A number of commentators have criticized Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s latest peace summit in Jeddah for failing to produce tangible deliverables. What these criticisms miss is that Ukraine is playing a game of diplomatic attrition aimed at countering Russia’s central objective: international acquiescence to its violent seizure of a neighbor’s territory. The United States should support Ukraine’s efforts, most immediately by seeking a U.N.-sanctioned conference on the sidelines of next month's U.N. General Assembly session.

Ukrainians show African leaders captured Russian arms in June amid talks in Kyiv on seeking a peace process. Ukraine has escalated its diplomacy in the Global South, offering its peace plan based on international law. (Brendan Hoffman/The New York Times)
Ukrainians show African leaders captured Russian arms in June amid talks in Kyiv on seeking a peace process. Ukraine has escalated its diplomacy in the Global South, offering its peace plan based on international law. (Brendan Hoffman/The New York Times)

This month more than 30 countries met in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia to discuss Zelenskyy’s 10-point proposal for ending the war in Ukraine. The meeting, which excluded Russia, included China for the first time in such discussions, plus India, Brazil, South Africa and other countries from the Global South. Impressive as the turnout may have been, some observers have noted the gathering’s apparent lack of consensus, concrete deliverables — or even a joint communique typical of such gatherings. Some developing countries continue to balk at Ukraine’s demand that Russia withdraw its troops as a precondition to talks. And even some supporters of Ukraine appear to be tamping down expectations about the ability of these efforts to produce meaningful results anytime soon.

Ukraine Aims to Put Time on Its Side

Much of this criticism, however, misses the point. Zelenskyy’s effort is not just about talking for the sake of talking. Rather, its aim is to give Ukraine an important leg up in managing what is arguably the single most important variable in the war with Russia: the factor of time. By building broad support for its own vision of peace, Ukraine is striking directly at the heart of the Russian theory of victory, which hinges on the assumption that protraction will work to Moscow’s political advantage over time by allowing it to wrench territories from Ukraine with the tacit, if not explicit, backing of most of the non-Western world.

Countries have long used diplomacy to manage the element of time in conflict. This usually involves delaying (or avoiding) war in the first place, or speeding its end. The first was never a viable option for Ukraine, as the victim of aggression by a larger power. The second option is also not viable, as any Ukrainian attempts to negotiate an end to the conflict now, it must be assumed, would only be used by Russia to consolidate its territorial gains before resuming the war later under more favorable conditions.

Ukraine’s innovation is to use diplomacy to turn the politics of protraction to its advantage. The logic is to align as much of the world as possible behind Ukraine’s position — first morally, and then, to the extent possible, politically — thus complicating Russia’s ability to claim that its battlefield gains carry the imprimatur of international legitimacy.

This approach makes sense even if Ukraine never manages to get most countries behind its precise formula for peace, for two reasons.

First, Russia’s central object is territory. The Kremlin wants to ingest lands from Ukraine via the old diplomatic principle of uti posseditis, whereby a country retains what it holds when the shooting stops. Such an outcome has gained traction as Russia’s losses have mounted, prompting the Kremlin to redefine its war aim to the incorporation of those territories that it currently occupies (while presumably retaining its goal of undermining Ukrainian sovereignty). By building international talks around its rejection of such concessions, Ukraine is signaling to friends in the West that now is not the time to reduce support; to foes in Russia that Kyiv’s resolve to resist exceeds Moscow’s will to conquer; and to fence-sitters in the Global South that it, not Russia, is on the side of sovereignty, territorial integrity and international law in the conflict.

The other value of Ukraine’s approach is that it denies Russia what it wants second only to territory: legitimacy. All conquerors crave this eventually. That’s why Russia moved so quickly at an earlier stage in the war to emend its constitution and formally annex the territories it occupies in Ukraine. Russia knows that the West will not recognize its land grabs. Exhibit A is the 2018 Crimea Declaration, by which the United States put Russia on notice for violating the Helsinki Final Act’s provision for the territorial sovereignty of states and refused to recognize Crimea as part of Russia. Russia’s diplomacy is focused on recruiting the approval of as much of the non-Western world as possible, including not just fellow autocracies like China but countries from the Global South, many of which buy arms, oil or grain from Russia and nurse historical grievances against America and Europe.

Limiting Russian and Chinese Options

Ukraine’s diplomacy directly challenges Vladimir Putin’s strategy by targeting precisely the developing regions where Putin claims to speak for aggrieved nations that share his grudge against the West. Ukraine’s diplomacy confronts these countries with a choice: Support Ukraine’s plan, and choose international law, or continue to prioritize transactional relations with Moscow and choose the law of the jungle. Even if Ukraine never wins these nations’ full endorsement of its peace formula, getting them in the room complicates Russia’s ability to eventually rally them behind a meretricious “peace” plan composed by itself — or an ally like Belarus or China.

This latter point underscores an important benefit of Ukraine’s diplomacy for the United States. By making its vision of peace the default global template, Ukraine limits China’s options for exploiting the Ukraine war. China has sought advantage by peddling a peace proposal that contains provisions that are disadvantageous to Ukraine but attractive to some onlookers. The danger of Chinese efforts is not so much that they will succeed, but that they could over time sow dissension between the United States and any allies who grow anxious to end the war. Ukraine’s diplomacy — notably recent conferences in Copenhagen and Jeddah — forces Beijing to either endorse Ukraine’s ideas, implicitly abandoning its pro-Russian stance to date, or sustain support of Russia and risk being seen as an opponent of peace.

Finally, it bears stating plainly that Ukraine’s diplomacy is advancing the cause of peace, broadly struck. Any formula for ending the current war that would ratify Russia’s gains is likely to lead not to a lasting peace but to a later renewal of war. If Putin can show that conquerors can seize neighbors’ territory with a reasonable expectation of winning some measure of legitimacy through support from the non-Western world, he may inspire similar acts of aggression in the Indo-Pacific and other regions. The best counter is to show that that’s not possible, not just by arming Ukraine but by helping its formula for peace — the formula of the underdog and victim in the conflict — win out as well.

How to Help Ukraine’s Diplomacy

For the most part, we should let Ukraine stay in the driver’s seat, particularly in soliciting support in the Global South. Many countries will be less likely to participate if they see the effort as U.S.-led. The presence at Jeddah of countries like India and China showed that Ukraine is able, through persistence, to erect a tent big enough to include both its traditional supporters in the West and many players previously reluctant to get involved for fear of upsetting Russia.

Still, U.S. diplomacy should not be passive. We can work behind the scenes to encourage participation by developing countries, many of which have longstanding military and aid relationships with the United States. We can also help keep Ukraine’s supporters in the West on board with what may at first seem to be a fruitless endeavor. Already, there is some grumbling in Western ranks about Ukraine’s unyielding stance. That frustration could grow as we enter another winter that brings higher energy prices in Europe and concomitant political pressures to end the war. A good role for Washington is to keep the coalition unified, emphasizing the strategic logic and potential benefits of Zelenskyy’s approach even as it presses allies to provide greater military and economic aid for Ukraine.

Finally, we can help Ukraine make the case for the next iteration of its process, which would either take place on the sidelines of the fall United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) meeting in New York or at the Group of 20 meeting in New Delhi — or both. UNGA is an especially attractive option, given the gathering’s size and symbolic value. Meeting there to discuss peace should be a no-brainer, but U.N. leadership appears to be under pressure from Russia and China to prevent it. The United States should campaign over the coming weeks for holding such a meeting and publicly call on China to reversing its current blockage.

In all of this, the point is not that Ukraine’s diplomacy is going to deliver peace anytime soon. Putin is likely to go on fighting until he is defeated, either internally or on the battlefield. Rather, the point is that a major goal of diplomacy is often to limit a rival’s moves by managing the factor of time in a conflict. Ukrainian diplomacy is doing that in a way that benefits not only itself but U.S. strategic interests and the broader cause of peace. By supporting that effort — publicly where possible, behind-the-scenes, when necessary — Washington can isolate Russia, discomfit China, and improve Ukraine’s odds of shaping a durable peace down the line.

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