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Why Zelensky won't be able to negotiate peace himself

Why Zelensky won't be able to negotiate peace himself

The way out is to transcend bilateral talks to include moves toward a new, inclusive European security architecture.

Analysis | Europe

The war has escalated into a nightmare for the people of Ukraine. Hundreds of thousands of their soldiers have been killed or wounded, infrastructure and environment have been devastated. Ukraine’s chances of achieving any of its hoped for goals are receding and more land is being lost every day.

Furthermore, many of the dynamics that led to the start and the continuation of the war are making it especially difficult to get out of it.

Having nourished the people of Ukraine during the war with promises of maximalist achievements, it will be very hard for Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky to negotiate an end to the war with less than maximalist success.

Having led Ukraine through the war, Zelensky may be unable to lead them out. To encourage both Ukrainians and Ukraine’s allies, Zelensky promised not only that Ukraine would win back territory up to its prewar borders, but that it would recapture all of its territory to 2014 borders, including the Donbas and Crimea. To negotiate an end to the war without reclaiming that territory but having lost even more would be difficult for Zelensky.

Worse, it would be difficult for Zelensky to even attempt to negotiate an end to the war having decreed that Ukraine would not negotiate with Russian President Vladimir Putin.

And even if Zelensky were to regroup and rescind the ban on negotiating and preserve the best case scenario for Ukraine, he would be dissuaded by the same ultra-right nationalists who persuaded him off his campaign peace platform prior to the war.

Zelensky defeated Petro Poroshenko in a landslide victory in 2019 largely because of a promise to implement the Minsk Agreement and start to move toward peace with Russia. But he was pushed off that platform by a backlash in Ukraine and lack of support in the political West.

Ultranationalist leaders defied Zelensky and warned that a ceasefire and fulfillment of his campaign promises would lead to protests and riots. More seriously, they threatened his life. Dmytro Yarosh, the founder of the fRight Sector paramilitary organization threatened that, if Zelensky fulfilled his campaign promise, “he will lose his life. He will hang on some tree on Khreshchatyk boulevard if he betrays Ukraine and those people who died in the Revolution and the War. And it is very important that he understand this."

During a presentation announcing Zelensky’s creation of a National Platform for Reconciliation and Unity on March 12, 2020, Zelensky advisor Sergei Sivokho was thrown to the ground by a large gang from the Azov battalion.

Were Zelensky to return to his prewar platform after the death and devastation of the war, he could face the same resistance from the same groups now magnified by that devastation.

Zelensky could be replaced by a peacetime president with less baggage. But elections are prohibited by Ukrainian law during martial law, which is still in effect. Zelensky has ruled out holding them. Battlefield conditions would make it difficult, and many Ukrainians have already fled the country. Furthermore, a survey conducted in February 2024 found that 49% of Ukrainians definitely oppose elections right now and 18% rather oppose it, though the poll suffers from the methodological problem that it likely excludes those in the Eastern regions and those who have left Ukraine.

Bottom line: Zelensky isn’t going anywhere right now, but would struggle to negotiate an end to the war without help. Such assistance could come, however, from the U.S. and its partners in the West. Though Zelensky may not have the political strength to realistically reverse his maximalist promises nor to survive ultranationalist retribution, he would have a better chance of selling it if he could say that the Western powers who promised to support the pursuit of those goals for as long as it takes were pressuring him to negotiate an end of the war. Responsibility could be shifted to the United States.

But would the U.S. shoulder that responsibility? U.S. President Joe Biden, from the beginning, has framed the war in Ukraine as “the great battle for freedom: a battle between democracy and autocracy.” The U.S. has insisted on supporting the war against Russia in defense of “core principles,” including that each country has “a sovereign right to determine for itself with whom it will choose to associate in terms of its alliances, its partnerships.”

It may be perceived as a blow to Biden’s credibility, to U.S. hegemony, and to NATO to concede the inability to push Russia out of Ukraine and to defend NATO’s right to expand and Ukraine’s right to join.

Negotiations to end the war would be a desirable path out of Ukraine. Diplomatic talks are possible as proven by the nearly successful negotiations in Istanbul in the early weeks of the war. The existence of the signed draft treaty that those talks produced has been confirmed by independent sources who have seen it, including The Wall Street Journal, Die Welt and Samuel Charap of RAND and Sergey Radchenko of John Hopkins University.

Those talks “almost finalized an agreement that would have ended the war,” according to Charap and Radchenko’s analysis of the text of the treaty. “Kyiv and Moscow largely agreed on conditions for an end to the war,” Die Welt reports. “Only a few points remained open.”

Oleksiy Arestovych, who was a member of the Ukrainian negotiating team in Istanbul, says the talks in Istanbul were successful and could have worked. He says that the Istanbul agreement was 90% prepared. “We opened the champagne bottle,” he said.

But it is the very success of the diplomatic talks that makes future negotiations difficult. It will be very difficult for Ukraine — and the United States — after over two years of war, death, destruction, disruption of lives, and loss of land to agree to terms that are essentially the same as the terms they had won before the war.

But there is another way that surmounts many of these obstacles by transcending them. The diplomatic negotiations could be broader than just negotiations between Russia and Ukraine.

While several aspects of any diplomatic solution must address Russian-Ukrainian issues, like territory, caps on the Ukrainian armed forces and protection of ethnic minorities in both countries, significant parts could, instead, be addressed in a wider global solution. Putin has recently suggested that future talks encompass, not just a Ukraine-Russia security arrangement, but a comprehensive European security structure.

“We are open to a dialogue on Ukraine,” Putin said in May, “but such negotiations must take into account the interests of all countries involved in the conflict, including Russia's. They must also involve a substantive discussion on global stability and security guarantees for Russia's opponents and, naturally, for Russia itself.”

Instead, the expansion of a U.S. led military alliance hostile to Russia appears to be moving to engulf Europe right up to Russia’s doorstep. The insistence on defending that exclusive security structure contributed to the war in Ukraine. Addressing it could provide a more workable and lasting way out of it.

Instead of building a bigger NATO that expands to Russia’s borders and excludes and competes with it in conflict, the diplomatic energy could go into building a new inclusive European security structure that includes Russia in cooperation.

This new structure could eliminate the need for Ukraine to join NATO and for Ukraine and the U.S. to concede the right to join NATO. It could eliminate the need for the U.S. to commit to bilateral security guarantees that it is reluctant to sign with Ukraine because they could draw the U.S. into a war with Russia should Russia again attack Ukraine. It could, at last, bring the hope of peace to Europe and of better relations across the Atlantic.

Such global talks could relieve Zelensky of personal responsibility. They could bring sufficient force to defend against ultranationalist objections. They could truthfully be presented as a victory by the U.S. and not a surrender of “core principles.” And they could avoid competition and comparison with the earlier talks in Istanbul by transcending them.

How we get there is the hard part. But perhaps there is a way offered out of the war in Ukraine that delivers to each of Ukraine, Russia, the U.S. and Europe what it wants. Perhaps the way out is to transcend negotiations on the Russia-Ukraine war with talks that include that but expand to include an inclusive global security architecture.

Irpin, Ukraine - 5 March 2022: Ukrainian soldier stands on the check point to the city Irpin near Kyiv during the evacuation of local people under the shelling of the Russian troops.|Editorial credit: Kutsenko Volodymyr /

Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelensky (Shutterstock/Dmytro Larin)

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