Seton Hall University: Take your career further with a graduate degree in International Affairs
Seton Hall University: Take your career further with a graduate degree in International Affairs

SMALL STATES - Our series exploring how the UN and others can better serve these countries →

Ukraine Is Courting the Mideast and Africa in Spite of Russia’s Shadow


Maksym Subkh, Special Representative of Ukraine for the Middle East and Africa at the UN
Maksym Subkh, special envoy for Ukraine in the Mideast and Africa, during a trip to the United Nations and taken at the Ukrainian mission to the UN, Nov 16, 2023. His job is to forge closer ties to the regions to entice more global support for his president’s peace plan. JOHN PENNEY/PASSBLUE

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has fallen from major headlines — overtaken by the Israel/Hamas bloodbath in Gaza — but Ukrainian officials are shuttling across the globe to remind the world that their country is still at war and that peace with Russia, without the international backing of President Volodymyr Zelensky’s peace plan — is far from guaranteed.

“Since 2014, we have held more than 200 rounds of negotiations with Russia. And every time we reached some agreement, Russia breached it,” said Maksym Subkh, Ukraine’s special envoy for the Middle East and Africa, in an interview with PassBlue. “So we do not trust Russia anymore. We don’t see that it makes sense to talk to Russia at this stage.”

On Zelensky’s 10-point peace plan, he added: “So many different countries introduced their [peace] plans and they were sure that if their plan is implemented, the peace will be achieved. But in fact, all those plans do not suit Ukraine. We decided to elaborate our own plan to introduce our own roadmap how to achieve peace.”

Don't miss a  story,  Subscribe to PassBlue

Zelensky is active in the shuttle diplomacy occurring right now. The biggest financial backer for the war in Ukraine, the United States, hit a wall as Senate Republicans, on Dec. 6, unanimously rejected an emergency spending bill that would have provided around $110 billion for Ukraine and Israel collectively. Republicans rejected the bill because of a spat with President Joe Biden over the US southern border, media reported. A US defense bill of $866 billion was approved in the House of Representatives on Dec. 14, virtually ensuring that hundreds of millions of dollars will be allotted to sending weapons to Ukraine (and Israel).

During a last-minute trip to Washington that attracted little media attention, Zelensky met with members of the US Congress this week to appeal for aid to Ukraine to keep its military running. At a press conference, he thanked Biden for “supporting Ukraine” and touted his country’s military gains on the battlefield, including reportedly taking back 50 percent of the territory Russia occupied after Feb. 24, 2022.

In response, Biden said that the US “will continue to supply Ukraine with critical weapons and equipment as long as we can,” instead of his usual, “as long as it takes.” Yet the results of Zelensky’s visit remains unclear. What’s obvious, though, is that while Zelensky was in Washington, Russian forces attacked Kyiv, the capital, with a barrage of ballistic missiles, further wiping out critical energy infrastructure and leaving hundreds of homes without electricity as winter arrives. President Vladimir Putin, in his annual press briefing in Moscow, reiterated that his goal in Ukraine is to “de-nazify” the country.

PassBlue Related Articles
You might be interested in these posts.
[display-posts taxonomy="category" tax_term="current" orderby="date" posts_per_page="3" wrapper="ul" content_class="pb-inpost-list" wrapper_class="pb-inpost-layout" exclude_current="true"]

Ever since Russia fully invaded Ukraine in 2022, Zelensky has zeroed in on strengthening and, in some cases, establishing diplomatic relations with the global South. It has been a difficult relationship to cultivate for Ukraine, given the historical and financial ties many of the countries in that cohort have with Russia. Yet a United Nations resolution demanding that Russia “immediately, completely and unconditionally” withdraw its military forces and calling for a “cessation in hostilities” passed with 141 votes in the General Assembly, where a range of countries in the global South voted yes.

In his post for about a year, Subkh, 44, is striving to forge closer ties with countries in the global South, specifically the Middle East and Africa. Married with two sons, Subkh graduated from the Taras Shevchenko National University of Kyiv with a master’s degree in philology, the history of languages, in 2001. Before he was appointed special representative for the Middle East and Africa in July 2022, Subkh worked as a diplomat in Qatar and the United Arab Emirates. He also served as Ukraine’s ambassador to Algeria from 2018 to 2022. Besides Ukrainian, Subkh speaks English and Arabic. He lives in Kyiv.

“I love them all,” Subkh said, referring to the African and Middle Eastern countries he has worked in throughout his career.

PassBlue interviewed Subkh while he was visiting UN headquarters in Manhattan in mid-November, meeting representatives from the African Union mission to the UN and countries in the Middle East. The conversation, held at Ukraine’s mission to the UN, in midtown Manhattan, covered Ukraine’s strategy in the Middle East and Africa, Zelensky’s peace plan and the defunct Black Sea Grain Initiative.

Ukraine “does not aim to change [the global South’s] mind over what is happening over the Russian aggression, but rather the opposite,” Subkh said. “We want to let those countries decide on which side of the history they want to be.” –- DAWN CLANCY

The interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

PassBlue: Please describe Ukraine’s relationship with the Middle East now.  

Subkh: Historically, we have been enjoying excellent relations with the Middle East. I always say that in the Ukrainian language, we use the wording “the near East,” instead of Middle East because the Middle East is very close to our part of the world. Now, after the full-scale invasion of Russia, the Gulf countries are helping Ukraine a lot. They provided Ukraine with massive humanitarian aid. For example, Saudi Arabia provided $400 million in humanitarian aid. Also, Qatar provided $100 million. Last winter, when we had the blackout because of the Russian shellings and airstrikes on our energy infrastructure, many Gulf states helped us survive.

PassBlue: In August, Saudi Arabia hosted a global meeting in Jeddah to discuss peace in Ukraine. However, there was a lot of confusion and criticism around the meeting because Russia was not invited. What was the purpose of the Jeddah meeting? 

Subkh: Saudi Arabia offered its good offices to discuss the implementation of the peace formula, Zelensky’s peace plan. That meeting was remarkable because there were so many countries from the Global South present — a clear signal that the peace formula is no more limited by the European countries or those who are naturally considered as our first and strongest allies.

PassBlue: Let’s discuss Zelensky’s peace formula: do you think it’s widely understood and more like a postwar reconstruction plan for Ukraine rather than a recipe for peace between Ukraine and Russia?

Subkh: It consists of 10 very clear points, which if these points are implemented, Ukraine will be able to stop the Russian aggression, to restore its economy, to rebuild the country with the help of the international community. But the main idea is to have an internationally recognized approach; how can Ukraine and the whole world stop the aggression? Not on Russian terms but on the terms of Ukraine as a country and with all countries which respect the rule of law, which respect the UN Charter, and which want to build a world which is based on rules.

Saudi Arabia is taking the leading role in this track related to the discussion of Zelensky’s peace plan. So far, we’ve had three meetings. The first took place in Copenhagen in June, and there were only 15 countries present; the next one was in August, in Jeddah. The third took place in Malta just recently, where we had 66 countries on board. We had for the first-time countries from Africa. . . Kenya and Zambia.

PassBlue: What do you mean when you say countries are on board with Zelensky’s peace plan? Do they sign a contract? Is there money involved?

Subkh: It means that first they are participating in the regular meetings on three levels, the level of ambassadors, the level of national security advisors and the third, which has not started yet, is the level of the heads of states and government. So, this is the first element.

The second element is since the peace plan deals with so many issues, each country can cherry-pick which points it wants to participate in. So, let’s say some countries are advanced in energy security, some countries are advanced in ensuring food security, others are advanced in the fixation of the end of the war and advancing compensations. Let’s say one of the Gulf countries, [such as] Kuwait, have gone through an invasion in the ’90s. And they know very well how to demand compensations from the aggressor country, right? So, they have to take the leading role on that point. . . . This is going to take some time.

[Subkh noted that countries can support the peace formula through leadership and/or sponsorship roles. The rough plan is that once consensus is reached, countries will draw up proposals to share with their heads of state or governments for final approval. Afterward, Ukraine will convene a third meeting, or a global peace summit, with the top government officials]

PassBlue: What’s Ukraine’s strategy on building relationships with African nations, who may have conflicting policies toward Russia? What do you say to critics who doubt the sincerity of Ukraine’s diplomacy in the continent?

Subkh: When the war broke out in Ukraine, President Zelensky took very decisive decisions. One was to mobilize the world and to draw international community’s attention to the Russian aggression. When he looked at the map and asked our ministry how many embassies does Ukraine have in Africa, their response was 10. So he said, that’s not enough to deliver our narratives to explain about the nature of Ukrainian and Russian relationship through the history. [Ukraine has 10 embassies in Africa: Algeria, Angola, Egypt, Ethiopia, Kenya, Morocco, Nigeria, Senegal, South Africa and Tunisia]. Many people in Africa, or even in some Arab countries, say that both Ukraine and Russia are the same nation or same people, but it’s completely untrue. We have our own history, we have our own language, we have our own peculiarities, cultural peculiarities, which are different from Russia.

We want to send a message to the African countries and peoples that the same way they gained their independence through fighting, Ukraine is doing the same. They [African nations] were a target of Western colonialism, and now we are a target of the new Russian colonialism. They sacrificed millions of their people to get independent, to gain their sovereignty. So why should Ukraine give up its resistance and its fight for its sovereignty?

PassBlue: One casualty of Russian aggression in Ukraine has been the Black Sea Grain Initiative, which was brokered by Türkiye and the UN with Ukrainian and Russian cooperation. Russia pulled out of the deal in July, directly impacting grain shipments from your country. How has this turn of events affected your diplomacy on the continent?

Subkh: Traditionally, the Northern African countries were and still are one of our most important trade and economic partners. Countries like Egypt, Algeria, Morocco, they are very important in terms of trade and business. So we introduced projects to those countries. One is building grain hubs to have storage for foodstuff and grain commodities which originate from Ukraine, to make sure that Africa will always have enough stock domestically to cover all their needs without being dependent on the Black Sea Grain Initiative.

Africa doesn’t want to accept the approach which was introduced by Putin. Putin told the African leaders that you should not worry about disruptions with the Black Sea Grain initiative because Russia is capable to cover all your needs. But the answer was very clear that it should not work like this. We want the Black Sea corridor open again, we want the market to be open, to be transparent and be based on liberal principles. Now we are using a new temporary corridor in the Black Sea, which passes through the territorial waters of Romania.

However, Russia is stealing Ukrainian grain from the occupied territories and tries to distribute or to sell that wheat to countries in Middle East and Africa, mainly to Egypt, Lebanon and Jordan. But we are tracking every vessel which carries stolen wheat from Ukraine. We inform the potential buyer about this fact. And they always are very cooperative with us.

We welcome your comments on this article.  What are your thoughts on Ukraine's courting of the Mideast and Africa?

Dawn Clancy is a New York City based reporter who focuses on women’s issues, international conflict and diplomacy. She holds a master’s degree from Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism. Previously, she has written for The Washington Post and HuffPost.

We would love your thoughts. Please comment:

Ukraine Is Courting the Mideast and Africa in Spite of Russia’s Shadow
Notify of

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
3 months ago

Maybe it is time for a women’s peace conference, like peace researcher Franz Jedlicka recently suggested, referring to the UNSC Resolution 1325.

6 months ago

Why using the word “bloodbath” for the Gaza conflict (approximately 19.000 deaths) and not for the Ukrainian conflict (at least 500.000 deaths)?

Related Posts
Seton Hall University: Take your career further with a graduate degree in International Affairs


Global Connections Television - The only talk show of its kind in the world

Subscribe to PassBlue


Don't miss a story

Subscribe now to send the smartest news

on the UN directly to your inbox.

We respect your privacy and take protecting it seriously