The Ukraine War has had a horrifying impact on the people of Ukraine, and has been a disaster for people around the world hit by rising food and energy costs.
There are some important facts about possibilities for ending the Ukraine War that are often swept under the carpet, that are important for us to remember to help find a way out of this tragedy.
The first and most significant fact is that Ukraine and Russia came right to the edge of agreeing a peace deal back in March 2022 – and that deal was torpedoed by Western leaders including Boris Johnson.
Another significant fact is that the most senior military official in the United States has campaigned publicly for peace negotiations between Ukraine and Russia, saying last November: ‘When there’s an opportunity to negotiate, when peace can be achieved, seize it. Seize the moment.’
Unfortunately, it is also a fact that one of the barriers to a negotiated end to the war is a Ukrainian law, passed in October, that bans peace talks with Russia so long as Russian president Vladimir Putin remains in office. (Ukraine has actually made a long list of other preconditions that make negotiations impossible.)
According to one US newspaper report, US officials see their role as ‘empowering Ukraine to retake as much territory as possible in coming months before sitting down with Putin at the negotiating table’ later in the year. However, the Ukrainian government has expressed an enthusiastic commitment to retaking Russian-occupied Crimea, which many observers believe could trigger a massive Russian response, possibly including nuclear strikes.
If negotiations are coming soon anyway, and if the alternative risks devastating escalation, why not negotiate now? We can’t know what the possibilities are until negotiators sit down at the table and try.
Western powers like Britain can stop undermining peace talks and express their support for a negotiated solution.
The Ukraine War almost ended in its second month, with Russian forces withdrawing to their pre-24 February positions, and without Ukraine giving up its claim to any of its territory. This near-miracle was achieved by diplomacy and negotiation – hosted by a neutral country, Turkey.
Under Ukrainian government peace proposals, which it published on 29 March 2022, Ukraine would confirm its status as a non-aligned neutral state, that would never join a military alliance (including NATO), or allow foreign military bases or foreign military forces onto its territory (including for exercises). In return, Ukraine’s security would be guaranteed by a number of countries, including the US, Britain and France, who would be required to intervene militarily if Ukraine was attacked. Ukraine would also be encouraged to join the European Union.
The status of Crimea, annexed by Russia in 2014, would be negotiated during a 15-year period – and neither party would use military means to change the status of the peninsula during this time.
Arrangements for the disputed Donbass region in southeastern Ukraine would also be negotiated separately.
Mykhailo Podolyak, a senior adviser to Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelenskyy, told the Financial Times at the time that any deal would involve ‘the troops of the Russian Federation in any case leaving the territory of Ukraine’ captured since the invasion began on 24 February.
The Istanbul Ten-Point Plan was a proposal from the Ukrainian side. We don’t know exactly what changes the Russian side asked for in the plan, because Ukraine abruptly withdrew from the negotiations.
One factor in the collapse of the Istanbul talks was the intervention of the British prime minister of the time, Boris Johnson, who travelled to Kyiv on 9 April to personally lobby Zelenskyy to pull out of the peace talks. According to a Ukrainian media outlet, Ukrainska Pravda, Johnson said that Britain would not sign the security guarantees which were part of the package, and that Ukraine should fight on. Ukrainska Pravda judged that Johnson’s visit was one of two major factors in the collapse of the negotiations, along with the revelation of Russian atrocities in the town of Bucha.
Confirmation of the role of the Western powers in the collapse of the peace talks has come from an unlikely source, Naftali Bennett, who was prime minister of Israel at the time (he served from 13 June 2021 to 30 June 2022).
Bennett was heavily involved in the negotiations between Ukraine and Russia in this period, visiting Moscow and Kyiv. In a recent interview, he described both Zelenskyy and Putin as ‘pragmatic’ during this phase of the negotiations. Putin gave up on regime change in Ukraine (‘denazification’), and Zelenskyy gave up on NATO membership, as steps towards peace. Bennett ‘was under the impression that both sides very much want[ed] a ceasefire’ and gave the odds of any deal holding at 50 percent.
According to Bennett, he consulted closely with Western leaders during these negotiations: ‘Anything I did was co-ordinated down to the last detail with the US, Germany and France.’ His interviewer asks at this point: ‘So they blocked it?’ Bennett replies: ‘Basically, yes. They blocked it and I thought they were wrong.’
There is public evidence about Russia’s attitude to these peace talks. For example, in January, Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov said: ‘We supported the proposal of the Ukrainian side to negotiate early in the special military operation, and by the end of March the two delegations agreed on the principle to settle this conflict.’
Lavrov went on: ‘It is well known and was published openly that our American, British, and some European colleagues told Ukraine that it is too early to deal, and the arrangement which was almost agreed was never revisited by the Kyiv regime.’
Perhaps more surprisingly, Russian president Vladimir Putin has publicly praised the Istanbul Ten-Point Plan. More than once.
On 21 September, Putin said that: ‘after the Istanbul talks, Kiev representatives voiced quite a positive response to our proposals’, but ‘a peaceful settlement obviously did not suit the West, which is why, after certain compromises were coordinated, Kiev was actually ordered to wreck all these agreements.’
A few days later, however, Putin made it much more difficult to reach a negotiated settlement by annexing four regions of Ukraine, in the Donbass, declaring that the people of those regions would be citizens of Russia ‘forever’. In that same speech, Putin called on Ukraine to ‘return to the negotiating table’. However, he added immediately: ‘But the choice of the people in Donetsk, Lugansk, Zaporozhye and Kherson will not be discussed. The decision has been made, and Russia will not betray it.’
It is just about possible to imagine some complicated optional dual citizenship offer that could make Putin’s ‘forever’ promise compatible with some version of the Istanbul Ten-Point Plan, but it seems a remote possibility.
On the other hand, Putin said at a press conference on 31 October, in relation to the Ukraine War: ‘it is not always expedient in terms of one’s national aims to put one’s negotiating position on the table in advance. Sometimes, this is the last thing you do. A better option is to put forward what diplomats call initial demands and then gradually advance towards a common denominator that would suit both sides.’
Putin then praised the Istanbul Ten-Point Plan for a second time: ‘We came to terms with them in Istanbul, but they later threw everything into the rubbish bin.’
Barriers to negotiation
It goes without saying that the Russian invasion of Ukraine on 24 February 2022 was a criminal act of aggression, and that it has been followed by a catalogue of horrifying Russian war crimes.
It is also a fact that Russia’s official position is that there should not be any preconditions before further peace negotiations take place, while the Ukrainian government has actually passed a law banning peace talks with Russia while Vladimir Putin remains president.
Volodymyr Zelenskyy signed that decree on 4 October 2022.
In response to US pressure to present a more peaceful face to the world, Zelenskyy developed a new Ten-Point Plan for peace. This requires Russian political and military leaders to first be prosecuted, convicted and punished for their war crimes at an international court (as well as all Russian forces to be withdrawn from Ukrainian territory) before Russian negotiators could be invited to a peace summit. Zelenskyy’s other preconditions for peace talks include: ‘restoration of [Ukraine’s] territorial integrity... compensation for all war damage... and guarantees that it will not happen again’.
The Russian position that there should be no preconditions for negotiations was stated, for example, on 8 November: the only precondition mentioned was that ‘Ukraine should show goodwill’.
More recently, on 11 February, Russian deputy foreign minister Sergey Vershinin said on Russian television: ‘Yes, according to the classics, any hostilities end up in talks, and, naturally, as we have said before, we will be ready for such talks, but only if those are talks with no preconditions, talks that would be based on the existing reality.’
There is an ambiguity here. ‘Existing reality’ is code for Russian sovereignty over Crimea and other parts of Ukraine. Saying that talks would be ‘based on’ this reality could be interpreted as saying that Ukraine must recognise Russian sovereignty over these regions before peace talks can take place, an impossible precondition.
However, other indications are that this is not the Russian position.
On 28 December, Putin’s press secretary, Dmitry Peskov rejected Zelenskyy’s new Ten-Point Plan, saying: ‘There can be no peace plan for Ukraine that does not take into account today’s realities regarding Russian territory, with the entry of four regions into Russia. Plans that do not take these realities into account cannot be peaceful.’
This wasn’t about preconditions for entering peace talks, it was a pre-negotiations statement about what would be an acceptable outcome of the talks.
Earlier in December, Peskov told reporters that it complicated the search for a mutual basis for peace talks that the US did not recognise the ‘new territories’ Russia had annexed in southeastern Ukraine.
Again, Peskov wasn’t quite imposing a hard-and-fast precondition to peace talks, pointing to an obstacle rather than an impassable barrier.
The truth is, we will only know whether Russia will really enter peace negotiations without preconditions if a serious approach is made by Ukraine. At the moment, it is, understandably but unfortunately, Ukraine that is further away from entering peace talks, with a law banning such negotiations until Russia overthrows its supreme leader.
Has the US set a time limit on Ukraine’s war?
Though US president Joe Biden recently announced that the US would be with Ukraine ‘for as long as it takes’, there are signs (detected by Responsible Statecraft) that the US is preparing to wind up the Ukraine War with a negotiated settlement later this year.
The Biden administration has been indicating to the Ukrainian leadership that the next few months are their best chance to decisively change the course of the war, before the Republican-controlled House of Representatives reduces the level of security and economic assistance given to Ukraine, and US public opinion becomes less enthusiastic about spending billions supporting the Ukrainian war effort. That’s what a senior US official told the Washington Post in mid-February.
‘We will continue to try to impress upon them that we can’t do anything and everything forever,’ the official said: ‘“As long as it takes” pertains to the amount of conflict. It doesn’t pertain to the amount of assistance.’
The Post reported that the message about the ‘critical nature of the next few months’ has already been passed on to the Ukrainian government ‘in blunt terms’ by several top Biden officials, including deputy national security adviser Jon Finer, deputy secretary of state Wendy Sherman and undersecretary of defence Colin Kahl, all of whom visited Ukraine in January.
Back in mid-January, the Post revealed that the director of the CIA, William J Burns, had just travelled to Ukraine with the same message: ‘Burns emphasized the urgency of the moment on the battlefield and acknowledged that at some point assistance would be harder to come by, the people said.’
According to the Post, ‘Biden’s aides say they are pursuing the best course of action: empowering Ukraine to retake as much territory as possible in coming months before sitting down with Putin at the negotiating table.’
The question is: if we’re heading to a negotiated settlement, why not start now, and avoid, if at all possible, the huge bloodshed involved in the looming Ukrainian and Russian spring offensives?
As readers of PN will know, the most senior military commander in the United States mounted a sustained public campaign for a negotiated end to the war late last year.
‘When there’s an opportunity to negotiate, when peace can be achieved, seize it. Seize the moment.’ Those were the words of the chair of the US joint chiefs of staff, army general Mark Milley, on 9 November, speaking to the Economic Club of New York about Ukraine. Milley cast doubt on the possibility of outright Ukrainian military victory.
The New York Times reported on 10 November that Milley had argued in private top-level meetings for Ukraine to enter peace negotiations with Russia to end the war. After Ukrainian successes in the Donbass region, including recapturing the city of Kherson on 9 November, Milley was said to believe that the Ukrainians had achieved as much as they could reasonably expect on the battlefield, before winter set in, ‘and so they should try to cement their gains at the bargaining table’.
‘When there’s an opportunity to negotiate, when peace can be achieved, seize it. Seize the moment.’
In White House discussions, Milley, making a hardheaded assessment of the military realities, and citing satellite images of trenches being dug by Russian forces, is said to have referred to the example of the First World War: ‘when the two sides engaged in years of trench warfare with little change in territory but millions of pointless casualties.’
Milley spoke out on US television on 10 November, saying: ‘we think there are some possibilities here for some diplomatic solutions’.
On 16 November, Milley again argued publicly for diplomacy, saying at a press conference that the Ukrainians might be able to achieve through negotiations what they were unlikely to achieve through military force: ‘There may be a political solution where politically the Russians withdraw.... Russia right now is on its back. The Russian military is suffering tremendously.... You want to negotiate at a time when you’re at your strength, and your opponent is at weakness. And it’s possible, maybe, that there’ll be a political solution. All I’m saying is there’s a possibility for it.’
After weathering a political backlash for his earlier remarks, Milley was less direct on 16 November in publicly calling for negotiations: ‘if there’s a slowdown in the actual tactical fighting... that may become a window... for a political solution, or at least the beginnings of talks to initiate a political solution.’
In terms of the Ukraine’s military chances, Milley said: ‘The probability of a Ukrainian military victory – defined as kicking the Russians out of all of Ukraine to include what they claim as Crimea – the probability of that happening anytime soon is not high, militarily.’
The US civilian political leadership responded to Milley’s public campaign for peace talks by quietly ‘working to reassure the Ukrainian government, outside experts, and former US officials that it will not push Ukraine to imminently seek a diplomatic outcome to the war with Russia’ (CNN, 15 November).
After these repeated remarks by the most senior officer in the US military, no one who calls for a diplomatic solution to the Ukraine War can be dismissed as naive. The most powerful general in the world, with the world’s most powerful intelligence agencies at his fingertips, believes that peace negotiations to end the Ukraine War are overdue. Back in November, Milley even argued that peace talks had a chance of winning Ukraine advantages that it could not gain by military force.
These are not the beliefs of an idle dreamer disconnected from reality.
Escalation or negotiation
Right-wing commentator Seth Cropsey suggested in the Wall Street Journal that ‘Gen. Milley’s comments almost certainly were prompted by fears of a Ukrainian offensive against Crimea and Russian escalation, nuclear or otherwise.’
Cropsey seemed to think that being afraid of a Russian nuclear attack on Ukraine almost amounted to treason against the United States. In his view, the US has an interest in ‘keeping the Crimea question alive’, to increase the pressure on Russia. It ‘might allow the U.S. to wrest back Crimea, thereby destroying Russia’s Black Sea position.’
Let’s set aside the question of when the US previously held Crimea.
What about the war aim of ‘destroying Russia’s Black Sea position’?
Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelenskyy has repeatedly stated his desire to retake Crimea, annexed by Russia in 2014. In January, Zelenskyy told the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland: ‘Crimea is our land. Crimea is our territory. It is our sea and our mountains. Give us your weapons, and we will return what belongs to us.’
On the other hand, ‘Antony Blinken “warns Ukraine” against retaking Crimea’, the Daily Telegraph reported on 16 February. The US secretary of state apparently told a group of experts that a Ukrainian attempt to retake the territory ‘would be a red line for [Russian president] Vladimir Putin that could lead to a wider Russian response’.
In other words, trying to recapture Crimea could trigger nuclear war. That was the warning of Alexander Formanchuk, the chair of Crimea’s civic chamber, at the end of January: ‘Any attempt to seize Crimea and return it to Ukraine will immediately escalate into a thermonuclear global conflict. Russia will not forgive this.’
The director of the Russia and Eurasia programme of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace wrote on 17 February: ‘if there is one contingency that could move [Putin] to [resort to nuclear strikes], the prospect of losing Crimea is a leading candidate among various such grim scenarios. It would amount to not just a defeat, but a humiliating defeat.’
British rear admiral Chris Parry told the Daily Telegraph on 12 February: ‘Ukraine will do well to leave Crimea alone for now. It is absolute kryptonite to the Russians, and they will die in numerous ditches to hold onto it, even if they lose everything else.’
‘if there is one contingency that could move [Putin] to [resort to nuclear strikes], the prospect of losing Crimea is a leading candidate'
The Biden administration is reported to be considering allowing Ukraine to use US arms, including Bradley armoured personnel carriers, to target a key Russian land route into Crimea, though the US will not, apparently, supply long-range weapons that could target Russian installations in the territory.
The alternative to escalation, and the dangers that it poses to the people of Ukraine, and to the wider world, is negotiation.