Ukrainian and Russian negotiators nearly ended the war three months after it began. This is the story of their failure.

May 3rd, 2024 by Tom Lynch

On 16 April, writing in Foreign Affairs, Samuel Charap and Sergey Radchenko detailed a series of talks between Ukrainian and Russian representatives that took place between early March and late May, 2022, aimed at creating an agreement to end the fighting that had begun with Russia’s unprecedented invasion of Ukraine on 24 February. The talks involved concessions on both sides.

The world watched what it thought were pro forma talks that were never going to go anywhere. What the world did not know was how close the negotiators came to a deal that would have ended the fighting.

Charap is Distinguished Chair in Russia and Eurasia Policy and a Senior Political Scientist at the RAND Corporation. Radchenko is Wilson E. Schmidt Distinguished Professor at Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies in Europe. These are not lightweights.

Charap and Radchenko argue that a war Putin expected to be a cakewalk was in its first two months proving anything but, especially when its troops were routed on their way to Kyiv and were forced to beat a hasty withdrawal, a withdrawal that did not allow them time to cover up the atrocities they had committed in Bucha and Irpin. Nevertheless, even before that, in mid-March, Putin suddenly became open to talking. He appeared to have abandoned his initial idea of outright regime change in favor of taking whatever he could get through diplomatic negotiation.

At the beginning of the talks, Russia’s two major demands were, first, Ukraine must agree never to join NATO, and, second, it must significantly reduce the size and capability of its armed forces. According to the Ukrainian negotiators, in addition to not being able to defend itself, agreeing to the Russian demands amounted to nothing more than Ukrainian capitulation. For their part, the Ukrainian negotiators insisted on a Russian withdrawal to pre-invasion lines, but showed openness on many other key issues, such as, through negotiations over the next fifteen years resolving the problem of Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea.

But things changed on 31 March when Ukrainian troops arrived in Bucha and found the  mutilated, tortured, raped, and executed bodies of about 450 civilians lying in streets and mass graves. President Zelenskyy went to see the carnage himself, the first time he had left Kyiv since the invasion. His revulsion and anger were palpable, and his position hardened.

But the two sides continued talking.

The authors write:

By the end of March 2022, a series of in-person meetings in Belarus and Turkey and virtual engagements over video conference had produced the so-called Istanbul Communiqué, which described a framework for a settlement. Ukrainian and Russian negotiators then began working on the text of a treaty, making substantial progress toward an agreement. But in May, the talks broke off. The war raged on and has since cost tens of thousands of lives on both sides.

The Istanbul Communiqué of 29 March 2022 included ten proposals that Charap and Radchenko write, “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.”

Why did the talks fail and, if they had not, what would have been the result?

Given the Ukrainian army’s success in forcing the Russian army’s retreat from around Kyiv and the horrid discoveries in Bucha and Irpin, it would be easy to lay the failure of negotiations there, and they certainly had a great deal to do with it. But it’s more complicated than that, as proven by the two sides continuing to talk for nearly another two months.

Charap and Radchenko list a number of reasons, all logical, for the collapse of the talks:

  1. Ukraine’s early battlefield victories in defeating the Russian Army’s attempt to capture Kyiv, which gave Ukraine’s President Zelenskyy hope for actually winning the war;
  2. The 31 March discovery of Russian atrocities, war crimes really, in Bucha and Irpin that further hardened Ukrainian resolve;
  3. A provision of the agreement requiring Russia to agree to Ukraine’s entrance into the European Union in exchange for Ukraine’s agreement to remain neutral and never join NATO, a provision which Ukraine’s western allies refused to agree to;
  4. The western allies commitment at the time to do all in their power to bring Russia down, both militarily on the battlefield and economically through increasingly onerous sanctions, a position they pressed on President Zelenskyy (who did not need a lot of pressing); and,
  5. The requirement that Ukraine’s western allies guarantee Ukraine’s permanent neutrality, which would have created new commitments for the U.S. and its allies to ensure Ukraine’s security in the event of another Russian attack sometime in the future.

It is that last point, the one about guaranteeing Ukraine’s permanent neutrality, that concerns me. This happened once before, and the guarantee led to and precipitated World War I.

Let me explain by taking you back to the Netherlands, to Belgium, to the 1831 Conference of London, to the 1839 Treaty of London, and, 75 years later, to August 1914.

The Netherlands controlled Belgium from 1815 to 1830. In July of 1830, the Belgians revolted and proclaimed their country an independent kingdom. Fighting, of course, ensued. In 1831 at the Conference of London the major Europeans countries recognized Belgium’s de facto independence. For the rest of the 1830s, the Netherlands and Belgium were sporadically at war.

In 1939, in the Treaty of London, the Five Great Powers — Austria, France, Prussia, Russia, and the United Kingdom — officially recognized the independent Kingdom of Belgium and also pledged to guarantee Belgium’s permanent neutrality. This meant that if any country, including the five Treaty signers, violated Belgium neutrality, the other co-signatories would come to Belgium’s aid.

Despite the Treaty of London, Germany declared war on France and, taking the shortest route, invaded Belgium on 4 August 1914 on its way to Paris (which its armies never reached, just as Putin’s Blitzkrieg never reached Kyiv). That evening, Britain declared war on Germany, because it had pledged to do so 75 years earlier by signing the Treaty of London. Informed by the British ambassador that Britain would go to war with Germany over the latter’s violation of Belgian neutrality as guaranteed by the Treaty of London, German Chancellor Theobald von Bethmann Hollweg said he could not believe Britain would do this over a mere “scrap of paper.” But that scrap of paper is what turned a German rematch of the Franco-Prussian war of 1870, into World War I, a war which killed an estimated 70–85 million people, about 40 million of whom were civilians.

The pledge of “guaranteed neutrality” is a wickedly heavy responsibility. In this case it would elevate Ukraine to the same standing as NATO countries all governed by NATO’s Article 5, which states that an armed attack on one member state is considered an attack on all member states. Essentially, Ukraine, without being a member of NATO, would have the same protection as every NATO member, the same protection Belgium had in 1914.

Would that be in the best interests of the wider international community? I think it would, but would such a deal deter Putin from further aggression?

Western leaders didn’t seem to think it would. Yaroslav Trofimov, writing for the Wall Street Journal, reported that on 9 April 2022, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson turned up in Kyiv —the first foreign leader to visit after the Russian withdrawal from the capital. He reportedly told President Zelensky that he thought “any deal with Putin was going to be pretty sordid.” Any deal, he recalled saying, “would be some victory for him: if you give him anything, he’ll just keep it, bank it, and then prepare for his next assault.”

I also have a hard time imagining what would happen if, at some distant time, a future Russian leader even more rapacious and power hungry than Vladimir Putin — if that’s possible — were to come to power craving to wrestle Ukraine back into the bosom of mother Russia. In that case, the world might find itself thrown right back to 1914 all over again.

Meanwhile, President Zelensky’s position, which hasn’t changed since he walked through what he called the “genocide” in Bucha and Irpin, is to demand a full withdrawal of Russian troops from all Ukrainian lands conquered since 2014, including Crimea, and the prosecution of Russian officials suspected of war crimes.

Considering all of this complexity, when this war ends, and some day it will, if there is to be any negotiated settlement, the signatories would do well to remember the 1839 Treaty of London and its, at the time, unforeseen and tragic, consequences.