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Following Zelenskyy's visit, how can Qatar help Ukraine in Russia mediation?

Ukraine has maintained cordial relations with Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the UAE amid the war with Russia, and the three Gulf states have all sought to play the role of mediator in the conflict.
Ukraine's president, Volodymyr Zelensky meeting with Qatar's Emir Sheikh Tamim al Thani on June 5, 2024 in Doha

Ukraine’s president, Volodymyr Zelenskyy, flew to Qatar this week to try to gain the Gulf state's support ahead of a June 15 peace conference in Switzerland, where he hopes to refocus international attention on Russia's war in Ukraine. 

Zelenskyy met with Qatar’s emir, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani, in Doha on Wednesday, marking his first visit to the country in three years and only his second since becoming president in 2019. 

In a post on X following the meeting, Zelenskyy said the two discussed Ukraine’s upcoming peace summit, which will be held in the Burgenstock Resort in the Alps, and the bid to release Ukrainians apprehended during the war and now held in Russian detention. He additionally urged Qatar to support his Peace Formula for ending the war, which began with the Russian invasion in February 2022.

“It is important that Qatar supports the Peace Formula. We talked about preparations for the Global Peace Summit, which will include the release of captured and deported Ukrainians among its topics,” said Zelenskyy.

What Zelenskyy wants

Zelenskyy unveiled his Peace Formula in November of 2022. It calls for a complete withdrawal of Russian forces from Ukrainian territory, as well as a tribunal to prosecute alleged Russian war crimes. 

Switzerland will host a two-day summit on June 15 to build support for Zelenskyy's proposal. The purpose of the event is to create a framework for peace and a roadmap for the eventual participation of Russia, which was not invited, in the process. The current parameters, whereby the Peace Formula says that "national and international efforts to collect evidence, including by the International Criminal Court, must be pursued and strengthened, are currently eschewed by Russian leadership."

Zelenskyy's office said 107 countries and international organizations had confirmed their participation as of early June, according to Reuters. Meanwhile, Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov said in May that the conference will be "futile," and China said that it will not participate. 

Zelenskyy also expressed appreciation for “Qatar's support for Ukraine's sovereignty and territorial integrity,” as well as the Gulf state’s support for United Nations resolutions condemning the Russian invasion and efforts to repatriate Ukrainian children from Russia. 

The Qatari government said in a statement on Wednesday that Sheikh Tamim and Zelenskyy discussed the current situation in Ukraine, including "the international community's efforts to stop the fighting and protecting civilians and keeping all channels of communication open to solve the crisis through dialogue and diplomatic means." 

The statement added that the two reviewed bilateral relations between Qatar and Ukraine and ways to strengthen them. Sheikh Tamim additionally held a dinner in honor of Zelenskyy and his delegation.

The repatriation of Ukrainians from Russia is a priority for Ukraine ahead of the summit. Ukraine accuses Russia of illegally taking around 20,000 Ukrainian children since the start of the invasion. Russia has said the children were moved out of war zones for their protection. Forced transfers of a civilian population are illegal under international law.

Last month, Qatar mediated a deal whereby Russia returned six children to Ukraine, the Russian state media outlet Tass reported at the time. Similar exchanges occurred in April and March and additionally included the return of children to Russia. Tass reported in May that six children have been returned from Ukraine to Russia so far to be reunited with their families.

Why Qatar 

Ryan Bohl, a senior Middle East analyst at the risk intelligence firm RANE, said that the return of Ukrainian children from Russia is likely a major reason Zelenskyy traveled to Doha. 

Bohl told Al-Monitor that Ukraine wants "to see specifically if Qatar is going to repeat some of their recent history where they were able to get Ukrainian children out of Russian captivity."

Qatar's friendly relations with Russia may have been another impetus for Zelenskyy's visit. Bohl said it is possible Zelenskyy is seeking "backdoor feelers about what Russia's mood is in terms of potential ceasefire negotiations way down the line."

"I do think the Ukrainians are generally in a place where they're exploring that more, and they'll be looking to places like Qatar, the UAE, Turkey and Saudi Arabia to potentially set up those kinds of talks," he said.

Russia and Qatar are both major natural gas producers, and the Qatar Investment Authority holds a roughly 19% stake in the Russian energy giant Rosneft. Sheikh Tamim and Russian President Vladimir Putin last held a phone call in June of 2023 to discuss bilateral relations. 

Qatar's efforts to position itself as an intermediary in international conflicts are one reason Ukraine has looked to the country for help in retrieving the children, according to one Kiev-based think tank.

"Its self-presentation as a geopolitical hub for mediation and dialogue is an important component of Qatar’s network-centric approach," read an April report from the Ukrainian Prism Foreign Policy Council In Ukraine. "In Ukraine, Qatar is seen as one of the friendliest countries in the Middle East." 

Qatar's interest in brokering exchanges between Russia and Ukraine fits with its long-sought role of mediator on the international stage, and Doha has been particularly active in the cease-fire negotiations between Israel and Hamas in addition to the Ukraine-Russia deliberations. 

"It's all about portraying Qatar as a humanitarian power, as a constructive international diplomatic power," said Bohl. "They're trying to showcase their indispensability for international diplomacy, which has value to the United States as a defense guarantor, but also gives them a lot of soft-power prestige throughout the world."

Other Gulf states have attempted to mediate between Russia and Ukraine since the former’s 2022 invasion. Last week, the United Arab Emirates announced a deal to exchange 150 captives between Russia and Ukraine. That agreement followed a similar swap brokered by the UAE in February that led to the release of 100 prisoners of war from each side.

Zelenskyy visited Saudi Arabia in February to discuss the peace conference, and the kingdom hosted a summit in August of 2023 to discuss Ukraine’s peace proposal. 

Zelenskyy also attended the Arab League summit in Saudi Arabia in May of last year, marking his first visit to the kingdom. In a speech addressing the body, Zelenskyy said that some regional states "turn a blind eye" to Russia's actions, without naming names, but said he thanks the "majority" of Arab League members for supporting Ukraine. 

Qatari Foreign Minister Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al Thani last visited Kiev and met Zelenskyy in June of 2023, during which he announced a pledge of $100 million toward Ukraine's humanitarian needs. In April, Doha announced a $3 million to donation to the Ukrainian Parliament Commissioner for Human Rights.

Qatar is a close partner of the United States, is home to the largest US military base in the Middle East and was designated a major non-NATO ally in 2022.

However, despite warm political relations, trade ties between Qatar and Ukraine are not particularly significant. In 2022, Qatar exported $16.5 million in goods to Ukraine, mostly ethylene polymers (a type of plastic). Ukraine exported $43.9 million to Qatar that year, the largest exports being seed oils and iron pipes, according to the Observatory of Economic Complexity. By comparison, Qatar-Russia trade amounted to more than $155 million in 2022, according to the official Qatar News Agency.