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Diplomacy Watch: How close were Russia and Ukraine to a deal in 2022?

New analysis reveals details of talks shortly after invasion

Reporting | QiOSK

The RAND corporation’s Samuel Charap and Johns Hopkins University professor Sergey Radchenko published a detailed timeline and analysis of the talks between Russian and Ukrainian negotiators just after the Russian invasion in February 2022 that could have brought the war to an end just weeks after it had begun.

Much of the piece confirms or elucidates parts of the narrative that had previously been reported. In the spring of 2022, the two sides appeared relatively close to a deal, one that, according to the authors, would “have ended the war and provided Ukraine with multilateral security guarantees, paving the way to its permanent neutrality and, down the road, its membership in the EU.”

But due to a combination of changing battlefield dynamics that convinced Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky that he could win the war militarily, Western allies’ hesitance to engage diplomatically with Russia and simultaneous ramping up of military support for Ukraine, and the discovery that Russian forces had committed atrocities in Bucha, the talks eventually fell apart.

On some of these points, the authors contend that earlier accounts have been overstated. The idea that the U.S. and the UK “forced” Zelensky to back out of peace talks is “baseless,” say Charap and Radchenko, though they acknowledge that “the lack of Western enthusiasm does seem to have dampened his interest in diplomacy.”

On the suggestion that the discovery of war crimes convinced the Ukrainian president to abandon negotiations, the authors note discussions “continued and even intensified in the days and weeks after the discovery of Russia’s war crimes, suggesting that the atrocities at Bucha and Irpin were a secondary factor in Kyiv’s decision-making.”

But taken together, these factors, along with certain details of the agreement that were never finalized, were enough to imperil the negotiations.

In the two years since Ukrainian and Russian interlocutors last convened, the realities on the ground have changed. By April 2022, Vladimir Putin had likely realized that he would fail to achieve his most maximalist war aims. Now, with Western aid stalled and the war tilting in Moscow’s favor, Ukraine is in a less favorable negotiating position than it was and Russia may be less inclined to enter talks.

But, as George Beebe and Anatol Lieven detail in a recent Quincy Institute paper, all sides still have a reason to pursue a diplomatic solution, one that could both end the war and provide for a new European security architecture once the fighting ceases.

As Charap and Radchenko note in their Foreign Affairs piece, one of the reasons the original talks broke down was because the two sides were more focused on the broader endgame rather than on shorter-term solutions.

“A final reason the talks failed is that the negotiators put the cart of a postwar security order before the horse of ending the war,” they write. “The two sides skipped over essential matters of conflict management and mitigation (the creation of humanitarian corridors, a cease-fire, troop withdrawals) and instead tried to craft something like a long-term peace treaty that would resolve security disputes that had been the source of geopolitical tensions for decades.”

The two years of war have only increased distrust between Russia, Ukraine, and Kyiv’s Western backers, and diplomacy appears to be more difficult today than it was in 2022. But, say Charap and Radchenko, Zelensky and Putin surprised us once before with the concessions they may have been willing to make, and perhaps they will do so again.

The consequences of that failed first effort at diplomacy are clear, as Thomas Graham, former senior director for Russia on the National Security Council staff, argued this week.

“The great tragedy of the Russian-Ukrainian war is that it will ultimately prove to have been futile. The likely outcome — territorial adjustments in Moscow’s favor, security guarantees for Ukraine and Russia — could have been peaceably negotiated beforehand had leaders had a firmer grasp of the real balance of power or greater political courage,” he wrote in the Hill. “The cost of failed diplomacy is already hundreds of thousands of lives lost and hundreds of billions of dollars’ worth of property destroyed.”

In other diplomatic news related to the war in Ukraine:

— After months of waiting, the House may hold a vote to give Ukraine another tranche of aid over the weekend. On Wednesday, Speaker Mike Johnson (R-La.) introduced four separate bills, including one that will provide approximately $60 billion in aid for Kyiv. The House Speaker is already facing backlash from members of his own party, but the legislation is likely to have enough bipartisan support to pass if it is brought to the floor for a vote.

— There are reportedly increasing points of tension between Washington and Kyiv as Ukraine awaits more aid and its war effort falters. Zelensky was frustrated that Washington has not offered his country the same missile defense help as it provided to Israel during Iran’s strikes over the weekend. “European skies could have received the same level of protection long ago if Ukraine had received similar full support from its partners in intercepting drones and missiles,” Zelensky wrote in a post on X. “Terror must be defeated completely and everywhere, not more in some places and less in others.”

Moreover, Kyiv has expressed frustration over Washington’s recommendations that Ukraine not strike Russian oil refineries, according toThe Washington Post. Vice President Kamala Harris reportedly privately made the suggestion to Zelensky in February at the Munich Security Conference.

“The request, according to officials familiar with the matter, irritated Zelensky and his top aides, who view Kyiv’s string of drone strikes on Russian energy facilities as a rare bright spot in a grinding war with a bigger and better-equipped foe. Zelensky brushed off the recommendation, uncertain whether it reflected the consensus position of the Biden administration, these people said.” according to the Post. “Instead of acquiescing to the U.S. requests, however, Ukraine doubled down on the strategy, striking a range of Russian facilities, including an April 2 attack on Russia’s third-largest refinery 800 miles from the front.”

— Russia and Ukraine nearly struck a deal late last month to renew the agreement that allowed for the safety of shipping in the Black Sea before Kyiv suddenly pulled out, according to Reuters.

“A deal was reached in March ‘to ensure the safety of merchant shipping in the Black Sea’, and though Ukraine did not want to sign it formally, Kyiv gave its assent for Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan to announce it on March 30, the day before critical regional elections, the sources said,” reports Reuters. The reason for Kyiv’s withdrawal is unclear. Russia and Ukraine previously struck a deal to allow for safe shipping in June 2022 but Moscow withdrew from that agreement after one year.

U.S. State Department News

In a press briefing on Wednesday, State Department spokesman Vedant Patel urged the House to pass the aid bill for Ukraine quickly.

“So it certainly would not be hyperbole to say that every day matters, and the House, we believe, needs to act this week to support Ukraine and Israel as they respectively defend against Putin and the Russian Federation and the Iranian regime. And so this is something that we need Congress to provide urgently,” Patel said.

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