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Third Parties Critical to Course of Ukraine War

Mar 22, 2024
  • Xiao Bin

    Deputy Secretary-general, Center for Shanghai Cooperation Organization Studies, Chinese Association of Social Sciences

There are always third parties in war no matter what form the war may take. The behavior of any third party is influenced by the battlefield situation and the primary warring parties. In the Russia-Ukraine war, third parties are mediators and direct or indirect parties. They are either at the core of the conflict or hold a central or peripheral position. Those at the core include China, the United States, Britain, France, Germany, Italy, Canada and Japan; those at the center are NATO members except G7, members of the Collective Security Treaty Organization, Iran and the DPRK. Peripheral parties are from the Global South. With the war being protracted, how third parties may behave has gradually become a critical factor shaping the course of the war. 

Strongest third party 

Undoubtedly, the G7-NATO combination is the most powerful third party in the Ukraine war. It consists of 33 developed economies, accounting for more than 35 percent of global GDP and 13.5 percent of the world’s population. As the decision-making core, the G7 has stood firmly on Ukraine’s side since the outbreak of war. On the war’s second anniversary, the G7 reiterated in a joint statement that it supports Ukraine, and it vowed to drive up the costs for Russia.

However, there are many internal uncertainties within the G7 that may affect the course of the war, especially the political struggle in America. To mitigate its negative impact on the Ukraine war, Britain, France, Germany, Canada, Italy and some other NATO members signed a 10-year bilateral security agreement with Ukraine and began to discuss the possibility of sending in NATO troops. This was partly to show the U.S. and Russia that they are determined to support Ukraine. Obviously, a high degree of unity in action within the most powerful third party could steer the war out of uncertainty. If that is not achieved, the war’s outcome will be increasingly unpredictable.

Third parties with low strength 

Compared with the Soviet Union during the Cold War, Russia now relies on weaker third parties — that is, those “with insufficient strength.” In the past two years, Russia has been countering the most powerful third party at the expense of its own modernization. However, according to IMF statistics, in 2023 the weaker third parties accounted for about 3.23 percent of the world’s total GDP and 2 percent of the total population. Among them, Belarus, Iran and the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea provided military support allowing Russia to gain certain military advantages in the war. Others used loopholes in Western sanctions to allow Russia access to dual-use supplies.

Robin Brooks, chief economist of the International Finance Association (IIF), found that Armenia’s exports to Russia increased by 430 percent, to Kazakhstan by 1,200 percent, to Kyrgyzstan by 1,200 percent and to Uzbekistan by 1,600 percent. Those goods flowed to Russia eventually. As the United States and EU apply increasingly severe economic sanctions, third parties without sufficient strength will try to minimize their exports of dual-use materials to Russia, and that will in turn lead to higher war costs for Russia. 

Special core third party 

Given the size of China’s economy, its total population and the state of China-Russia relations, China is a special core third party in the Ukraine war. In the past year, however, its proposal for a political solution was not accepted by all parties. Neither the G7 Joint Statement (Feb. 25) nor Putin’s State of the Nation Address (Feb. 29) mentioned anything about the Chinese proposal. The G7 Joint Statement even blamed China.

To resolve the Ukraine crisis at an early date, Ambassador Li Hui, special representative of the Chinese government for Eurasian affairs, visited the warring parties and some third parties again recently (March). Unlike the first visit in May last year, Li’s first stop this time was Russia, where he talked with Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Mikhail Galuzin. He met Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, Deputy Foreign Minister Andrey Rudenko and Galuzin during the previous visit.

Given the current battlefield situation and the warring parties’ self-perceptions, the space for political mediation by China is very limited. As a special core third party, it will face a more challenging international political and economic environment. As Chinese enterprises are put on the European Union's economic sanctions list, China-EU relations may well undergo major changes, while possibly affecting China-U.S. relations. Arguably, the protracted war in Ukraine has intensified competition in the international system. More third parties will be tied to the risky system and find themselves unable to stay out of the war.

For China it is necessary to evaluate the war in Ukraine more carefully. It must avoid and mitigate risks, safeguard its national interests and put Ukraine on the road to peace at an early date. To this end, China needs to weigh its social and economic adaptability and choose a more flexible and pragmatic strategy in the service of Chinese modernization.

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