African leaders are expected in Ukraine on Friday in a self-proclaimed bid to broker peace between Kiev and Moscow, despite three presidents quitting and Ukraine’s retaliatory attack on the mission.
The four presidents and three delegates are due to hold talks with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky in Kiev before traveling to St. Petersburg on Saturday to meet with his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin.
“It is at a time of heightened conflict that the search for peace must be equally intensified,” South Africa’s Cyril Ramaphosa said in a statement.
The high-profile diplomatic team is expected to bring a voice to a continent that has been hit hard by rising grain prices and a wider impact on global trade since Russia invaded Ukraine last year.
“We are willing to join them … to see if there is room for joint efforts that will bring peace to Ukraine,” Ukrainian Foreign Ministry spokesman Oleg Nikolaenko said in a statement.
Yet the initiative does not begin under the latest, best auspices in a flurry of so-far unsuccessful diplomatic efforts to stop the bloodshed.
Moscow has stepped up its nightly attacks on major Ukrainian cities in recent weeks, while Kiev has launched a major counteroffensive to reclaim Russian-held territory.
“The conditions are no longer there for a peaceful and constructive discussion,” a Congolese diplomatic source told AFP on Wednesday.
Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni, Egypt’s Abdel Fattah el-Sisi and Congo-Brazzaville President Denis Sassou Nguesso have pulled three leaders out of the trip.
They will send respectively an ex-prime minister, the current prime minister and their head of office in their place.
Museveni said that he could not attend after being infected with Kovid-19.
The diplomatic source lamented that the absence of al-Sisi, “a heavy weight on the African scene”, was “likely to weaken the scope” of the initiative.
Only three of the original mission members – Ramaphosa, Mackay Saoul of Senegal and Hakande Hichilema of Zambia, as well as Azali Assoumani, President of Comoros, who currently heads the African Union – are leaving Poland for Kiev on Friday by train.
The mission comes as South Africa seeks to burnish its international credibility, days after the White House expressed concerns about its ties with Russia, prompting Pretoria to pull out of a trade deal with the US. After the call of MPs.
African countries have been divided over their response to the war, with some taking Ukraine’s side, while others remain neutral or gravitate towards Moscow.
Analysts say both Kiev and Moscow are convinced that while the African mission’s chances of a proper peace look incredibly slim, they can win on the battlefield.
Nikolaenko said that territorial concessions by Ukraine were not on the table.
Ukrainian political analyst Anatoly Oktysiuk said of the African leaders, “They won’t be able to offer us anything in terms of conflict resolution.”
“They cannot play the role of mediators. They have very little political weight, they do not influence anything.”
Still, analysts said the mediation effort could give hope of winning some concessions from the Kremlin ahead of a Russia-Africa summit next month.
Securing the future viability of a deal allowing grain from Ukraine to access the global market – an agreement Moscow has threatened to abandon – will be a goal.
Other analysts have suggested that prisoner swaps and fertilizer exports will also be on the agenda in Moscow.
“It’s theatre,” Professor Jeremy Seekings of the University of Cape Town said of the peace effort.
Ramaphosa “really needs something to restore his credibility. And he’s clutching at straws, because it’s a very long shot.”