Ukraine anti-war protest

People take part in a demonstration marking Ukraine's Independence Day and the six-month anniversary of the Russian invasion of Ukraine on August 24, 2022 in Berlin.

(Photo: Odd Andersen/ AFP via Getty Images)

Absurd Russian and Ukrainian Demands Can Still Be a Starting Point for Peace

Diplomats and analysts should give thought to whether they could in the future provide the beginning of negotiations leading to an eventual compromise.

The international community has before it two official proposals—Ukrainian and Russian—for a peace settlement to end the war in Ukraine. Both as they stand, and in present circumstances, are absurd. Diplomats and analysts should however give thought to whether they could nonetheless in the future provide the starting point for negotiations leading to an eventual compromise.

The Ukrainian government’s 10-Point “peace plan” demands complete withdrawal of Russian forces from all the Ukrainian territory that Russia has occupied since 2014 as a precondition for holding talks at all. Presumably those talks would then deal with other Ukrainian points, including war crimes trials for the Russian leadership, and Russian compensation for the damage caused by the Russian invasion.

In addition, President Volodymyr Zelenskyy and other Ukrainian officials have declared that Ukrainian neutrality is also a priori unacceptable—though it should be noted that an invitation to join NATO is a matter not for Ukraine but for existing NATO members, and can be blocked by one national veto.

If however Ukraine is defeated and suffers much greater loss of territory, then future generations of Ukrainians may regret that Kyiv did not treat Putin’s proposal at least as a starting point for negotiation and bargaining.

As revealed this week by The New York Times, these Ukrainian demands are radically different from Ukraine’s positions in peace talks with Russia that took place in Istanbul in the first weeks of Russia’s February, 2022 invasion. The paper quotes one of the Ukrainian negotiators, Oleksandr Chalyi: “We managed to find a very real compromise… We were very close in the middle of April, in the end of April, to finalize our war with some peaceful settlement.”

At that point, the Ukrainian government was prepared to agree to a permanent treaty of neutrality (allowing for membership of the European Union but not for NATO) in return for security guarantees from all members of the U.N. Security Council. The Ukrainians refused to recognize the Russian annexation of Crimea or the independence of the Russian-occupied areas of the Donbas, but were prepared to leave these under de facto Russian control pending future negotiations at an indeterminate date.

There were however some serious sticking points. Russia demanded that actions by the U.N. Security Council in defense of Ukraine would have to be agreed unanimously—which would have given Russia the right of veto. Russia also demanded that Ukrainian missiles be limited to a 25-mile range, while no such limits were to be placed on Russian weapons. These conditions were obviously unacceptable to the Ukrainians. It is impossible to say whether these disagreements could have been overcome or nuanced in some way, because the Ukrainian side broke off the talks, for reasons that are hotly contested.

If Ukrainian conditions have hardened enormously in the subsequent two years of war, so too have those of Russia. In a statement in response to the “Peace Summit” convened by the West in Switzerland, President Vladimir Putin demanded that Ukraine withdraw its troops from the whole of the four Ukrainian provinces that Russia claims to have annexed since the start of the war (in addition to Crimea, annexed in 2014)—although Russia does not occupy the whole of any of them, and did not manage even to capture or hold the provincial capitals of Kherson and Zaporizhia.

Putin said that as soon as Ukraine begins to withdraw its troops, Russia would cease its military operations. However, he added that as part of a final peace settlement, Ukraine would have to recognize Russian sovereignty over these four provinces and Crimea, sign a treaty of neutrality, guarantee the rights of Russian speakers in Ukraine, and engage in “demilitarization” and “denazification,” though he did not say what these last terms would involve.

These Russian terms were naturally at once rejected out of hand by the Ukrainian government and the West.

In the end however, the terms of an end to the fighting, whether in the form of a formal peace agreement or a cease-fire pending future talks, will be determined by the military situation on the ground. From this point of view, Ukraine’s demand for complete Russian withdrawal as a precondition of talks is completely impossible. It would require the total defeat of the Russian military, which is far beyond Ukraine’s capacity at present or in any rationally foreseeable future.

Putin’s conditions for peace by contrast, while they require that Russia inflicts significant further defeats on Ukraine, do not require that these defeats be total. To achieve this position on the ground, Russia only has to capture the remainder of these four provinces, or conquer other areas and then offer to exchange them.

As sensible Russian analysts recognize, Ukraine and the West will never agree formally to recognize Russian sovereignty; but if Moscow were prepared to settle for Ukrainian and Western acceptance of de facto Russian rule, then—as in the case of the unrecognized Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus—this would not necessarily be a fatal bar to peace. Neutrality has already in effect been accepted by Western governments, since they have repeatedly stated and demonstrated that while they will support Ukraine, they will not go to war to defend it.

This rules out admitting a Ukraine that remains in a state of war with Russia, even after a cease-fire.

Even de facto acceptance of Russian rule over five Ukrainian provinces would be a most bitter pill for Ukraine and the West to swallow. However, this would still be far less than the maximalist goals of Russian hardliners, whether in terms of the subjugation of the whole of Ukraine, or annexation of all the Russian-speaking areas of the country, including Ukraine’s second city, Kharkiv, and the whole of the Black Sea coast.

If in the months and years to come, the Ukrainian army can manage to hold roughly its existing lines, then the eventual line of division between Ukraine and Russia (whether drawn in a formal peace settlement or accepted as part of an armistice) will also run along these lines. If however Ukraine is defeated and suffers much greater loss of territory, then future generations of Ukrainians may regret that Kyiv did not treat Putin’s proposal at least as a starting point for negotiation and bargaining.

For it should be remembered that while the Russian terms of March 2022 would also have been a bitter pill for Ukraine to swallow at the time, their acceptance would have saved Ukraine much territory that it now seems certain permanently to lose, much damage that may never be restored, and many human beings who can never be brought back to life.

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