible figure of mediator that obvious anomalies manifest themselves. The race for the role of mediator between Ukrainians and Russians is filled with candidates almost as much as in a U.S primary election.
Both the US and the EU immediately called themselves out for an evident condition of co-belligerence in the conflict. But there are other subjects who are proposing themselves as mediators, on the basis of alleged conditions of impartiality: France, Germany, Israel, Turkey. However, it seems that the most requested characteristic is to represent an autocracy like China or a middle ground between dictatorship and democracy, like Turkey. It is almost as if the potential mediator should resemble the Russian side as much as possible.
Turkey is anything but an indifferent and unrelated actor to the story. Turkey and Russia are anything but friends. Ankara proposes itself as a mediator but has a clear interest to defend its own supremacy over the Black Sea and, as a country with great interests, to stop hostilities; otherwise, the Russians might eat everything.
Israel has tried to accredit itself as a potential mediator, boasting objective and potentially equidistant affinities between the contending parties (Ukrainian President Zelensky is Jewish, many Israeli citizens are of Ukrainian and Russian origin, and Israel boasts a prevalent component of Russian-speaking population).
And then China. As a potential mediator, he laboriously tries to build an equidistance between the parties, not without a certain amount of ambiguity, trying to dismantle accusations and recriminations made by some players involved in the dispute.
Is there room for mediation? Can China play a role? How should the West position itself? In order to look at a negotiation you must also work on an interpretation. If you do not replace the idea of war with the prospect of a good compromise between states, it is difficult for a negotiation to commence, much less succeed.
The benefits of wearing the peacemaker’s clothes would seem huge for China but Xi must protect Putin because a failure of the autocrat would have negative consequences for the political fate of every autocrat. He would have a lot to lose but also a lot to gain.
Of course, he appears authoritative and can boast many instruments of persuasion towards Russia. Criticized for perhaps not having the agility of the mediator, China may want to be involved on an equal footing with the West. China and Russia are strategic partners and have come very close. Beijing can leverage Putin’s Russia more than the West
It is very important that China succeeds in having a role, but a positive mediation would be an extraordinary achievement for Xi who would affirm his global political power, not only economic. An important success in terms of soft power in the case of a successful management of a difficult situation out of control with potential negative effects also for Europe.
Despite having shown principled solidarity with Russia, China has enormous interests in re-establishing peaceful conditions of the world order on terms beneficial to itself. It is in a very uncomfortable position as the war has interrupted development plans for the Silk Road initiative.
Of course, a true mediator who has a chance of success must not be too strong; indeed, she should not be threatening to any of the parties, in some way not merely “neutral” but almost “neutralized.” Someone to whom one is able to say no. If the mediator is too strong, the parties find it difficult to say no. In this sense better Israeli or Turkish attempts even if they may not like it.
Because they are middle powers and since both sides will have to make concessions, it will take a sufficiently weak mediator, but up to the task.
To complete the picture, it is interesting that the U.S. is looking for an interlocution with China, a sort of recognition of its role, because everyone has understood that the only stakeholder (bearer of interests) that has a capacity to influence Moscow is Beijing.
With a certainly rather optimistic approach, and without looking only at the short term, Chinese neutrality could also evolve over time, with a sort of “dynamic interposition” in the role of mediator. Deng Xiaoping often liked to quote Lord Palmerston: “We have no eternal allies and we have no perpetual enemies. Our interests are eternal and perpetual“.
Of course, the feeling is that to settle a difficult conflict, and perhaps to save the fate of the whole world, the raison d’état and the priorities of real-politik fatally prevail and the prospect of using effective negotiating tools brings with it a very strange idea of neutrality of the mediator.
Rather than boasting particular conditions of “neutrality” at the negotiating table, the most accredited candidates for the role of mediator — with obvious interests at stake — try to spend their own skills of pressure and conditioning on the parties.