The Rise of Middle Powers: Turkey and Saudi Arabia Mediate Ukraine-Russia Prisoner Swap

Nearly 300 Prisoners of War Released in Historic Ukraine-Russia Swap

In late September of 2022, almost 300 prisoners of war – both Ukrainian and Russian – were facing death or indefinite detention. The situation looked bleak as Russian President Vladimir Putin announced the mobilization of 300,000 Russian conscripts for the Ukrainian front.

However, on that same day, both warring countries surprised the world with the announcement of a prisoner swap agreement. The agreement would release the detained fighters and political prisoners held by each side.

The suddenness and size of the swap, the largest since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February, brought immense relief to the families of the detainees.

Interestingly, the negotiations for the swap were overseen by two unlikely leaders: President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman of Saudi Arabia.

U.S. national security advisor Jake Sullivan expressed gratitude to the Turkish government for facilitating the prisoner exchange on Twitter. He also acknowledged Saudi Arabia for brokering the return of 10 foreign nationals, including two Americans, captured by Russia in Ukraine.

Additionally, Saudi Arabia plans to host a Ukraine peace summit in Jeddah, inviting various countries such as the U.S., European nations, China, India, and Brazil. Saudi Arabia and Turkey are also working on a deal to bring forcibly deported Ukrainian children back to their families.

The involvement of these “middle powers” in mediating large-scale conflicts highlights a shift towards a more multipolar world. It signifies that smaller states are not limited to aligning themselves with major powers like the U.S., Russia, or China.

A More Multipolar World

According to Hussein Ibish, a senior resident scholar at the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington, the rise of mid-level regional powers like Saudi Arabia and Turkey reflects the global shift towards multipolarity. These countries now play significant roles in shaping international realities.

Both Saudi Arabia and Turkey have strong relationships with Russia’s Putin while maintaining longstanding alliances with the West. Turkey is a NATO member, and Saudi Arabia has a long-standing security relationship with the United States.

By mediating conflicts, these countries aim to enhance their diplomatic stature and establish themselves as independent actors beyond their traditional alliances.

However, their independent positions have drawn criticism from the West. Saudi Arabia’s oil production policies and Turkey’s refusal to participate in sanctions against Russia have strained their relations with Western allies.

Nevertheless, maintaining independent positions allows both countries to strengthen their relationships with other global powers like China and neutral states in the Global South such as India and Brazil.

Both Turkey and Saudi Arabia have earned the respect of Ukraine through their support and aid. Turkey provides substantial weapons and assistance, while Saudi Arabia’s crown prince invited Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy to the Arab League summit to amplify his voice.

Ryan Bohl, a senior analyst at Rane, describes Erdogan and Mohammed bin Salman’s involvement as competitive mediation aimed at enhancing their countries’ diplomatic reputations and influence in the Russo-Ukrainian war.

What Can They Actually Accomplish?

While Turkey and Saudi Arabia can potentially help prevent further escalation in the Ukraine war, they are not the sole actors capable of buffering the conflict, as stated by Ayham Kamel, the Middle East and North Africa practice head at the Eurasia Group.

The upcoming Saudi-hosted peace summit is unlikely to bring immediate resolution to the war but can serve as a platform for constructive engagement among Western and developing countries in the Global South.

Many developing nations have refrained from taking sides or condemning the invasion due to trade or military relationships with Russia or historical distrust of the West. Some have even suggested territorial concessions by Ukraine to Russia, but Kyiv firmly rejects such proposals.

Although limited, any diplomatic progress and communication are crucial in a conflict of this magnitude, where the risk of nuclear fallout looms. Both NATO and Russia prefer working relations between Riyadh, Ankara, and other actors involved.

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