Diplomacy in March/April 2022 –
a chronology (video)

23 October 2023
By Edward M. Druce

The news that there have been more Ukrainian military deaths since February 2022 than there were US troop fatalities in the nearly two-decade Vietnam War will focus minds on the next few months, even years. And whether there might be an alternative to letting the slaughter continue. It’s typically said that a peaceful resolution between the two sides is impossible, and that neither is willing to negotiate. Surely the only two options are to fight for every corner of Ukraine’s 1991 borders, or to appease a dictator? But this often forgets that, even in the wake of the discovery of the Bucha massacre, peace talks did take place. And according to those involved, they very nearly succeeded.

On 29 March, 2022, there was a meeting of Ukrainian and Russian delegations in Turkey, under the supervision of President Erdogan. Naftali Bennett, then Prime Minister of Israel, also conducted a parallel track of mediation directly between Zelensky and Putin. The base proposal was for Russia to move back to lines of 23 February, 2022 (that is, freezing their hold on Crimea and part of the Donbas region) but otherwise retreating to the peninsula. Mykhailo Podolyak, a senior adviser to Zelensky, said that day in Istanbul:

The Russian side has received this agreement, where the means of ending the war are clearly indicated, to study it and suggest their counter proposals. Of course, the agreement on security guarantees can only be signed after the cease-fire and the withdrawal of all Russian troops to the positions compromised upon, those as of 23 February, 2022. As for Crimea and Sevastopol we have agreed bilaterally with the Russian Federation to a 15-year pause and to conduct bilateral talks regarding the status of these territories. Today’s documents on the agreements about security guarantees are sufficient for announcing and holding the meeting between Presidents.

Two days later, 31 March, 2022, Sergey Lavrov, Russia’s Foreign Minister, met with Chinese counterparts and said on Chinese state television:

We regard the results of the talks that took place in Istanbul yesterday as a positive step forward. This is not the final result yet. But the Ukrainian negotiators have reaffirmed that Ukraine remains a non-nuclear state, stays neutral, and stays out of NATO. I consider it as significant progress.

That there had been genuine desire for peace from both sides was confirmed by Naftali Bennett, Prime Minister of Israel during this period, in an interview seven months ago:

I was under the impression that both sides very much wanted a ceasefire. Putin made two big concessions after the original demands; he renounced disarmament and denazification, and I said to myself, ‘wow, this is a huge shift’. I left very optimistic because he [Zelensky] renounced joining NATO… I updated Germany; the Americans – Jake Sullivan/Blinken/Biden; Macron; and Boris Johnson.

And that Zelensky had at the time renounced joining NATO was captured on video, 15 March, 2022, in a call with leaders of a British-led Joint Expeditionary Force. Zelensky:

It’s clear that Ukraine is not a member of NATO. We understand it. We have heard for years about open doors, but we have already heard that we won’t be able to join it. It’s the truth and it’s necessary to admit it. I’m glad that our people start understanding it and counting on themselves and our partners who help us.

This was a significant public concession from Zelensky, though concurrently, a ban on foreign bases in Ukraine was already precluded by Ukrainian law.

So what happened to this deal? Midway through talks, the horror of the Bucha massacre became apparent: over 400 Ukrainian civilians had been killed by the Russian 234th Regiment around Yablunska Street. Initially, this did not dissuade Zelensky from negotiations. As evidence of civilian killings came to light, on 4 April, 2022, the BBC reported:

Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky has said peace talks will continue with Russia despite accusing Moscow of war crimes and genocide. Mr Zelensky was speaking in Bucha, near the capital Kyiv, where bodies of civilians were found strewn on the streets after Russian troops withdrew. Responding to a question from the BBC on whether it was still possible to talk peace with Russia, Mr Zelensky said: ‘Yes, because Ukraine must have peace. We are in Europe in the 21st Century. We will continue efforts diplomatically and militarily.’

Mevlut Cavusoglu, then Turkish Foreign Minister (and the second longest serving Foreign Minister in Turkey’s history), overseeing the peace talks in Istanbul, said on 7 April, 2022:

Unfortunately the images we have seen from Bucha and from some other regions damaged the positive – relatively positive – atmosphere. We are still hopeful, and cautiously optimistic. At the same time we are realistic. There are difficult issues, but we have to continue our efforts. We expect more meetings, possibly between the two negotiating teams, and then Foreign Ministers to initial the possible agreement, and both sides agree that both Presidents also could come together. We are encouraging both sides to bring their leaders together.

Achieving a peaceful resolution was still Zelensky’s aim five days later. On the morning of 9 April, 2022, in an interview with the Associated Press, Zelensky said:

People will accept peace in any case. People want this war to be over on our terms… I am sure there are people who won’t be satisfied with any kind of peace under any conditions at any time. Because it’s a huge wound and a huge tragedy to lose your loved ones. But if we speak without emotions, however hard it is, we have to understand that every war should end in peace or it will end with millions of victims. And even then, if there are millions of victims, eventually peace will come, the war will end. So from this, we have to draw conclusions. Yes we have to fight, but, fight for life. You can’t fight for dust when there is nothing and no people. That’s why it’s important to stop this war. It’s difficult, emotionally difficult. No one wants to negotiate with a person or people who tortured this nation. It’s all understandable. And as a man, as a father, I understand this very well. We should not lose. This is not a wish. We don’t want to lose opportunities, if we have them, for a diplomatic solution of this matter. We should not lose them. We cannot afford to decide for millions of people who want to stop the war. Decide for them and say, ‘No, we are not ready to speak with murderers’.

But public support for a compromise had evaporated in light of the images from Bucha, and Zelensky’s position wasn’t supported by his negotiating team. Mevlut (Turkey’s then Foreign Minister) recounted [English transcript] on 23 August, 2022:

We were hopeful after the meeting in Istanbul. There was an approach in Istanbul, but everything has changed. Images came from Bucha and the atmosphere changed, they moved away from the table. I think that was the breaking point.

Naftali Bennett (Prime Minister of Israel at the time) recounted similarly:

A tragedy occurred in Bucha. As soon as it happened, I immediately said ‘The end of the story’. I saw different solutions then, but I prefer not to talk about them. In principle, we are talking about postponing the solution of the conflict for 99 years. But I saw from our talks how difficult it is to negotiate a ceasefire. As a rule, in the internal politics of each of the parties, neither side can be seen as weak or defeated.

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THE West isn’t exempt from responsibility in the diplomats’ accounts, however. Naftali was able to get as far as draft number 18 of an agreement between Zelensky and Putin. He has said:

I’ll say this in the broad sense. I think there was a legitimate decision by the West to keep striking Putin… They [the UK and US] basically stopped it [a negotiated deal] and I thought they’re wrong. I have one claim, I claim there was a good chance of reaching a ceasefire.

This quotation was mistranslated in the interview’s English subtitles to read ‘They basically blocked it’ (rather than ‘stopped it’) – which gave a false impression of active interference, rather than a general belief from the UK and US that a deal would not come together and hold. (I have verified the accurate translation of ‘stopped it’ with independent Hebrew translators.)

Naftali, as well as having been Israel’s 13th Prime Minister, is also a former Israeli Defence Minister. During his active duty in the Israeli Defence Forces (the special forces unit Maglan), he won awards for his proficiency in taking out members of Hezbollah – so clearly he has no issue with military force when he thinks it’s the strategically optimal thing to do. Opposition forces in Lebanon, and those now in Gaza on the receiving end of bombardment in attempt to destroy Hamas, wouldn’t exactly describe Naftali as an ‘appeaser’. But between Zelensky and Putin, he thought the most sensible route was diplomacy, and put odds of reaching a ceasefire at the time at ‘50%’.

This sentiment of Western reluctance to deal-make was backed up by Mevlut, saying in interview [English transcript] on 23 August, 2022:

FM Cavusoglu: We have said in the past that there are countries that would like the war to continue – this is a fact. 

Interviewer: Do you mean the international community? To be clear, is it the US?

FM Cavusoglu: In the West, there are countries that would like the war to continue. Some NATO member countries.

Interviewer: NATO means the US?

FM Cavusoglu: It does not solely mean the US. I am saying that there are countries, not just a country.

This perception was further supported by a pro-Zelensky outlet Ukrainian Pravda, in May 2022, running an article that said:

According to Ukrainska Pravda sources close to Zelenskyy, the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom Boris Johnson, who appeared in the capital almost without warning [the afternoon of 9 April, 2022], brought two simple messages. The first is that Putin is a war criminal, he should be pressured, not negotiated with. And the second is that even if Ukraine is ready to sign some agreements on guarantees with Putin, they [the UK and US] are not. Johnson’s position was that the collective West, which back in February had suggested Zelenskyy should surrender and flee, now felt that Putin was not really as powerful as they had previously imagined, and that here was a chance to ‘press him’. Three days after Johnson left for Britain, Putin went public and said talks with Ukraine ‘had turned into a dead end’.

Boris is rightly seen as a hero throughout Ukraine for being the first world leader to step up supply of military aid at so crucial a moment. But if the above passage is accurate, could delivery of arms have been stepped up without an ask to break off diplomatic talks – indeed, rather to fortify Ukraine’s leverage in talks? It’s difficult to tell in retrospect. It’s possible Boris was too jingoistic, but it’s also possible that Boris’s instinct was actually ahead of Zelensky’s in intuiting the feeling of the Ukrainian people – Boris undeniably having a remarkable ability to read the mood of a country.

At present, there’s an overriding narrative in the West that ‘Putin is not willing to negotiate’. This is what Secretary Antony Blinken tells us. But for anyone who listens directly to Putin (and I consider we should listen directly to foreign leaders – even, or perhaps especially, ones at war with our allies), this is simply not what Putin is saying.

On 17 June, 2023, meeting with heads of African states, Putin said clearly [35 minutes into the video here] that he is open to talks. Putin himself:

Speaking of negotiations, Russia has never rejected the idea of negotiations. With the assistance of President Erdogan, an entire series of rounds of negotiations took place in Turkey between Russia and Ukraine. Those negotiations were centred on confidence building measures and even drafting a treaty. The treaty was not supposed to be confidential, but we have never made it public before. This draft treaty was approved, was initialled, by the head of Ukrainian negotiators. Here is the document with his signature [Putin shows the document to the room]. It is called ‘A Treaty of Permanent Neutrality and Security Guarantees for Ukraine’. 18 articles, there are addenda and annexes that have to do with the armed forces and other things. Everything is spelled out, including the number of units of military equipment and personnel of the armed forces. The document is right here, and it was initialled by the Kyiv delegation. Their signatures are there. But when we withdrew our troops from Kyiv, the Kyiv authorities, following the example of their masters, simply threw this all away to the dustbin of history. They rejected that. Even in these conditions we have never rejected the idea of negotiating with them. It wasn’t us, it was the leadership of Ukraine who said that they would not negotiate with us. We have never rejected the idea of negotiations.

Putin doesn’t concede that it was the Russian-inflicted horrors of Bucha (not merely the backing of Western ‘masters’) that led to Ukraine’s withdrawal from talks. But at the same time, he could not have stated more clearly that he is open to negotiations.

Putin echoed this at the recent Eastern Economic Forum in Vladivostok, calling out Secretary Blinken’s comments for misrepresenting his willingness to talk. Putin’s Foreign Minister, Sergey Lavrov, two weeks ago further welcomed negotiations.

We should be aware that, in contrast to this, Zelensky signed a decree on 4 October, 2022 saying ‘We are ready for a dialogue with Russia, but with another President of Russia.’ This was an entirely understandable reaction to Russia’s annexation of several other regions: Luhansk, Donetsk, Zaporizhzhia and Kherson. Putin is mafia. I am not trying to dispute this point. But we should also acknowledge, despite what we hear in the mainstream and from Secretary Blinken, it’s Ukraine, not Russia, that’s presently put a block on dialogue.

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THE
 support that Ukraine’s bravery has solicited globally has been striking, but news that the war has so far killed or injured nearly 500,000 people ought to make us take stock and ask: is stoking this conflict by encouraging yet more fighting really the best policy? In March 2022 the world watched as Ukraine launched a spectacular fight-back: this was before its military retook Snake Island and other territory. It looked then as if Ukraine may even repel the invader. But with the counteroffensive having been so lethal, for such minute territorial gain, and the most likely scenario now being one in which war continues in a bloodstained stalemate, are tens of thousands more lives not going to be needlessly lost continuing as we are? Ukrainian authorities are struggling to administer medical necessities, and White House spokesperson John Kirby said last week ‘we are coming to the end of the rope’ in terms of US support.

I’m attuned to Mykhailo Podolyak (senior adviser to Zelensky)’s comments immediately after revelations at Bucha (8 April, 2022):

Some people, in particular Western businessmen, believe that somehow everything can be rolled back, but it will not happen. Many are worried that the Russian invasion may end with the signing of the conditional ‘Minsk-3’, ‘Budapest-2’ or ‘Istanbul-1’. I answer very simply. President Zelenskyy is much deeper into the material than anyone else today, he understands all the risks of any unfinished business and sees the perspective for decades ahead. Therefore, we will not go to ‘Minsk-3’ or ‘Budapest-2’ – it all makes no sense. In the historical perspective, even in the short-term, all these ‘Minsks’ lead to grandiose tragedies. All these agreements will not work without real mechanisms of war prevention. We will not go for it, it is a matter of principle.

But looking back at the record, the morning after these comments, as I’ve shown in extensive quotation above, Zelensky himself was willing to negotiate.

The history of these diplomatic talks needs to be better known. And the British and American governments – and many more Western media outlets – ought to be speaking with Turkish diplomats to get a second opinion on what would be a sensible next step from where we are today.

Mevlut put forward an updated view in a panel discussion, 29 August, 2022, at the Bled Strategic Forum:

It was much easier in the initial weeks. Now it is not that easy to reach a negotiated solution, unfortunately. Because things have changed. After the disturbing images we saw from Irpin and Bucha, things have changed. But now, there are new realities on the ground. Unfortunately, some cities, other than the Donbas region of Ukraine, have fallen. We are talking about peace, but it has to be a mutually accepted one. But it has to be, at the same time, a fair peace for Ukraine. The territorial integrity of Ukraine has to be ensured. Can they go back to the negotiation table? Is it that easy? This new reality will definitely be reflected in the further negotiations. And even the status – their positions – on the status of Crimea and Donbas have been changed. So it is not that easy. We are supporting Ukraine’s territorial integrity.

What does Mevlut (as of June 2023, no longer in ministerial office) think now, in October 2023, given the current state of the counteroffensive? Does he have suggestions of how a further round of peace talks between Zelensky and Putin could have the potential to succeed?

And to risk one more unpopular question: could China play a role here? While this might seem fanciful, this is something Secretary Blinken said in May he would welcome:

Interviewer: What do you think, in principle, Mr Secretary, about the idea of the United States working in parallel at some point down the road with China to seek a stable outcome here?

Secretary Blinken: In principle, there’s nothing wrong with that. If we have a country, whether it’s China or other countries that have significant influence, that are prepared to pursue a just and durable peace, we would welcome that. It’s certainly possible that China would have a role to play in that effort. That could be very beneficial. There were elements in the plan China put out that were positive.

Putin has, just this past week, welcomed the same:

Well, we naturally know the proposal of our Chinese friends, we highly value these proposals. I believe that they are quite realistic, in any case, they could be used as the basis for peace agreements.

And here’s Ray Dalio, founder of Bridgewater, the largest (US-based) hedge fund in the world – who has written extensively on emerging Great Power conflict – and a man who for decades has personally known members of both US and Chinese leadership:

My more attainable stretch goal would be for the US and China to jointly broker peace in Ukraine. While that is a stretch goal, it might be attainable as conditions are ripening for this to happen. Imagine if the two leading and opposing world powers that are currently lining the sides up for a hot war join forces to deliver peace. That would be terrific because besides delivering peace, it would reduce the risks of the Russia-Ukraine war leading to worse wars and would also show that they could work together for peace. If they did that, maybe they [the US and China] could develop a dynamic that would bring about peace rather than conflict in other cases.

Diplomacy of course needs to be conducted in a strong way. The late George Shultz: ‘Negotiations are a euphemism for capitulation if the shadow of power is not cast across the bargaining table.’ Before tens of thousands more get killed, shouldn’t the British Prime Minister at least speak with the figures today who’ve been closest to bringing about peace, see what can be learned, and see if there might be another way?

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Edward M. Druce is a former 10 Downing Street Special Advisor, and founder of Listening to the Other Side.