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Saudi Arabia is hosting a peace conference. Russia isn't invited

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Saudi Arabia is hosting a conference this weekend to talk about peace in Ukraine, but Russia wasn't invited. Instead, this is a meeting to give Ukraine a chance to try to get more international support for its ideas on how the war ought to end. We're joined now by NPR's diplomatic correspondent Michele Kelemen. Michele, thanks so much for being with us.

MICHELE KELEMEN, BYLINE: Nice to be here, Scott.

SIMON: How do you have a peace conference without the country that's waging the war?

KELEMEN: Yeah, I mean, you can't quite call this a peace conference. The two sides are really far apart from any talks. But what the Ukrainians want is more support from countries that have been on the fence up to now. They have this 10-point peace plan that would ensure that Russian forces get out of their country. It calls for the restoration of Ukraine's territorial integrity, and it calls for accountability for Russia's aggression. And a former U.S. ambassador, William Taylor, puts it this way.

WILLIAM TAYLOR: So the Ukrainians want to make the case that they are in the right - they're on the right side of the principles, the international principles, the moral principles - and that they, the Ukrainians, deserve the support of the Indias and the Brazils and the South Africas.

KELEMEN: And the Chinese, by the way. China announced that its special representative on Eurasian affairs is going to attend this meeting in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. And Taylor says that's really a big deal because China is an ally of the Russians, and this meeting is about Ukraine's proposals for peace and not Russia's perspective.

SIMON: Ukraine has been talking about this idea since last year. Is there any sign that any of the nations you mentioned are any closer to signing on to it?

KELEMEN: It's hard to know, but Taylor thinks there are a couple of factors that are kind of new here and might make other countries rethink their approach. Russia recently pulled out of that grain deal that allowed Ukraine to ship its food through the Black Sea, and that's having ripple effects around the world. And then, there was this attempted mutiny in Russia, you know, that short-lived uprising by Yevgeny Prigozhin and his Wagner mercenaries. Taylor thinks that that kind of damaged the image of Russian President Vladimir Putin. Take a listen.

TAYLOR: He's not the big, strong, unimpeachable leader that he would like to make the case that he is. And so there is scope for nations as they evaluate where they come down on the Russia invasion against Ukraine to think about this in a new way.

KELEMEN: Taylor was actually in Ukraine last week, and that's kind of what he was hearing. So that's the hope of the Ukrainians. He was also saying that the mood was pretty grim on the military side because the counteroffensive is really bogged down. But they're more hopeful on the diplomatic side.

SIMON: What do U.S. officials tell you about this meeting?

KELEMEN: Well, they're sending national security adviser Jake Sullivan, and he's going to be joined by Victoria Nuland, who's now the acting deputy secretary of state. So it's a high-level U.S. delegation, but they're not really raising any big expectations of a breakthrough here. They're just hoping that countries will kind of inch closer to Ukraine's perspective on the war. And by the way, that includes Saudi Arabia, which is hosting the meeting.

SIMON: And why? How does Saudi Arabia wind up getting this position?

KELEMEN: Well, you know, the Saudis have maintained ties with Russia throughout the war, and they seem to be kind of positioning themselves to play a larger diplomatic role. They're also kind of trying to show the U.S. that they can be responsible players on the world stage. Relations are just kind of slowly emerging from a pretty rough patch between the U.S. and Saudi Arabia.

SIMON: NPR's diplomatic correspondent Michele Kelemen, thanks so much.

KELEMEN: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

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Scott Simon is one of America's most admired writers and broadcasters. He is the host of Weekend Edition Saturday and is one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. He has reported from all fifty states, five continents, and ten wars, from El Salvador to Sarajevo to Afghanistan and Iraq. His books have chronicled character and characters, in war and peace, sports and art, tragedy and comedy.
Michele Kelemen has been with NPR for two decades, starting as NPR's Moscow bureau chief and now covering the State Department and Washington's diplomatic corps. Her reports can be heard on all NPR News programs, including Morning Edition and All Things Considered.
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