How Ukraine Has Changed Russian Diplomacy

Moscow is shunning legacy platforms for dialogue—and creating its own.

By , a senior research associate with the Vienna Center for Disarmament and Non-Proliferation.
Russian President Vladimir Putin, Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi, and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan pose for a photo before a trilateral meeting on Syria in Tehran on July 19.
Russian President Vladimir Putin, Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi, and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan pose for a photo before a trilateral meeting on Syria in Tehran on July 19.
Russian President Vladimir Putin, Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi, and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan pose for a photo before a trilateral meeting on Syria in Tehran on July 19. SERGEI SAVOSTYANOV/SPUTNIK/AFP via Getty Images

Since late February, when Russia invaded Ukraine, the West has largely shied away from engaging Moscow directly. Just days after the invasion, the U.S. State Department directed departments and agencies to cancel most government-to-government contacts with Russian officials. The Biden administration suspended bilateral strategic arms control and climate talks with Moscow. And direct contacts between senior U.S. and Russian officials—such as U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s exchange with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov in late July—have been few and far between.

Most European leaders have also cut their lines to the Kremlin, leaving those like French President Emmanuel Macron to be derided, if not outright mocked, for their efforts to reach out to Russian President Vladimir Putin. And so it happens that Western diplomacy with Russia has diminished to just a few exceptional issues—such as the Iran nuclear talks—and multilateral engagement at institutions like the United Nations. Russia, meanwhile, has searched for—and, in some cases, created—new diplomatic forums that sidestep the established venues it has been shunned from.

The long-term consequences of this reconfiguration will not be advantageous to the West. Moscow has long sought to change the rules of international diplomacy, and an atrophying relationship with Europe and the United States provides an avenue to do so. Going forward, the West can expect to be beholden to third parties—such as Turkey—as go-betweens with the Kremlin, further fueling Moscow’s disinterest in established international institutions and turning new Russian-led platforms into permanent fixtures of diplomacy.

Since late February, when Russia invaded Ukraine, the West has largely shied away from engaging Moscow directly. Just days after the invasion, the U.S. State Department directed departments and agencies to cancel most government-to-government contacts with Russian officials. The Biden administration suspended bilateral strategic arms control and climate talks with Moscow. And direct contacts between senior U.S. and Russian officials—such as U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s exchange with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov in late July—have been few and far between.

Most European leaders have also cut their lines to the Kremlin, leaving those like French President Emmanuel Macron to be derided, if not outright mocked, for their efforts to reach out to Russian President Vladimir Putin. And so it happens that Western diplomacy with Russia has diminished to just a few exceptional issues—such as the Iran nuclear talks—and multilateral engagement at institutions like the United Nations. Russia, meanwhile, has searched for—and, in some cases, created—new diplomatic forums that sidestep the established venues it has been shunned from.

The long-term consequences of this reconfiguration will not be advantageous to the West. Moscow has long sought to change the rules of international diplomacy, and an atrophying relationship with Europe and the United States provides an avenue to do so. Going forward, the West can expect to be beholden to third parties—such as Turkey—as go-betweens with the Kremlin, further fueling Moscow’s disinterest in established international institutions and turning new Russian-led platforms into permanent fixtures of diplomacy.


It first became clear that diplomacy was changing when Switzerland joined the sanctions campaign against Russia—and the Kremlin lashed out at the traditionally neutral country.

Russia has since rebuffed Swiss offers to host talks on a variety of issues. In April, the Russian foreign ministry announced that it no longer considered Geneva an acceptable platform to convene the U.S.-Russian Bilateral Consultative Commission overseeing the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, citing Switzerland’s “unfriendly actions.” Speaking on the sidelines of a Geneva meeting on Syria in June, Russia’s special envoy to Syria, Alexander Lavrentiev, similarly berated Switzerland, suggesting that the Syrian Constitutional Committee—a U.N.-facilitated constituent assembly process based in Geneva—be moved to a “more neutral” location. When the committee last convened, Russia was reportedly dismayed at Swiss authorities’ handling of entry visas for its delegation and a general “coldness of the reception.” Lavrentiev floated Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates; Algiers, Algeria; Manama, Bahrain; and Muscat, Oman; as possible alternate venues.

Around the same time, the Russian foreign ministry decided that international discussions on the South Caucasus could no longer be held in Geneva. Russia also turned down an offer by Bern to represent Ukrainian interests in Russia—for example, in consular affairs—and vice versa. And on a much broader scale, Russia has become angered over alleged U.S. refusal to grant Russian diplomats visas to attend U.N. General Assembly events in New York this month. In response, Moscow has floated the hardly viable idea of relocating the United Nations’ headquarters to another city, portending the support of a growing number of countries for such a move.

Russia’s rejection of traditional venues for international diplomacy—like Switzerland—has brought to the fore new intermediaries. Since February, Russia has accepted Turkish mediation on a variety of issues related to the war in Ukraine, most critically in negotiating a July agreement securing the export of grain from Ukrainian ports. In the spring, Ankara had already hosted initial Russian-Ukrainian peace talks, dubbed the “Istanbul Process”—a series of meetings between mid-level Russian and Ukrainian delegations—and lobbied somewhat successfully for humanitarian corridors during the Russian siege of Mariupol, Ukraine. More recently, Istanbul hosted International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) Director-General Rafael Grossi and Alexey Likhachev, CEO of Russian state nuclear energy company Rosatom, to discuss the then-upcoming IAEA mission to the Russian-controlled but Ukrainian-operated Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who is eager to improve his poll numbers ahead of the country’s presidential election next year and solidify Turkey’s place as a mediator between East and West, has also repeatedly offered to convene direct talks between Putin and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky. Building on the success of the grain export deal, Turkish officials have hinted that Turkey could mediate prisoner exchanges and even a cease-fire in Ukraine.

Russia’s readiness to accept Turkish mediation stems from the two countries’ experience engaging each other in multiple conflicts—in Syria, Libya, and the Nagorno-Karabakh region—through what some have dubbed “adversarial collaboration.” Moscow and Ankara have long cooperated, competed, and deconflicted—all at once—in these places. The Russia-Turkey relationship lacks a firm institutional basis, and the personal bond between Erdogan and Putin forms its backbone. Still, the two sides have come to appreciate the efficacy of the other’s transactionalism. When Russia gives Turkey the latitude to mediate over Ukraine, it deals with a devil it knows—while also enjoying the opportunity to create the impression that a NATO ally is playing nice with Moscow.

In addition to Turkey, Russian diplomats are also solidifying other alternative venues for diplomacy. This summer, it was reported that Argentina, Iran, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey may join the BRICS grouping of Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa. Putin argued in June that BRICS is destined to lead in “forming a truly multipolar system of interstate relations.” Russia seeks to leverage the grouping in its efforts to circumvent Western financial sanctions, and it recently announced that India and Iran will adopt the Russian Mir payment system. Meanwhile, Russian officials are hyping the significance of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization—which met this week in Uzbekistan—including for military-defense cooperation.

Admittedly, Russia’s molding of alternative diplomatic venues is neither new nor all encompassing. Since 2017, for instance, Russia has predominantly engaged on Syria in the “Astana Group,” which includes Iran and Turkey. The term “network diplomacy”—understood by Moscow as a “flexible approach to participating in multilateral mechanisms for the sake of finding effective solutions”—had already been promulgated in Russia’s 2016 Foreign Policy Concept. But at the time, prominent Russian pundits argued that new diplomatic structures initiated by Russia would hardly become Russia’s “main policy tools.”

That appears to be changing. Russia’s pursuit of alternative diplomatic avenues and partnerships has taken on new urgency since February. This month, Lavrov said his ministry recently reassigned a significant number of its diplomatic staff to its Moscow headquarters or embassies in “friendly countries.” Lavrov also vowed that Russia would promote cooperation with the Commonwealth of Independent States—a grouping of former Soviet countries in Asia, Africa, Eastern Europe, and the Middle East—“at an accelerated rate.”

As the war in Ukraine continues, Western countries will likely only punish and isolate Russia further—solidifying its diplomatic reorientation. After leveling unprecedented economic sanctions against Russia, the European Union recently suspended its visa facilitation agreement with Moscow, eager to curtail the influx of Russian tourists into Europe. As Estonian Prime Minister Kaja Kallas put it, doing so became a question of the EU’s “moral clarity while Russian genocidal war is taking place in Europe.” In August, British diplomats argued that Russia had “no moral right to sit at the G-20 while its aggression in Ukraine persists.”

Such statements and actions will likely give Moscow further pretext to shun engagement with the West in legacy forums, though it vowed not to respond “with the same stupidity” to the EU’s visa restrictions. Having charged that the West no longer uses the G-20 “for the purposes for which it was created”—namely, addressing pressing global issues, such as global economic healthLavrov left a July meeting of the group in Bali, Indonesia, prematurely. Amid reports that Putin intends to travel to Indonesia for the G-20 summit in November, Western leaders are mulling whether or not to attend.


The reshaping of Russian diplomacy has four lasting consequences for the West.

First, and most obviously, it will incrementally reduce access to Russian diplomats and elites, not only for Western officials but also for experts and civil society representatives from around the world who conduct dialogue and exchanges. Civil society and expert engagement with Russians inside Russia will be logistically complicated, politically delicate, and more sporadic. Over time, this will lead to a poorer Western understanding of dynamics and thinking inside Russia.

Second, the West could become more dependent on third actors vetted by the Kremlin to engage with Russia when necessary. For instance, Western diplomats may well continue to rely on Ankara to facilitate Ukraine’s commerce amid Russian aggression. Turkey, meanwhile, will seek to leverage its new role, demanding concessions from the West on issues it considers to be of vital interest. This play is already in full motion: Ankara threatened to obstruct Finland’s and Sweden’s accession to NATO unless both countries abandoned their political and financial support of Kurdish groups that Ankara deems terrorist organizations. Erdogan prophesied in April that the war in Ukraine would show the EU Turkey’s value.

Third, Russia’s quest for new diplomatic platforms may reinforce its broader turn to—and help enhance its status in—Africa, Latin America, and Asia. Following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, many nations outside Europe and North America were reluctant to unequivocally condemn Moscow or join the West’s sanctions campaign. Their inclination to sit out the conflict has myriad historical and geopolitical roots, and it is oftentimes less a function of these countries being attracted to Moscow than feeling disillusioned with the West. That said, many of these countries today have distinct commercial, military, and political interests linked to Russia. They are only poised to become a more important vector in Russian foreign policy as a result of Moscow’s shifting orientation. As a result, the West’s uphill battle in isolating Russia internationally will get steeper.

Finally, a Russian boycott of Geneva-based mechanisms and more active pursuit of network diplomacy could do lasting damage to legacy forms of multilateralism already struggling for relevance—such as the long-paralyzed Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe. A mixture of inertia and interest will surely compel Russia to continue to apply itself across U.N. agencies and multilateral institutions for the foreseeable future. But a parallel erosion and fragmentation of diplomatic engagement is already well underway.

In 2020, Russian intellectual Fyodor Lukyanov presaged that “in the coming years, international institutions will continue to wither and some may even disappear completely.” In the future, he argued, the term “multilateralism” would come to denote a situation when several countries combine efforts to address a specific issue for a bounded period of time—just like the Astana Group did in Syria. The war in Ukraine may end up pushing Russia into this future much faster than previously envisaged.

Hanna Notte is a senior research associate with the Vienna Center for Disarmament and Non-Proliferation. Twitter: @HannaNotte

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