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Russia says US 'wrecked' Ukraine talks, but peace is still possible
A US official rejects Putin’s claim that NATO sabotaged a "peaceful settlement" with Ukraine early in the war. Whatever happened then, it is not too late for diplomacy in this perilous moment.
In his Sept. 21 speech announcing an escalation of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Russian President Vladimir Putin accused NATO states of sabotaging a peace deal that could have ended it months ago.
At talks brokered by Turkey in March, Putin said, “Kiev representatives voiced quite a positive response to our proposals... But a peaceful settlement obviously did not suit the West, which is why, after certain compromises were coordinated, Kiev was actually ordered to wreck all these agreements.”
Speaking at the United Nations hours later, President Joe Biden criticized the Russian leader but did not address his claim that the US thwarted negotiations.
Asked about Putin’s remarks, officials from the White House’s National Security Council (NSC) and the State Department offered differing responses.
An NSC official referred me to the Ukrainian government for comment about “their peace negotiations in the spring.” But overall, the official added, “it is inaccurate that the U.S. discouraged Ukraine from seeking a peace agreement. Throughout this conflict, we have said that it is up to Ukraine to make their own sovereign decisions.”
A State Department spokesperson did not address Putin’s rendering of the March-April negotiations, and instead focused on the period before the invasion.
“As part of our efforts to deter President Putin from launching a full-scale invasion of Ukraine’s sovereign territory on February 24, 2022, the United States consistently spoke of the two paths Russia could choose: dialogue and diplomacy, or escalation and massive consequences,” the State Department wrote. “We made genuine and sincere efforts to pursue the former, which we vastly preferred, but Putin chose war.”
Asked if it had any response to Putin’s account of the peace talks that occurred after the invasion, the State spokesperson did not respond.
The Russian government has not offered any additional detail or evidence for Putin’s claim that Ukraine and Russia were close to a “settlement,” and that Kiev’s NATO backers intervened to “wreck” it. But the Kremlin is also not the first to assert it. The claim originated with sources close to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, who described the episode to Ukrainian media outlet Ukrayinska Pravda.
According to their account, talks between Ukraine and Russia collapsed after then-UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson visited Kiev in April and informed Zelensky that Putin “should be pressured, not negotiated with.” Johnson also relayed that “even if Ukraine is ready to sign some agreements on [security] guarantees with Putin,” Western nations “are not.”
That report was followed this month by an overlooked disclosure from former White House Russia expert Fiona Hill. Citing “multiple former senior U.S. officials,” Hill wrote that “Russian and Ukrainian negotiators appeared to have tentatively agreed on the outlines of a negotiated interim settlement” in April. Russia would withdraw to its pre-invasion position, while Ukraine would pledge not to join NATO “and instead receive security guarantees from a number of countries.”
If the Ukrainian Pravda account is accurate, then it was the UK’s Johnson, presumably acting at the behest of the US, that undermined this agreement.
And even if Putin is exaggerating the negotiations’ progress, or Western responsibility for their collapse, his claim that Russia and Ukrainian officials were close to a “peaceful settlement” signals that one may still be possible.
David Ignatius, the Washington Post foreign affairs columnist, appears to be the only establishment media journalist who reported Putin’s remarks. In Ignatius' view, the Russian leader’s claim about a thwarted peace deal in the spring offers a potential, if unlikely, “off-ramp” today. Invoking the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis, Ignatius compared Putin’s comment to the message from Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev that offered President John F. Kennedy “a path to de-escalation.” As with Khrushchev’s private overture to Kennedy, Putin’s claim about peace talks, Ignatius writes, is now Biden’s “letter to answer.”
As for the Ukrainian government, he added, Kiev “needs a reality check about its longer-term battlefield prospects.” That seems unlikely: in response to Putin’s threat that Russia could use nuclear weapons to defend itself, a Zelensky advisor urged the US and other powers to pledge “swift retaliatory nuclear strikes to destroy the nuclear launch sites in Russia,” if Moscow “even thinks of carrying out nuclear strikes” in Ukraine.
If the White House is to heed Ignatius’ advice and pursue an off-ramp with Russia, the US approach to diplomacy may also require a reality check. Despite the State Department’s claim to have “made genuine and sincere efforts” for “dialogue and diplomacy” with Russia prior to the invasion, the available record tells a different story.
As the Ukraine crisis escalated in January, a US official specializing in Russia relayed that “the Russians are still interested in a real dialogue,” according to the Washington Post. Russia’s goal, this official said, is “to see whether Washington is willing to discuss any sort of commitment that constrains U.S. power." But in the ensuing weeks leading up to Russia’s Feb. 24 invasion, Washington made clear that such constraints were a non-starter.
Russia’s core demands came on two tracks. The Kremlin asked the US and NATO to return their nearby military footprint to pre-1990s levels by withdrawing offensive weaponry and troops from states on Russia’s borders. As for Ukraine, Moscow sought guarantees that Kiev would not join NATO and that it would finally implement the 2015 Minsk accords, the agreement to end Kiev’s war with Russia-allied rebels in Ukraine’s Donbas region. That eight-year war, triggered by the 2014-US backed Maidan coup, left an estimated 14,000 dead, with over 80% of civilian casualties since 2018 occurring in the breakaway, rebel-held Donbas regions.
On all fronts, the US and allies balked.
The US and NATO refused to sign any bilateral agreement on a new security framework for Europe, nor abandon a 2008 pledge that promised Ukraine future NATO membership.
On the one key issue where the US appeared to give some ground – a willingness to discuss “reciprocal commitments” on barring missile systems and troop deployments in Ukraine – that “was not a clear-cut concession to Russia,” the New York Times noted. For Russia, a “reciprocal” pledge would be a non-starter, given that its most important naval base is in Crimea, and that the Donbas war was unresolved.
Although US officials now portray Ukraine’s NATO ascension as a sacrosanct right, that was not always the case. Fiona Hill, the former White House Russia expert, advised then-President George W. Bush against it. “We warned him [Bush] that Mr. Putin would view steps to bring Ukraine and Georgia closer to NATO as a provocative move that would likely provoke pre-emptive Russian military action,” Hill recalls. “But ultimately, our warnings weren’t heeded.”
To continue the Bush policy, Biden was willing to risk war. Asked if NATO expansion into Ukraine was "on the table" in pre-invasion contacts with Russia, State Department counsellor Derek Chollet replied: “It wasn't.” The US, Chollet recalled, “made clear to the Russians that we were willing to talk to them on issues that we thought were genuine concerns they have that were legitimate in some way.” (emphasis added) The “future of Ukraine” in NATO, Chollet said, was deemed a “non-issue.”
When it comes to the Minsk peace process on ending the post-2014 Donbas war, the US declined to use any of its influence to push Ukraine into implementation. At the final round of Minsk talks, just two weeks before Russia's invasion, a “key obstacle,”
the Washington Post reported, “was Kyiv’s opposition to negotiating with the pro-Russian separatists.” Even as “the talks continue to stall and the threat of war grows more present,” the Post added, “it’s unclear how much pressure the United States is placing on Ukraine to reach a compromise with Russia.”
In refusing to pressure Ukraine in the direction of peace, the Biden White House tacitly sided with Ukraine’s far-right, which threatened to overthrow Zelensky if he followed through on his campaign pledge to end the war. As the final Minsk talks sputtered in February, the New York Times noted that Zelensky "would be taking extreme political risks even to entertain a peace deal" with Russia, as his government "could be rocked and possibly overthrown" by far-right groups. "If anybody from the Ukrainian government tries to sign such a document,” a leader of the far-right Democratic Ax warned, “a million people will take to the streets and that government will cease being the government."
After bending to far-right threats and shunning peace with Russia-backed rebels, Zelensky’s government escalated attacks on their territory. In the week before Russia invaded, international monitors with the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) recorded a sharp uptick in ceasefire violations. The vast majority of these attacks appear to have come from the government side. Alfred de Zayas, a former UN Special Rapporteur, summarized the surge in ceasefire violations in the final days before the invasion:
The February 15 report of the OSCE Special Monitoring Mission to Ukraine recorded some 41 explosions in the ceasefire areas. This increased to 76 explosions on Feb 16, 316 on Feb 17, 654 on Feb 18, 1413 on Feb 19, a total of 2026 of Feb 20 and 21 and 1484 on Feb 22. The OSCE mission reports showed that the great majority of impact explosions of the artillery were on the separatist side of the ceasefire line.
Russia claims that this surge in attacks on rebel-held areas of the Donbas showed that a major Ukrainian assault was imminent, forcing Moscow to act pre-emptively. Whatever the Ukrainian government’s battlefield intentions in the Donbas, their refusal to negotiate an end to the war there was unmistakably clear.
Without US pressure to end the Donbas war, Zelensky also rejected a last-minute European appeal to accept neutrality. According to an account in the Wall Street Journal, Germany proposed to Zelensky on Feb. 19 that Ukraine “renounce its NATO aspirations and declare neutrality as part of a wider European security deal.” But Zelensky said no, a response that “left German officials worried that the chances of peace were fading.” Russia invaded Ukraine five days later.
Since the invasion began, the US “has maintained the same posture toward Moscow: Do not engage,” the Washington Post reported in July. The US has instead opted to be a co-belligerent in the war, spending tens of billions of dollars on weapons and other military support. Underscoring its role as a US proxy, the new $13.7 billion package for Ukraine is included in a bill to fund the US government. If Biden’s request is approved by Congress this week, the official US tab for the Ukraine war will top $70 billion.
With Russia now escalating the invasion by mobilizing hundreds of thousands of new troops, and proceeding with referendums for occupied Ukrainian areas to join Russia, the window for diplomacy appears to be rapidly closing.
But as Anatol Lieven outlines, these annexation referendums offer a possible off-ramp. While separatist Ukrainian regions are voting to join Russia, that does not guarantee that Russia will immediately annex them. Instead, Lieven proposes, Russia could use these votes as a bargaining chip to pressure Ukraine and its Western patrons to revive the peace talks that Putin claims were undermined.
There is a precedent, Lieven notes. Although the breakaway Donbas regions of Donetsk and Luhansk voted to become independent in 2014, Russia refused to recognize them as separate republics until the eve of the 2022 invasion. “This Russian delay was because, in the interim, Russia was engaged in a negotiating process with the West and supported the idea of these areas returning to Ukraine in return for a guarantee of full autonomy,” Lieven writes. “…Russia’s progressive loss of faith over the years that Ukraine would ever in fact grant autonomy, or that the West would make them do so, was one key element in Putin’s eventual decision to go to war.”
If the US is serious about getting Putin to end the war, then it could easily revisit the diplomatic opportunities that it has previously shunned. And if Putin is misleading the world in accusing NATO states of sabotaging peace talks, the Biden administration could call his bluff by embracing them now. Urging all parties to stop fueling “this painful and absurd war,” Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador has proposed “a commission for dialogue and peace” that would seek an immediate ceasefire.
In this perilous moment, the threat of US-Russia nuclear conflict is at its highest in decades, economic havoc is spreading, and more Ukrainian and Russian soldiers are being sent off to die in a war that could have been avoided.
Those on all sides who refuse to engage in diplomacy to end this crisis will surely be remembered for it — if the world can survive their policy choices.