There’s been a jarring dichotomy in the recent news from Ukraine. On the one hand, stunningly brutal scenes of destruction as Russian forces bombard the city of Mariupol and fight pitched battles with Ukrainian defenders outside Kyiv. On the other hand, relatively upbeat assessments of negotiations over a deal to end the fighting. Talks between Ukrainian and Russian negotiating teams in Belarus have been ongoing since the first days of the invasion, in parallel with shuttle diplomacy conducted by the few remaining governments that still have decent relations with both sides, notably Turkey and Israel.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said last week that there was “hope for reaching a compromise”; Mykhailo Podolyak, Ukraine’s chief negotiator, has said that Russia’s position has “softened significantly” since the start of the war. Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said on Sunday that the two sides are “close to an agreement.” The Financial Times reported last week that a “15-point” draft of a peace plan had been created.
Experts caution against getting too hopeful about the diplomacy. “I think the negotiations are, to a large extent, theater,” Olga Oliker, program director for Russia and Central Asia at the International Crisis Group, told Grid. One sign that the Russian side is not taking the talks entirely seriously is the makeup of its negotiating team. The Russian side is led by Vladimir Medinsky, a former culture minister best known for his ultraconservative views on history and art. The team also includes Leonid Slutsky, a scandal-prone member of parliament from the far-right Liberal Democratic Party.
“These aren’t the people you send to make your final agreement. This is not where the deal is going to be finalized,” Oliker said. She sees the talks, for now, as a useful forum for negotiating limited humanitarian cease-fires and corridors for evacuation, and for both sides to probe each other’s views and float trial balloons in the press.
Natalie Jaresko, a former minister of finance of Ukraine, told Grid that while it’s clear neither side is ready to stop fighting, both sides “have to always be prepared to talk, both for their own people domestically, but also for their allies who would love to see this end. But if you ask me what I expect to come out of the talks, I don’t expect anything to come out.”
Still, positions are shifting, and changes on the front lines are likely impacting positions at the negotiating tables.
The Russian government appears to have entered the conflict confident it could overthrow Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy quickly and install a more obedient leader. But U.S. officials now believe that after nearly a month of military setbacks, Moscow has abandoned the goal of regime change and is looking instead to impose its terms on Ukraine’s existing government. The Ukrainian side, meanwhile, has met the invasion with far fiercer and more effective resistance than many expected, and enjoys significant international support. But with every bomb or fresh salvo of artillery, and increasing signs that the Russians are willing to bring their weapons to bear on civilian targets, leaders in Kyiv face a difficult question: How long can or should they hold out, as this stretches into a slow and brutal war of attrition?
Even if it’s not imminent, a negotiated settlement now appears to be at least one of the more likely, perhaps the most likely, outcomes of this conflict. As Zelenskyy himself put it in an interview with CNN, “Without negotiations, we cannot end this war.”
So what would such a settlement look like? And what are the toughest issues to resolve?
NATO and neutrality
Russia’s demand that Ukraine be barred from eventual membership in NATO was the issue that got the most attention in the lead-up to the war. It may also turn out to be the issue that’s easiest to resolve. Ukraine wasn’t likely to be invited to join NATO any time soon, and Zelenskyy has conceded that the country should probably abandon the goal. For one thing, the exact scenario NATO membership is supposed to prevent — an all-out Russian invasion of the country — has already come to pass, and Ukraine is doing a surprisingly effective job fighting back without the alliance. In place of NATO membership, Ukraine has asked for “security guarantees from a number of countries,” including the members of the U.N. Security Council, Germany and Turkey, though it’s a little unclear for now what those guarantees would look like in practice.
Actually codifying Ukraine’s non-NATO status in a way that satisfies Russia may be trickier. Doing so could require amending Ukraine’s constitution, which includes several references to the goal of NATO membership. Russia says it wants Ukraine to be a “neutral” country, which could mean several different things. According to Medinsky, the Ukrainian side has proposed an “Austrian or Swedish version of a neutral, demilitarized state,” and the Russians have said they would be open to that. Austrian neutrality was a condition demanded by the Soviet Union in 1955 in exchange for the end of the Allies’ joint occupation of the country. Sweden’s neutrality policy dates back to the Napoleonic wars.
On paper, this seems like a decent outcome for Ukraine. Both Sweden and Austria maintain their own militaries, have significant nonmember cooperation with NATO and are members of the European Union, which has its own slightly less ironclad mutual defense guarantee. Zelenskyy has called for Ukraine to be immediately admitted to the EU, but there are several countries ahead of Ukraine on the would-be member list, and the EU has so far declined to fast-track its application.
The Russians also appear to be demanding that Ukraine refrain from hosting foreign military bases on its territory and for restrictions on the type of military aid it can receive. At various points, Russia has also demanded the “demilitarization” of Ukraine. That’s probably a non-starter now. As Jaresko points out, given the amount of heavy weaponry that’s been flowing into Ukraine over the past few weeks, “Zelenskyy doesn’t have the ability to do that, even if he chooses to.” Some military analysts suggest that Russia, realizing it is unlikely to successfully occupy the country, is now intentionally training its fire on Ukraine’s armaments industry — “demilitarization” in practice if not in writing.
The Russian language and “denazification”
The Russian government has justified its invasion as a campaign to protect Russian speakers in eastern Ukraine (who have shown no signs they were looking for Russia’s protection) and “denazify” the country’s government (a deeply inaccurate and offensive claim, as Grid has reported). Russia may demand some concessions to satisfy these pretexts. The Financial Times, citing sources close to the talks, has suggested a compromise could involve Ukraine banning certain far-right groups or renaming streets currently named for Ukrainians who fought alongside Nazi Germany during World War II. Ukraine could also roll back recently passed laws restricting the use of the Russian language in public settings. (For what it’s worth, these laws were criticized by some international human rights groups, as well as Russia.)
Whatever concessions Ukraine makes in this area are likely to be mostly symbolic: Ukraine is certain to be more unified and far more anti-Russian than it was before the war.
Even the most optimistic assessments of the talks concede that the status of Crimea and the Donbas region will likely be the most contentious and difficult-to-resolve issues. No matter how badly things go for the Russian military, it’s hard to imagine a scenario in which Ukraine retakes control of the Crimean peninsula, which has been under Russian rule since 2014. But Russia is demanding more than control: It wants Ukraine to officially recognize Russia’s annexation of the region and give up its own territorial claim. This would be a very tough pill for Zelenskyy to swallow, and he could face significant domestic backlash if he gave in. There’s also the matter of the international reaction: The vast majority of governments still officially regard Crimea as part of Ukraine and might be reluctant to legitimize Russia’s seizure, a clear violation of the U.N. Charter and the sort of land grab that’s been rare in the last century.
Then there’s the Donbas — in particular, the two oblasts (provinces) of Donetsk and Luhansk, the territories at the heart of the Russia-Ukraine crisis for the last eight years. Since 2014, these have been partially under the control of two Russian-backed separatist “people’s republics.” On Feb. 21, in the days leading up to the full invasion, Russian President Vladimir Putin formally recognized the independence of these two regions. Crucially, he also recognized their claim on the entirety of the two oblasts, not just the areas the separatists previously controlled. The city of Mariupol, where some of the fiercest fighting and worst atrocities have taken place in recent days, is the largest city in the previously unoccupied part of Donetsk. One of Russia’s military aims at the moment appears to be to take effective control of these regions, to force its terms on Ukraine at the negotiating table.
Interestingly, while Zelenskyy has said that “we cannot recognize that Crimea is the territory of Russia,” he indicated just a bit more openness to a deal when it comes to these areas of the Donbas in a March 8 interview with ABC News. “I think that items regarding temporarily occupied territories and pseudo-republics not recognized by anyone but Russia,” he said, “we can discuss and find a compromise on how these territories will live on.” Prior to the invasion, Zelenskyy suggested he was open to holding a referendum on the status of both areas.
Still, he made clear in that same interview that the Ukrainian side is not ready to cave on such a core issue just yet: “The people who elected me are not ready to surrender, we are not ready for ultimatums.”
Sanctions and the international community
Most of the sweeping sanctions imposed on Russia by the U.S. and European countries since the war began came without conditions attached. In other words, it wasn’t specified what Russia would have to do get them lifted. Secretary of State Antony Blinken has said that in order to lift sanctions, the U.S. would have to see an “irreversible” Russian military pullback, so that “Russia won’t pick up and do exactly what it’s doing in a year or two years or three years.”
The Russian negotiators have indicated they want sanctions relief included as part of any peace deal. This would require the U.S. and NATO countries to be involved in a process they have mostly been watching from the outside so far. When asked last week if the U.S. was involved in the peace talks, White House spokesperson Jen Psaki said the U.S. role was to sanction Russia and provide military support to the Ukrainians in order to “strengthen their hand as they participate in these discussions and negotiations.” U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Linda Thomas-Greenfield told CNN that it is “for the Ukrainians themselves to decide” what terms are acceptable to them.
It’s a near certainty that the U.S. and NATO countries are somewhat more engaged in the negotiating process behind the scenes, but when we start seeing more overt involvement, that could be a sign the talks are really getting serious. Samuel Charap, a political scientist at the Rand Corporation, told Grid that absent some major change on the battlefield, “the only way I see the leverage to change Russia’s current approach is the potential involvement of the U.S. and the EU putting sanctions relief on the table. I don’t know how you get Russia to make significant concessions otherwise.”
Getting to yes
The scenes of carnage in Mariupol, Kyiv and elsewhere can make it hard to take talks all that seriously. But, Charap said, “the fact that there’s fighting is not an indication that there’s not seriousness about the negotiations. It could actually mean the opposite. It’s entirely consistent with how the Russians do conflict: talk and fight at the same time both as a means of improving their position at the negotiating table, and to demonstrate their resolve.”
But while both sides may be willing to talk, it’s clear that there’s still more fighting to be done. Put differently, both sides feel they can improve their negotiating positions by improving their positions in the war zone. Russia has only recently begun to bring cruise missiles and heavy bombardment to urban areas; Ukrainians have felt buoyed by their resistance and the fact that Russia has lost so many soldiers and heavy weapons. Neither side has exhausted its military resources to the point where it’s likely to strike a deal.
It’s hard to say when they might get to that point. Crisis Group’s Oliker told Grid the battlefield situation is unlikely to ever be conclusive. “They’re not looking for conclusive. They’re looking for enough pain.”
In many ways, because of Russia’s authoritarian political system, Putin may have more flexibility than other actors in this conflict. He doesn’t have to sell any deal he makes to skeptical lawmakers or a critical media. He kept Russia’s war aims deliberately vague, and thanks to censorship, much of the Russian public may still not be aware of just how much blood and treasure has been spilled in this “special military operation.” Censorship may also help Putin sell a less-than-ideal settlement to the Russian people. If he so chooses, he could take some concessions on NATO and the Donbas and claim that “denazification” had been accomplished.
Then again, if Putin saw the costs and benefits of this war the same way Western governments and analysts do, he wouldn’t have invaded in the first place.
As for the Ukrainian side, its surprising battlefield success has given it more leverage in the negotiating room, but also makes it far less likely to take a deal just to stop the bloodshed.
As Jaresko put it, “Both sides are treating this as existential. For Ukraine, it really is.”