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Why Peace Negotiations Between Russia and Ukraine Failed

As the Ukrainian war approaches its second anniversary, there is renewed, if rather limp, talk of a ceasefire followed by negotiations.

As the Ukrainian war approaches its second anniversary, there is renewed, if rather limp, talk of a ceasefire followed by negotiations. The premise (and promise) is that since neither side can ‘win’, it makes sense to start making peace. Few now remember that the war almost ended before it got going. On February 24, 2022, Russia launched ground and air attacks on Ukraine on four fronts. On February 28, 2022, Russian and Ukrainian officials came together in Gomel, Belarus to start negotiating peace. Peace talks continued on and off for a month before being called off.

Knowledge of these talks has been steadily leaking out ever since Russian President Vladimir Putin waved a ‘peace agreement’ before Russian TV cameras on June 17, 2023, which, he said, Ukraine had ‘trashed’. It was a “Treaty on permanent neutrality and security guarantees of Ukraine” with 18 articles and an appendix dealing with ‘armed forces and other things’ Putin said. 

Last month, Kremlin spokesperson Dmitri Peskov said that “Britain had sunk chances of a peace deal in 2022 by putting pressure of Kyiv to refuse a draft deal” shortly after Russia sent troops into Ukraine. 

What actually happened in February-March 2022? And what does it tell us about the prospects of peace today?

The negotiations

Russia invaded Ukraine on February 24, 2022; four days later, both sides started talking in Belarus. According to the New York Times, Ukraine demanded Russia be held accountable for war atrocities, withdraw from all captured Ukraine territory, including Crimea, and pay reparations. Russia demanded Ukrainian recognition of its annexation of Crimea in 2014, permanent Ukrainian neutrality, and autonomy for the ethnic Russian provinces or oblasts in eastern and south-eastern Ukraine. No progress was made, but both sides agreed to continue talking, this time with representatives of their foreign and defence ministries, and presidential administrations. 

After a short postponement, talks restarted in the Brest region of Belarus on March 3. The discussions concentrated on establishing ‘humanitarian corridors’ for Ukrainian refugees.

Further talks on March 7 reverted to Russian and Ukrainian requirements for an end to the fighting. Reuters reported Kremlin spokesman Peskov saying that Russia would stop its operations ‘in a moment’ if Ukraine enshrined neutrality in its constitution, and accepted the loss of Crimea and the breakaway regions of Donbas. The Ukrainians stood by their previous demand for a complete Russian withdrawal from all occupied territories, including Crimea, plus reparations. Despite complications over humanitarian corridors, the first three rounds showed some progress. Kyiv said it was willing to consider a key Moscow demand, guaranteed neutrality

The Ukrainians had never liked the negotiations being held in Belarus. Turkey’s prime minister Recep Erdogan was eager to broker a peace deal, and so, on March 10, there was a switch of venue to the seaside resort of Antalya in Turkey, with the Antalya Diplomacy Forum providing an opportunity for the Russian and Ukrainian foreign ministers Sergey Lavrov and Dmytro Kuleba to meet for the first time since the war started. They discussed temporary ceasefire agreements in heavily embattled regions, especially Mariopul, to allow for humanitarian corridors. 

A one and a half hour meeting chaired by the Turkish foreign minister Mevlut Cavusogiu failed to produce any breakthrough even on this limited issue. According to the Ukrainian foreign minister “unfortunately Minister Lavrov was not in a position to commit himself to anything’ without reference back to Putin. The official website of the Russian Ministry of Justice told a different story: the Ukrainian side was trying to “replace or devalue the existing negotiations track, which is taking place in Belarus” Nevertheless, the Turkish Foreign Minister thought that it was an important start as the foreign ministers of both sides were present. 

Between March 14-17, a fifth round of peace talks took place via video conference. This produced the best outcome so far. On March 15, Ukrainian President Zelensky reported ‘real progress’; next day Lavrov spoke of ‘some hope for reaching a compromise’. The Financial Times of March 16 signalled a 15-point draft deal by which Kyiv gave up its NATO ambitions in return for security guarantees outside NATO. In an interview with ABC news , Ukrainian negotiator Podolyak said Russia’s demands and position have “softened significantly” and :therefore, we have much confidence that we will have a cease-fire in the coming days”. He attributed the softening to the failure of the Russian ‘blitzkrieg’ to capture any big cities, leaving it with ‘no chances whatsoever to move further into Ukraine territory’.

By this time, a certain amount of peace momentum had replaced war momentum. There was no breakthrough at the sixth round of negotiations on March 21. However, according to BBC news  and Vedomosti ( Russian newspaper) President Zelensky requested a face-to-face meeting with Putin. Lavrov rejected this and said, “ It should happen once the two sides are closer to agreeing on key issues”. This rebuff brought a temporary halt to the sequence of negotiations. It also coincided with the start of a Ukrainian counter-offensive on March 22, which, by April 3, had ended Russian threat to Kyiv. 

 The seventh round of talks on March 29 saw the renewal of face-to-face negotiations in Istanbul. European Pravda reported that this had so far been the ‘most effective round of Ukraine-Russian negotiations’. The discussion centred on a draft treaty, the gist of which was permanent Ukrainian neutrality and non-nuclear status, in return for which Ukraine would have security guarantees similar to Article 5 of the NATO military alliance from China, Russia, UK, France, Belarus and others. Ukraine would also start a 15-year consultation period on the status of Crimea, though reserving the right to reconquer Luhansk and Donetsk (Ukrainian Pravda). For its part, Russia would “drastically reduce” military activity near Kyiv to ‘create the necessary conditions for further negotiations”. Ukraine’s successful counter-offensive had started a week before the Istanbul peace talks. The Russian offer to ‘withdraw’ on March 29 was thus far from voluntary. 

This draft was the one Putin waved on television on June 17, 2023. He called it a “not bad result”.

The talks of March 29 ended in the expectation that the draft agreement would be initialled by the principals, laying the foundations for a compromise peace. Putin even suggested meeting Zelensky. This never happened, and that was the end of the bilateral talks. Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov stated that “ Washington, London and Brussels want to use Ukraine to their advantage” and “no peace deal can be made”. Zelensky stated that Ukraine would not agree to peace until Russia agreed to return Crimea and Donbas region to Ukraine.

To sum up: in the early weeks that followed the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the two engaged in substantial attempts to negotiate a peace settlement. These could have ended the war before the devastation of Ukraine’s infrastructure, the massive loss of lives, and the increased risk of unchecked escalation. They featured an offer by Ukraine not to join NATO in return for equivalent security guarantees. Crucial points of disagreement about Crimea and Donbas, as well as about the practicability of the non-Nato guarantees, remained. But on March 29, both sides apparently expected to go on talking.

Reasons for Failure 

Was there a real chance for peace in March 2022? If so, why was it lost? Let’s take these questions in turn. 

The two sides were never as close to each other as the formulae they concocted suggested. Yes, Ukraine was willing to renounce joining NATO, but knew that equivalent security guarantees by the great powers would be hard to come by. Nor was there any real prospect of Russia ‘negotiating away’ its annexation of Crimea in 2014.

And as far as known, no progress had been made in settling the future of the Donbas-the Russian-speaking provinces of eastern and south-eastern Ukraine. Agreements between Russia and Ukraine, brokered by France and Germany, known as Minsk I and Minsk II intended to give the provinces a degree of autonomy within Ukraine had collapsed in 2015. Now they were partly occupied by Russian troops.  

Important in determining the immediate outcome were the fortunes of war. It was their initial failure to capture Kyiv which got the Russians talking; their continuing offensive in March which brought Ukraine to the table. With the success of the Ukrainian counter-offensive of March 22, the Russians had a renewed incentive to negotiate, while Ukraine was starting to scent victory.

The Ukrainian counter-attack also crucially strengthened the western resolve to support Ukraine, leading to the withdrawal by Ukraine of even cosmetic concessions. As the Ukrainian army continued to inflict defeats on the Russians, and western military aid was ramped up in the summer 2022, Ukraine had little further reason to talk to the Russians. The damage inflicted by continued fighting would be paid back by victory. 

These were the structural obstacles to successful peace negotiations. However, there were also two dramatic events which tilted the balance against peace.

As Russian forces were driven out of the Kyiv region at the end of March, Ukrainians claimed to have discovered evidence of atrocities – rapes, murders, massacres, looting, indiscriminate bombings and other war crimes – in Bucha, Irpin, Borodianka, Azovstal. These atrocious events, Russian responsibility for which has been confirmed by the UN High Commission on Human Rights, gave Ukraine an additional reason to break off negotiations, one strongly supported by the West. 

An even bigger obstacle to further talks may have been the arrival in Kyiv, on April 6, of British Prime Minister Boris Johnson “Johnson brought two simple messages to Kyiv. The first is that Putin is a war criminal; he should be pressured, not negotiated with. And the second is that even if Ukraine is ready to sign some agreements on guarantees with Putin, they [the NATO powers] are not”. is how one of Zelenskyy’s negotiators associates, Savyd Arakmahia, summed up the gist of Johnson’s remarks. Three days after Johnson returned home Putin announced publicly that talks with Ukraine “had reached a dead end”. For his part Johnson promised Zelensky $130m of military equipment and $500m in in financial aid, while President Biden announced a $800m military package to Ukraine.

Johnson’s intervention has been discounted on the ground that he was in no position to tell the Ukrainian government what to do. This is legally correct, but vacuous. He was in a position to tell them whether NATO powers would be willing to join Russia in guaranteeing Ukrainian independence outside NATO, and under what conditions Britain (and the USA) would supply further military and economic aid. Had Johnson’s promise of support been conditional rather than unconditional, it is inconceivable that negotiations would not have continued.

What of the future?

With the military situation in Ukraine now in stalemate, there is predictable new pressure for peace talks. There have been reports of ‘secret talks’ between US and Russian officials. There have been public peace initiatives by China, the Vatican, Brazil, Mexico and others. Thought leaders like Anatol Lieven and Jeffrey Sachs have strongly argued for an immediate ceasefire. These initiatives seem to be based on a sense that the war is going nowhere, but that were it to go somewhere, it could easily escalate into a nuclear confrontation.

When Russia’s foreign minister Sergei Lavrov said that the Ukraine conflict ‘is not as much about Ukraine as about the legal world order’ he correctly pinpointed the main obstacle to the restoration of peace: the lack of agreement between the great powers on a legitimate world order.

Russia’s claim that it had a right and indeed a duty to intervene in Ukraine to protect its integrity and security runs up against the doctrine that legally established frontiers must not be changed by force. However, existing frontiers, often the result of inventive colonial-era map-making, may not accord with current realities. How, then, to change frontiers peacefully if sentiment or security demand it? Clearly Russia’s idea of Ukraine as an integral part of itself was incompatible with Ukrainian nationalism. At the same time, Ukraine’s claim, backed by the West, to total sovereignty in foreign policy, is incompatible with Russia’s historical conception of its security needs. The disparity between these two mental fabrics is the biggest structural obstacle to peace. 

 Since the breakdown of the peace talks in April 2022, the military situation has scarcely changed: Russia is no nearer defeating a Ukraine supplied by NATO, and Ukraine is no nearer defeating its stronger neighbour. Time is on the side of Russia with its far greater resources of manpower, artillery, and airpower. In these circumstances, there will be a strong temptation on the Ukrainian/NATO side to break the stalemate by scaling up the warfare.

The danger of escalation should certainly not be discounted. Nor have economic sanctions decisively affected Russia’s ability to continue the war. The military stalemate prevents not just the resumption of ‘normality’ within Ukraine and in Ukraine-Russian relations but stability in the world as a whole, unless we are willing to accept as ‘normal’ the permanent division of the world into two antagonistic military and economic blocs. 

Historians will naturally look to history for precedents and lessons. Ukraine has fought for its independence and won, much as Finland did in 1939-40.Admittedly, Finland’s independence came at the price of some territory. If we could think of the current Ukrainian achievement as a successful war of independence, we would be much less fixated on defining Ukrainian victory in terms of the reconquest of every bit of the map called Ukraine in 2014. 

 The idea of ‘security guarantees’ for Ukraine outside NATO in the Ukraine-Russian conversations of February-March 2022 was groping towards the concept of a new security architecture to replace the NATO-Warsaw Pact system of the Cold War. Russia was demanding protection against NATO: Ukraine was seeking protection against Russia inside NATO. The compromise is a security structure of which NATO is a major but not the only part. Ukraine’s security should no more hinge on NATO membership than Russia’s on preventing Ukraine’s membership of NATO.

Bill Burns, now director of the CIA, wrote in 1995 that there was a need for a security order in Europe ‘sufficiently in Russia’s interests so that a revived Russia will have no compelling reason to revise it’. Instead NATO enlargement, he later wrote, had left “a mark on Russia’s relations with the West that would linger for decades”. 

The European (and indeed the global) security architecture should be one of ‘variable geometry’, with different structures of security provision available for different parts of the world, but with the whole tending to war prevention. A reformed Security Council of the United Nations should be the foundation (or arch) of any such design.

None of this will come to pass by thought alone. So we must rely on new (and possibly tragic) facts on the ground to provide the impetus to action. But when the facts allow it, thought should be ready to take advantage. That is why one should continuously talk up the need and advantages for peace today, even if its time is not yet. 

Robert Skidelsky is an economic historian and author of a three-volume award-winning biography of the economist, John Maynard Keynes. He is a member of the House of Lords.