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

Nearly 300 Prisoners of War Released in Shock Prisoner Swap Agreement

In late September of 2022, nearly 300 prisoners of war, both Ukrainian and Russian, faced death or indefinite detention. However, to the relief of their family members, a surprise announcement was made on the same day. The warring countries had agreed to a prisoner swap, leading to the release of the detained fighters and political prisoners from their respective captors.

This sudden and large-scale swap, the largest since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February, was facilitated by two unlikely leaders: President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman of Saudi Arabia.

Erdogan and bin Salman’s Role in the Prisoner Exchange

U.S. national security advisor Jake Sullivan expressed gratitude to the Turkish government for its assistance in facilitating the exchange and praised Saudi Arabia for brokering the return of 10 foreign nationals, including two Americans. The close relationship between the Saudi crown prince and Putin played a crucial role in the negotiations.

Saudi Arabia is now planning a Ukraine peace summit in Jeddah, inviting countries like Ukraine, the U.S., European nations, China, India, and Brazil. Additionally, Saudi Arabia and Turkey are working to bring Ukrainian children forcefully deported by Russia back to their families.

Turkey’s position as NATO’s second-largest military and its control over the Turkish straits provide it with significant diplomatic leverage, particularly in reviving the Black Sea grain initiative it brokered between the warring countries.

The Rise of Middle Powers

This diplomatic intervention by Turkey and Saudi Arabia highlights the growing importance of mid-level regional powers in shaping international realities. These countries, previously less influential during the Cold War, now play significant roles in global affairs.

Turkey and Saudi Arabia have maintained good relationships with Russia’s Putin while also being longtime allies of the West. Their mediation efforts enhance their reputations as significant global players with independent diplomatic capabilities.

Their Interests and Relationships

Both Turkey and Saudi Arabia aim to increase their political clout. While Washington has criticized Saudi Arabia’s oil production policies, which indirectly benefit Russian oil revenues, Turkey and Saudi Arabia’s independent positions enhance their relationships with other global powers, including China, India, and Brazil.

Turkey supports Ukraine with weapons and aid, and Saudi Arabia’s crown prince invited Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy to the kingdom to address the Arab League summit. These humanitarian efforts also contribute to the countries’ national diplomatic stature.

The Realistic Expectations

While Turkey and Saudi Arabia can potentially help prevent further escalation in the Ukraine war, they are not the sole buffers. The upcoming peace summit hosted by Saudi Arabia is unlikely to bring immediate peace talks, but it will provide a platform for constructive engagement between the West and developing countries in the Global South.

Many developing nations have refrained from taking sides in the conflict, either due to their trade or military relationships with Russia or historical distrust of the West. The limited diplomatic progress and communication facilitated by Turkey and Saudi Arabia are welcomed in a conflict with nuclear implications.

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