The talks that could have ended the war in Ukraine

Samuel Charap and Sergey Radchenko called it “a hidden story of diplomacy that did not succeed, but which contains lessons for future negotiations.” These are the talks that took place in 2022 between Russia and Ukraine – which have remained secret so far in terms of content – which could have put an end to the war after just a few weeks. Why did they fail? And, above all, how much is true?

Let's reconstruct the facts, starting from the ex post revelations of Foreign Policy. As is known, a series of intense live meetings between representatives of Kiev and Moscow will be held in March 2022, first in Belarus and then in Turkey. From these talks emerges the so-called “Istanbul Communiqué”, a vague basis in the eyes of the world but judged sufficiently “solid” by the protagonists, so that the two parties in conflict can start working on the text of a “definitive” treaty for the cessation of hostility and the division of disputed territories. How close are the parties really to ending the war at the time? And why did that agreement fall through?

Charap and Radchenko reconstructed the events by interviewing several officials who participated in the talks and examining numerous interviews and statements from Ukrainians and Russians present at the time of the talks. “What we found is surprising, and could have significant implications for future diplomatic efforts to end the war,” the journalists said. According to their sources, in fact, even Russian President Vladimir Putin confirmed his desire to negotiate a peace: «Already at the time there was a real agreement on the table that would have put an end to the war, but which the Ukrainians abandoned due to of a combination of pressure from their Western partners and the belief they shared with Kiev about Russian military weakness” is the Russian opinion.

What is certain is that talks between Kiev and Moscow begin on February 28 in one of Lukashenko's country residences near the village of Liaskavichy, not far from the Belarusian-Ukrainian border. «The Ukrainian delegation was led by Davyd Arakhamia, parliamentary leader of Zelensky's political party, and included Defense Minister Oleksii Reznikov, presidential advisor Mykhailo Podolyak and other senior officials. The Russian delegation was led by Vladimir Medinsky, a senior advisor to the Russian president who had previously served as Minister of Culture. The delegation also included the deputy ministers of Defense and Foreign Affairs.”

At the first meeting, according to witnesses, the Russians presented “unacceptable conditions”, effectively demanding Ukraine's capitulation. The following March 3 and 7, the parties held a second and third round of talks, this time in Kamyanyuki, Belarus, just across the border from Poland. On March 3, the Ukrainian delegation presents its demands: «An immediate ceasefire and the creation of humanitarian corridors that allow civilians to safely leave the war zone». While on March 7, Russians and Ukrainians examine preliminary drafts for the first time. Medinsky confirmed that these were Russian drafts that revealed “Moscow's insistence on Ukraine's neutral status.”

After that the in-person meetings stop, and informal channels and some unofficial discussions remain open Zoom. It is at this point, it seems, that the Ukrainians begin to focus on the issue that would become central to ending the war: the guarantee of an obligation on the part of the West, i.e. NATO, to defend Ukraine if Russia attacked again in the future. This is what is being discussed on March 10 in Antalya, Turkey, where the Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba meets his Russian counterpart, Sergey Lavrov, revealing to him that in Kiev they are “ready to seriously discuss peace”, because they are convinced that they can obtain the above guarantees from both NATO member states and Russia.

Kiev's Western partners, the United Kingdom in particular, however, immediately showed themselves reluctant to get involved in any negotiations with Moscow, convinced that the latter were simply bluffing. Furthermore, they are annoyed at the idea of ​​Ukraine running the games alone, given that it certainly could not have negotiated on behalf of London and Washington an agreement that involved the West in guaranteeing Ukraine's security.

Nonetheless, on March 29th – this time in Istanbul – new meetings were held, where the warring parties announced that they had agreed on a joint statement, but it was never disclosed to the press. «We have obtained a copy of the full text of the draft communiqué, entitled “Key provisions of the treaty on security guarantees of Ukraine”» the authors of the investigation report today for Foreign Policy. “According to witnesses we interviewed, the Ukrainians largely drafted the communique and the Russians have tentatively accepted the idea of ​​using it as a framework for a treaty.”

This agreement also included the issue of Crimea, the decision on which would be postponed to new negotiations “to be concluded within 15 years”. A huge concession from Kiev, and a common ground that could really have been a starting point. However, the agreement was too vague and indeterminate, because it avoided essential aspects, such as the precise modalities for the creation of humanitarian corridors, the ceasefire and the withdrawal of Russian troops. According to the sources, in fact, what Kiev and Moscow discussed was rather a geopolitical peace plan, which looked to the long term and ignored current events. «An admirably ambitious effort, but which in reality turned out to be too ambitious» they dismissed it in the West. «Russia and Ukraine have aimed too high, too soon» is the sentence from London.

Washington's skepticism did the rest. Also because the Ukrainians would have consulted with the Americans «only after the publication of the communiqué, even if the treaty described in it would have created new legal commitments for the United States», including the obligation to go to war against Russia if it had invaded Ukraine again. This clause alone was inconceivable for the White House, without its prior assent. Furthermore, the statement that emerged from Istanbul evaded the main issue, namely that of territory and borders. This is why “it did not seem like a negotiation destined for success” according to the Biden Administration, convinced that it was more logical to increase military aid to Kiev and simultaneously increase pressure on Russia, through an increasingly rigid sanctions regime. A line which, as is known, ultimately prevailed.

But, according to the reconstructions of Foreign Policy, it was the United Kingdom that definitively failed the negotiations. Already on March 30, in fact, the then Prime Minister Boris Johnson stated: «We should continue to intensify sanctions with a rotating program until every single troop (Russian, ed) will not be outside Ukraine.” On the following 9 April, Johnson himself appeared in Kiev, the first foreign leader to visit it after the Russian withdrawal from the capital. According to sources, he told Zelensky that “any deal would be a victory for him: if you give him something, he will keep it, put it in the bank and then prepare for the next assault.” In the words of David Arakhamia, a Ukrainian MP close to the president, «Boris Johnson came to Kiev and said that we should not sign anything with the Russians, but continue to fight».

Johnson finds fertile ground among decision makers and Ukrainian public opinion, especially after the discovery of the atrocities committed by the Russians in Irpin and Bucha. When the encirclement of Kiev by Russian troops fails, President Zelensky becomes progressively more confident and begins to think – perhaps for the first time – that he can even win the war on the battlefield.

But why did the talks stop completely? In every war, negotiations continue despite hostilities. Instead, in this case we gave in to the martial instinct and in 2023, but above all in 2024, we completely stopped looking for a point of contact (except for the noble and vain attempt of the Vatican, which sent the leader to the East of the CEI, Matteo Maria Zuppi).

Vladimir Putin himself claimed that the Western powers “intervened and blew up the agreement because they were more interested in weakening Russia than in putting an end to the war.” And he in turn pointed the finger at Boris Johnson, certain of the fact that BoJo had «sent the message to the Ukrainians, on behalf of the Anglo-Saxon world, that they had to fight Russia until victory is achieved and Russia suffers a strategic defeat”.

It is difficult to say how much truth there is in Putin's words, but the sources on both sides converge on at least one aspect: both Putin and Zelensky in 2022 were still willing to consider extraordinary compromises in order to put an end to the war. “Putin and Zelensky surprised everyone with their mutual willingness to consider far-reaching concessions to end the war,” say the sources interviewed by Samuel Charap and Sergey Radchenko.

Then when Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin stop in Kiev to coordinate greater military support (just two weeks had passed since Johnson's trip to Ukraine), it is already clear that the West will not bow to no compromise with the Russian invader. “The strategy we have implemented – massive support for Ukraine, massive pressure against Russia, solidarity with more than 30 countries engaged in these efforts – is having concrete results,” the Administration's dioscuri said at the time USA.

Moreover, after Moscow spectacularly fails to capture Kiev to overthrow the Ukrainian government (possibly killing or capturing Zelensky himself in the process), it is easy for Washington to focus on all-out resistance against the Russians. Especially considering that, as recalled by the journalists of Foreign Policy, «a few days after the start of the invasion, Moscow begins to test the waters to find a compromise. A war that Putin expected to be a walk in the park was already turning out to be anything but, and this early openness to dialogue suggests that he seemed to have already abandoned the idea of ​​real regime change.”

The rest is history. Two years and more of bloody fighting have produced nothing but death and destruction, reducing hopes of a negotiated peace to a minimum. Even if hope, as we know, is the last to die: even today the most optimistic believe that, precisely because we are in the exact same conditions as when it all began, the margins for re-establishing a dialogue are more concrete today than in 2022. «When the prospects for negotiations appear poor and relations between the parties are almost non-existent, recalling the talks of spring 2022 can offer new insights to apply to current circumstances» write Samuel Charap and Sergey Radchenko.

Can Vladimir Putin and Volodymyr Zelensky really surprise everyone again in the future by giving in to the doves of peace? Whoever thinks this also believes in the goodness of men and the importance of life. Which, unfortunately, does not seem to emerge in any way from the wastelands of Donbass.