According to Ukrainian Officials, There Could Have Been Peace
It appears that the prolongation of the war is the result of Western intervention.
Yet if you want to know if peace was possible, you don’t have to trust the Russian claims. You can ask Ukraine. Several Ukrainian officials who were members of the delegation that was sent to Istanbul in March and April of 2022 to negotiate with Russia have confirmed that peace was within reach.
Oleksiy Arestovych is the former Advisor to the Office of the President of Ukraine. In a January 15 interview, he was asked whether he thought “bilateral negotiations between Ukraine and Russia could have worked earlier in the process.”
“Yeah,” he said, “I was a member of the Istanbul process, and it was the most profitable agreement we could have done.”
“So you came back from Istanbul thinking the negotiations had been successful?” the interviewer asked.
“Yes, completely,” Arestovych answered. “We opened the champagne bottle.”
He continued, “The Istanbul agreements were a protocol of intentions and was 90% prepared for directly meeting with Putin. That was to be the next step of negotiations.” He explained that “we had discussed demilitarisation, denazification, issues concerning the Russian language, Russian church and much else.” What remained was “the question of the amount of Ukrainian armed forces in peacetime and President Zelenskyy said, ‘I could decide this question indirectly with Mr. Putin’.”
This account matches Russian accounts that say that what remained was an agreement on caps on the size of Ukraine’s armed forces and on the number of tanks, aircraft, and rocket launchers.
Davyd Arakhamiia is the head of Zelensky’s Servant of the People Party. He led the Ukrainian negotiating team in Istanbul. Arakhamiia denies that the agreement was actually initialed, but he confirms that peace was possible and within reach. He said in a November 24, 2023 interview that Russia was “prepared to end the war if we agreed to, as Finland once did, neutrality, and committed that we would not join NATO.” He says that a guarantee that Ukraine would not join NATO was the “key point” for Russia.
Oleksandr Chalyi, the former Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs, was a third member of Ukraine’s negotiating team in Istanbul. He reported that “we negotiated with the Russian delegation practically two months in March and April…[for a] possible peaceful settlement agreement between Ukraine and Russia. We, as you remembered, concluded the 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.” Chalyi is reported to have said that Putin “demonstrated a genuine effort to find a realistic compromise and achieve peace.”
Perhaps the most important confirmation that peace was possible comes from Zelensky. On March 27, 2022, Zelensky told an interviewer that “security guarantees and neutrality, the nuclear-free status of our state” was “the most important point” for Russia.
Zelensky has confirmed Arakhamiia’s report that the promise not to join NATO “was the first fundamental point for the Russian Federation.” He then added “And as far as I remember, they started a war because of this.” Ukraine, Zelensky said, was “ready to agree to it.”
Zelensky confirms that Ukraine was prepared to agree to exchange a guarantee of “neutrality” for “security guarantees for Ukraine.”
“We are interested,” Zelensky said, “in this paper turning into a serious agreement that will be signed.”
Despite peace being within reach, it was not attained. Arestovych gives two competing explanations for the failure. One is that Zelensky “was shocked” about the alleged atrocities at Bucha: “Zelenskyy completely changed face when he came into Bucha and saw what had happened.” The other is that the West intervened to block the negotiations: “A lot of people say it was the Prime Minister Boris Johnson who came to Kiev and put a stop to this negotiation with Russia.”
“I really do not know,” Arestovych said.
Yet there is some reason to believe that the cause was not Bucha. Former German chancellor Gerhard Schröder played a mediating role in the Istanbul talks at the request of Ukraine. He too says that Ukraine was prepared to give up “NATO membership” in exchange for “compromise” security guarantees. But Schröder says that “nothing was known about Bucha during the talks with Umjerov,” a key Ukrainian negotiator, “on March 7 and 13.”
The same possibility is put forth in a report by a former U.N. Assistant Secretary-General in UN peace missions, the retired highest-ranking German and NATO general, and a professor emeritus of political science from Freie University in Berlin. They say that the direct talks in Istanbul “created a genuine chance for ending the war peacefully” until Zelensky “abandon[ed] a negotiated solution.” They then say that “Ukraine’s decision to abandon negotiations may been taken before the discovery of a massacre of civilians in the town of Bucha near Kiev.”
Further confirmation seems to come from Zelensky himself. On April 5, 2022, Zelensky told Ukrainian journalists that what happened in Bucha was “unforgivable” and will make “the possibility of negotiations…a challenge.” But, he added even after Bucha, “I think that we have no other choice” before going on to discuss details of the security guarantee that Ukraine would receive in exchange for becoming an officially neutral state.
If the cause of the cessation of talks was not Bucha, then what was it? Arakhamiia says that Ukraine did not finalize the agreement because dropping Ukraine’s NATO aspirations would require a change to the nation’s constitution, and because they did not trust Russia to leave Ukraine secure in the absence of NATO support.
There are problems with both reasons. Arakhamiia said that it would be “necessary to change the Constitution. Our path to NATO is written in the Constitution.” That’s true, but the constitution could be amended. In the same way that, in February 2019, then-Ukrainian president Petro Poroshenko replaced the commitment to remain neutral and not join NATO that was enshrined in the Ukrainian constitution with the newly enshrined commitment to aspire to NATO membership, now president Volodymyr Zelensky could change it back. Zelensky himself—who has said that “we are not afraid to talk about neutral status”—acknowledged that a solution is possible when he suggested that a referendum on constitutional changes regarding security guarantees would be “faster than amending the constitution.”
Arakhamiia’s second reason also does not bear up. He says that giving up Ukraine’s NATO aspirations “could only be done if there were security guarantees.” But there were security guarantees as Zelensky, himself, made clear in his March and April interviews. In the negotiations mediated by Israel’s then Prime Minister Naftali Bennett, Bennett has said that Putin and Zelensky both accepted “the Israeli model” of the West helping to build a strong, independent Ukrainian armed forces capable of defending the country. In the Istanbul Communiqué, the two sides agreed that Ukraine would abandon its NATO aspirations in exchange for security guarantees from a number of countries, possibly including Russia, China, the U.S., U.K., France, Turkey, Germany, Canada, Italy, Poland and Israel.
If Arakhamiia’s first two reasons are insufficient, he then supplemented them with a third: “We were advised by Western allies not to agree to ephemeral security guarantees.”
“Moreover,” Arakhamiia said, “when we returned from Istanbul, Boris Johnson came to Kiev and said that we would not sign anything with them at all, and let’s just fight.”
This explanation of why the talks suddenly stopped is supported by a myriad of well-placed sources who were involved in the talks. Turkey’s Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said that “there are those within the NATO member states that want the war to continue, let the war continue and Russia get weaker.”
The deputy chairman of Turkey’s governing party, Numan Kurtulmus, reports that “progress was made, reaching the final point, then suddenly we see that the war is accelerating…. Someone is trying not to end the war. The United States sees the prolongation of the war as its interest…. There are those who want this war to continue…. Putin [and] Zelensky [were] going to sign, but someone didn’t want to.”
Schröder said that “nothing could happen because everything else was decided in Washington…. [T]he Ukrainians did not agree to peace because they were not allowed to. They first had to ask the Americans about everything they discussed.”
Bennett makes the same claim about the preceding set of negotiations: “There was,” Bennett says, “a good chance of reaching a ceasefire.” But the West, Bennett says, “blocked it.”
Former UN Assistant Secretary-General in UN peace missions Michael von der Schulenburg says that “NATO had already decided at a special summit on March 24, 2022, not to support these peace negotiations.”
The historical record shows that you do not have to rely on the claims of Putin and Lavrov. To determine whether peace was possible in the early weeks of the war, one need only ask the Ukrainians.
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