© 2024 KOSU
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00
0:00
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

The story behind 2022's secret Ukraine-Russia peace negotiations

Ukrainian Defence minister Oleksii Reznikov (L) shakes hands with Russian negotiators prior the talks between delegations from Ukraine and Russia in Belarus' Brest region on March 3, 2022, following the Russian invasion of Ukraine.  (MAXIM GUCHEK/BELTA/AFP via Getty Images)
Ukrainian Defence minister Oleksii Reznikov (L) shakes hands with Russian negotiators prior the talks between delegations from Ukraine and Russia in Belarus' Brest region on March 3, 2022, following the Russian invasion of Ukraine. (MAXIM GUCHEK/BELTA/AFP via Getty Images)

The Russia-Ukraine war has lasted over two years.

But just weeks after Russia’s 2022 invasion, both sides came close to a settlement that could have ended the war and saved thousands of lives.

Today, On Point: The story behind those secret, thwarted negotiations.

Guests

Sergey Radchenko, the Wilson E. Schmidt distinguished professor at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies. Co-author of the Foreign Affairs article The Talks That Could Have Ended the War in Ukraine.

Samuel Charap, distinguished chair in Russia and Eurasia Policy and a senior political scientist at the RAND Corporation. Co-author of the Foreign Affairs article The Talks That Could Have Ended the War in Ukraine.

Transcript

Part I

MEGHNA CHAKRABARTI: On February 24th, 2022, Russia invaded Ukraine in the largest attack on a European country since the Second World War. But what isn’t well known is that just days after the war began, Ukrainian and Russian representatives met to negotiate a peace deal, one that would have ended the very war that had just begun.

Here’s Vladimir Medinsky, a senior advisor to the Russian president and lead negotiator speaking to the press on March 3, 2022.

(TRANSLATION)

“Negotiations with the Ukrainian side have just ended, during which we discussed all three blocks of issues, military issues and humanitarian issues, and the issue of the future political resolution of the conflict,” Medinsky said.

He went on.

Quote, “Positions are absolutely clear, they are written down one item after another, we’ve managed to come to an understanding on some of them, but the key issue we’ve resolved today is the issue of saving people, saving the civilians who found themselves in a combat zone.” End quote.

CHAKRABARTI: The invasion began on February 24th, 2022, as we said. On February 28th, talks began near the village of Lyakhavichy, about 30 miles from the Belarusian-Ukrainian border. The talks continued for weeks. Meanwhile, heavy fighting continued. By late March, talks were moved to Turkey, where it seemed a deal could soon be struck.

Here’s Medinsky again on March 29th.

(TRANSLATION)

“Yesterday, the Kyiv authorities, for the first time in all of the previous years, declared their readiness to reach agreements with Russia. They gave us the written principles of a possible future agreement,” Medinsky said.

CHAKRABARTI: He went on to say the principles include Ukraine’s willingness not to join NATO, a renunciation of nuclear weapons, as well as possessing, acquiring, and developing of other weapons of mass destruction.

A commitment to hold military drills with foreign military participation only upon agreement with guarantor states among which would be the Russian Federation. Of course, that was what Medinsky said the Ukrainians were willing to do. The same day, the top negotiator for the Ukrainian side. David Arakhamia told reporters that a final agreement could be near.

(TRANSLATION)

“We think that we have worked through enough material so that a meeting between the presidents of Ukraine and the Russian Federation can be made possible.”

CHAKRABARTI: Alexander Chaly, another key Ukrainian negotiator and former First Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs, said by April, peace was all but certain.

(TRANSLATION)

ALEXANDER CHALY: We negotiate with Russian delegation practically two months, in March and April the possible peaceful settlement agreement … between Ukraine and Russia. And we, as you remember, concluded so called Istanbul communique. And we were very close in the middle of April, in the end of April to finalize our war with some peaceful settlement. For some reasons it was postponed.

CHAKRABARTI: Postponed, and then ultimately never reached.

Two and a half years later, the war grinds on. It’s hard to determine exactly how many people have died, but the numbers are doubtless staggering. Last August, The New York Times reported that sources say Ukrainian deaths could top 70,000. Russian military casualties could be greater than 300,000.

Ukrainian officials, though, say their military casualties are closer to 31,000. But that, of course, leaves out civilians. A report from the UN Human Rights Monitoring Mission in Ukraine earlier this year says that almost 11,000 civilians have been killed, almost 20,000 injured. So that brings us back to what Russian Rep. Vladimir Medinsky said more than two years ago. That the key issue in the talks that were nearing a successful completion. The key issue was saving people. Those people, of course, were not saved. And today, we’re going to get an inside perspective of how those early Ukraine Russia peace talks broke down.

And joining us is Sergey Radchenko, the Wilson E. Schmidt Distinguished Professor at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies. Professor Radchenko, welcome to On Point.

SERGEY RADCHENKO: Thank you for having me.

CHAKRABARTI: Also with us today is Samuel Charap. He’s the distinguished chair in Russia and Eurasia policy and a senior political scientist at the Rand Corporation.

He joins us from Washington. Samuel Charap, welcome to On Point.

SAMUEL CHARAP: Hi, Meghna.

CHAKRABARTI: Now, both Samuel and Sergey recently co-authored an article in Foreign Affairs magazine, taking us into the story of the failed talks. It’s titled, The Talks That Could Have Ended the War in Ukraine, and we have a link to that at onpointradio.com. Samuel, if I may start with you, first and foremost, take us back right to February 28th. What, how did it come about that just four days after the invasion there were already representatives from Ukraine and Russia meeting on possible peace negotiations?

CHARAP: It seemed at the beginning of this war that basically, Russian President Vladimir Putin was opting to pursue something like the U.S. Thunder Run on Baghdad in 2003, a Blitzkrieg on the Capitol to overthrow the democratically elected government of Volodymyr Zelenskyy and to impose something like a puppet regime that would do his bidding. But it became very quickly clear, within days really, that wasn’t going to happen. And that Russian forces were, although getting quite close to the Capitol, taking heavy losses throughout the Northeast where they were pursuing multiple different lines of attack.

Through the mediation of Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko, they met at one of his countryside official residences and the two sides in person. And I think, looking back on it, we can see that the very agreement to meet suggests that at least there were beginning to be some doubts in Moscow about their ability to deliver on this three-day blitzkrieg when Ukrainians were expected to meet the Russian forces with flowers, which obviously was not the case.

CHAKRABARTI: I see. Okay. So that early uncertainty from Moscow is what opened the door just four days after the invasion began. Professor Radchenko, then take us to the next step. In more detail, what were some of the points that were discussed in those first meetings? Both you and Samuel got drafts of what was being discussed.

What was in those?

RADCHENKO: Meghna, what was happening in the early talks was the Russians basically pressed Ukraine to capitulate, they presented an ultimatum. This was still very early, the beginning, really, the beginning stage of the war, Russian forces were pushing towards Kyiv. And Russian conditions were basically uncompromising, very tough, entailing effectively, Ukraine’s surrender.

What happened, however, in the following weeks as the talks continued, they continued in Belarus for a bit, and then eventually, of course, were moved to Istanbul, was that the Russian blitzkrieg failed. And it seems that Vladimir Putin’s aims. And of course, we have to be tentative about these conclusions, but it seems that his aims may have been, may have changed a little bit in the sense that he could not, he could no longer overthrow the government in Kyiv.

So he became more open to, actually potentially became more open to having real negotiations. And the two sides … by the end of March 2022, the 2 sides seem to have come to a provisional agreement, the Istanbul communique, which is 1 of the documents we looked at. Which then was followed by more detailed exchanges of draft treaties, several drafts were changed as sides were making different conditions, that were proposing different amendments. And finally, in mid-April, the talks continued and that, of course, is after Bucha already, but the talks continued. But we have the final draft of April 15 which still, this draft still basically has the two sides pretty far apart on some key issues. But nevertheless, it does show that the two sides were talking and does show where they reached agreement on certain issues.

CHAKRABARTI: I want to talk in detail about what some of those surprising agreements were. But just also to state to both of you, since you did closely co-write this article, feel free, if I’m turning a question to you, Sergey and Samuel, you want to just jump in? By all means do and vice versa.

Okay. Because if there’s things to add I don’t want us to miss them. So don’t hold back gentlemen.

RADCHENKO: I’ll interrupt, same goes to Sam to explain, that’s not what happened.

CHAKRABARTI: Okay, good. So we have just a couple of minutes before our first break. I think one of the really eye-opening things in the article is how surprising some of the initial concessions were.

Samuel, can you just at least tell us what the, one of the first surprising things that that you and Sergey uncovered in these documents, these drafts?

CHARAP: In the real actual thing that was agreed between the two sides which was communique and a framework for future negotiations, it included a provision whereby Russia agreed to have a process to diplomatically address the dispute over Crimea. Now, Crimea, the Ukrainian region peninsula had been annexed by Russia, nearly 10 years prior in March of 2014. And ever since then, Russia had basically said that this is a region of Russia like any other. And we don’t compromise on our territorial integrity just because someone else is claiming it’s part of their country.

And here, of course, it seems like they had essentially, even though they hadn’t agreed to give it back by any means, had agreed to some sort of diplomatic process that would effectively treat it differently than the rest of Russia. From the Ukrainian side, we saw a readiness to embrace permanent neutrality.

That is an agreement not to join military alliances. As a matter of their constitution and even in the potential form of a UN Security Council resolution, which is a big shift from where they are, for example, today.

Part II

CHAKRABARTI: Sergey, if I can turn back to you, the two things that Samuel mentioned before the break are both very eye-opening concessions, or potential concessions, and I want to dig into them a little bit more. First of all, about, Russia making noises about Crimea.

That is so surprising because, of course, publicly, as Samuel had said, Vladimir Putin for years and years was utterly uncompromising in his view that Crimea is Russia, essentially. And so what did it tell you that behind closed doors, the Russians were less let’s call it rigid about that?

RADCHENKO: I think this is a face-saving concession on the part of the Russians. What the communique said was that the 2 sides would strive towards resolving the problems related to Crimea. In the course of the next 10, 15 years, that did not actually commit Russia to make any concessions on the question of Crimea itself.

I guess the interesting thing here is why did the Russians actually agree to discuss it? My guess, but I don’t know if Sam would agree, that this was a way of appeasing the Ukrainian side and saying we’re not actually all that unreasonable in the context of a broader negotiation, broader settlement.

CHAKRABARTI: Samuel?

CHARAP: The bigger picture is that, what I mentioned, the Ukrainian willingness to embrace permanent neutrality, the core of the deal was that in return, Ukraine would get these security guarantees from the United States, its allies and Russia would also be a guarantor, but this sort of concession from the Ukrainians of renouncing its ambitions to join NATO was potentially enough to engender some relatively significant concessions, even if they weren’t prepared to give back Crimea, so to speak. Merely putting it on the table was an acknowledgment that they had not been willing to make before and does suggest that they could have imagined, I don’t know, some sort of compensation mechanism for having taken it from Ukraine, or something like that.

CHAKRABARTI: And that neutrality portion of these early documents, would that have included removing the presence of all sort of foreign military assets in Ukraine?

RADCHENKO: That’s the big issue there, right? And Sam, feel free to chip in here, but again, the key issue was this, let’s say, Ukraine is invaded again by, obviously, by Russia.

Russia was the likely invader. Ukraine wanted real guarantees, not like the Budapest Memorandum of 1994, which was calling it security assurances. Here it wanted real guarantees that it’s the states that signed up to this. Treaty of Guarantees would actually come to its aid, something like almost actually even stronger than NATO Article 5 Guarantees.

So that’s what we find in this draft treaty, this commitment by participating states to come to Ukraine’s aid, including by closing its airspace, by providing weapons, ultimately by providing troops. And the interesting thing is this was supposed to have Russian endorsement. Russia was supposed to be a party to this system, which would obviously entail Russia’s acknowledgement that the system was legitimate.

CHAKRABARTI: Who were those other states?

RADCHENKO: The states were the five permanent members of the security council plus Belarus. I assume on Russia’s insistence, plus Turkey, which I assume was Ukraine’s idea, but this is only in the final draft before other various states were floated, including Sam, do you remember?

I think it was Israel, Canada, who else?

CHARAP Poland.

RADCHENKO: Poland. Yeah. Okay.

CHAKRABARTI: So hold that thought. Cause I want to come back to that. It’s oftentimes I find myself drifting towards just focusing on geopolitical issues, but there’s also the question of history and how it’s remembered. Very interesting part of this, because from your reporting, I understand that there were even discussions that would, Ukraine would agree or be required to ban fascism, Nazism, neo-Nazism, aggressive nationalism, even to repeal several Ukrainian laws that dealt with aspects of Soviet era history.

Can you guys talk about that?

RADCHENKO:  Sam, did you want to say something about this?

CHARAP: Go ahead, Sergey.

RADCHENKO: I’ll briefly introduce here what’s happening. So basically, very late in the talks, the Russians introduced these new articles that would see the changes to certain Ukrainian laws, dealing with historical memory.

Language, et cetera, and the list of laws was actually appended in the special protocol, which was very interesting. And so Sam and I were trying to figure this out. And we had different ways of explaining why the Russians insisted on having, changing those Ukrainian laws.

One idea would be to say they really cared about this. They seemed, they were obsessed by certain laws that, in their view, rehabilitated Nazi is more, whatnot. But another explanation, which ultimately, we landed on, was that it was a kind of a face-saving climb down by Putin’s government, Putin’s regime, because effectively he started the war with this proclamation of denazification as the aim of Russian invasion.

Most people assume that this basically entailed the overthrow of the Ukrainian government and removal of Zelenskyy from power, but obviously this goal has failed. So they said, okay, why don’t you change these laws? And this could count as denazification. Now, of course, this is a provisional conclusion.

We’re just working with a document and we’re just trying to understand, we know what we see what the Russians have proposed. We don’t know exactly why they propose this.

CHAKRABARTI: Samuel, did you want to add to that?

CHARAP: I guess maybe just for your listeners as background, there are like a bunch of cultural, historical, and linguistic issues that, you know, long before Putin’s full scale invasion, and even long before the invasion in 2014, have been the source of friction between Russia and Ukraine, and basically, just to be clear, Ukraine didn’t accept any of these demands that Russia was putting on the table late in the talks.

But it is striking how detailed the Russian delegation got into which provisions of which laws they would want changed. Again, suggesting that they were trying to channel this bizarre demand for denazification, quote-unquote, of a country run by a Jewish president, into something concrete as opposed to whatever vague notions that Putin was putting out there in the first days of the war.

CHAKRABARTI: Okay. From the research and the reporting that both of you did, obviously this agreement never came to pass, but do you think that it was tantalizingly close?

RADCHENKO: That is a million-dollar question. We state in our article that we do not know whether Putin was negotiating in good faith.

We assume that by the time we get to late March, early April, the Russians were much more serious. And we can see that in the changing of their demands, but we also show in the article just what divided the two sides. Those people who read the article can see well, the two sides were very far apart on the question of demilitarization.

For example, the Ukrainians were proposing one set of figures for the Ukrainian army. The Russians wanted a much smaller army for Ukraine, and they never resolve this, Putin would later claim this was all a done deal and we agreed, et cetera, et cetera. No, we can see that there was a huge gap between the two parties on the question of demilitarization, for example.

And then there was this issue that Ukraine really counted on Western involvement. In this process in Western powers, including, obviously, the United States had to sign on to the Guarantee treaty and come to Ukraine’s aid in a way that was even more, that would require a greater commitment that even article 5 of NATO.

And the interesting thing that we found was that this expectation by Ukraine, it was never really explored with the West, with Western partners, certainly not really with the Americans. And how could they expect that the United States would do that?

So that is, those are some of the big unanswered questions, but it’s very clear to us that they were negotiating. The question is, Could those problems be overcome?

CHAKRABARTI: Okay.

RADCHENKO: And maybe with greater political commitment or, in some way like that. I don’t know.

CHAKRABARTI: Yeah. So you bring up a really interesting point that gets us to further discussion about the factors that led the talks to ultimately break down.

So in order to do that, I first want to just play a little bit of tape from the day of Russia’s invasion, from its beginning. This is February 24th, 2022. And you’ll be hearing the voice of then Prime Minister of the U.K., Boris Johnson, making a statement in the British House of Commons.

BORIS JOHNSON: To our Ukrainian friends, in this moment of agony, I say that we are with you, and we are on your side.

Your right to choose your own destiny is a right that the United Kingdom and our allies will always defend, and in that spirit, we are with you. I join you in saying Slava Ukraini, and I commend this statement to the House.

CHAKRABARTI: Boris Johnson on February 24th, 2022. So just to remind folks, obviously there was a huge amount of response from NATO and from Western countries in support of Ukraine, right?

We had almost unprecedented sanctions levied against Russia and the agreement for military and financial assistance for Ukraine thereafter. But I also wanted to just go over briefly with both of you that for some time, at least some of the things that the Russians had been saying, presaging the invasion of Ukraine, was that NATO’s presence in Ukraine, that very Western influence, was a security risk to Russia.

So with that in mind, given what both of you said about the mutual aid agreement, essentially, that was part of, or could have been part of the peace deal, is the NATO and the West’s position here something that we really need to look at further in terms of they wanted to be able to keep foreign military assets in Ukraine.

And so therefore, for that reason in and of itself, there wasn’t a lot of motivation to bring the war to an end under the terms of the potential peace agreement that both of you have just laid out. Samuel, I’ll throw that one to you.

CHARAP: Okay. Just to be clear, there were no, and there really are no, of any significance, Western military assets in Ukraine. And no permanent foreign bases there, neither before the war or now.

I think that the issue was less about a Western push to get Ukraine into NATO at all costs, because if Ukraine said it’s no longer interested, that’s the end of the story, really.

But it was, at the time, what the Ukrainians were asking for was not NATO membership, but this sort of multilateral security guarantee involving Russia that would see geopolitical rivals, the United States and its allies on the one hand and Russia on the other, guaranteeing the security of a neutral state that sort of lied between them. And this was something that was a novel concept, not something that the U.S. does in other contexts that much.

Normally with allies, you’re with security commitments. You’re talking about an ally where you have access, and you train together and they’re integrated into a military structure. In this case, it was going to be guaranteeing the security of a neutral country, and it would have also required and just to be clear on the guarantees, the West has never really been interested in that kind of commitment to Ukraine’s security. So even in the form, whether in the form of actually granting NATO membership or these multilateral security guarantees, that has been always seen as a bridge too far because of the potential that it could lead to a direct clash between the United States and Russia.

But the other piece of it was, this would have required Western willingness to engage in diplomacy with Putin, who had just done, taking this unprecedented act of aggression and whose military had, it had just been revealed, was engaged in these horrific war crimes.

And there really has not been that kind of interest in the sort of high stakes diplomacy that would have been required to bring this thing to a successful conclusion. So I think those were the two aspects that led to Western reticence on the engaging in these talks.

CHAKRABARTI: Hindsight is always 20/20 though, but of course the unwillingness to engage in those high stakes diplomatic talks have led to the deaths of tens of thousands of more people, right? In the intervening two years. But to your point here, there’s another interesting moment that I want to play. This is from February of 2023, so a year after the Russian invasion and you’re gonna hear the voice of Naftali Bennett former prime minister of Israel, because he was interviewed about a meeting he had with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Moscow in March of 2022.

A month after the invasion. Now, at that time, Bennett was still Israeli prime minister, and he told the interviewer that one of the sticking points in the peace deal negotiations was around exactly what Samuel was just talking about, Ukraine security and the United States involvement in it.

(TRANSLATION)

So Bennett there is saying, The negotiation is unreasonable because they are negotiating over something they don’t have. There’s a joke about a guy trying to sell the Brooklyn Bridge to a passerby. The guy did exist 100 years ago. They don’t have the Brooklyn Bridge. I said that because America will give you guarantees, it will commit that in seven years, if Russia violates something, it will send soldiers after leaving Afghanistan and all that.

I said, it won’t happen. You won’t get guarantees. Why are you negotiating that?

That’s a former Israeli prime minister, Naftali Bennett. Sergey, did you wanna comment on that?

RADCHENKO: I think Bennett was not entirely forthcoming, should I put it this way, in his comments. He was basically saying Ukraine should rely on itself. Look at Israel. Israel does not, it’s not being guaranteed by anyone, but it has a massive army, etc.

But of course, one thing he did not say is that Israel has a nuclear program, which Ukraine noticeably does not have. Trusting your own strength is an interesting proposition, but that would require a massive Ukrainian army, potentially nuclear deterrent. And this is not where those talks were going.

Here, we have a very different conception, permanent neutrality. Guaranteed externally by major powers, including the most likely aggressor, Russia. So that’s where Bennett’s model and the model that was being discussed, differed.

Part III

CHAKRABARTI: I wanted to just ask both of you quickly about what choice did Ukraine have? Because the Russian military had invaded, and without asking for some kind of security guarantee in return, a robust one, what would be the most that Ukraine would get out of it? Yes, maybe a Russian withdrawal, but without security in exchange, they would be vulnerable to a Russian invasion.

Yet again, so isn’t it understandable that Ukraine would push as far and as hard as it did, even if it involved trying to get Western countries to make promises that perhaps they were unwilling to, in order to guarantee their own security?

RADCHENKO: Sorry, Sam, go ahead.

CHARAP: I was just going to say, I think you’ve hit on the dilemma that Ukraine faced then and continues to face now.

That in the context of any war endgame, it feels the need to have, to not be doing this again on its own. And while the support from Western countries has been unprecedented, it still is doing all the fighting itself. Ukraine and Ukrainians are the ones fighting and dying, and it does not want to face a situation where it’s fighting by itself again, if Russia were to do this again, and it has every reason to suspect that Russia might.

So I think that the desire for external guarantees, security guarantees on behalf of Ukraine is completely understandable given their circumstances. And, I think we’re seeing this now manifest in a different form. Their active pursuit of NATO membership is another way of basically getting at the same thing in a very different kind of format. Sergey, you were saying, I’m sorry.

RADCHENKO: No, I agree, Sam. This is the dilemma for Kyiv. They were under Russian attack. The Russians were pushing towards Kyiv. Zelenskyy was throwing everything at the wall to see what would stick.

And so he had those negotiations with the Russians, which entailed, give and take on both sides. And we have seen what those things were. Ultimately, what happened, as we know, is that the Russians were effectively beaten back at the gates of Kyiv. They had to pull back. They called it, this was done as if to promote negotiation.

The reality was, of course, that the Russians were defeated. And I think at that point, and Sam, we write about this in the article, Zelenskyy understood that he could perhaps get better, more advantageous into this war by fighting on the battlefield. But this is, of course, not the only explanation and we looked at different explanations.

People don’t tend to focus on one thing. And say it was Boris Johnson who came there and just waited, the Ukrainians from doing a deal with Putin. That is just naive, right? This is just too simplistic. Zelenskyy was in charge. He had options that he was looking at.

And the failure of the West to sign on to this would be treaty. It was certainly one important issue. The fact that now Kyiv was not taken, and he could be receiving military support from the West was another important issue. The outrage following the discovery of the atrocities the Russians committed at Bucha.

Helped Zelenskyy rally public support for the continuation of war. And it was a pretty, I would say the deal that the Russians were trying to arrive at certainly was not a very pretty deal for Ukraine. So I don’t think that Sam and I are blaming Zelenskyy for it.

For taking the options that he did in the end.

This article was originally published on WBUR.org.

Copyright 2024 NPR

KOSU is nonprofit and independent. We rely on readers like you to support the local, national, and international coverage on this website. Your support makes this news available to everyone.

Give today. A monthly donation of $5 makes a real difference.