Less than a week after the start of Russia’s February 2022 full-scale of invasion of Ukraine peace talks began as, even then, it was clear that Putin’s boast to be “in Kyiv in three days” wasn’t going to happen. There then began several rounds of intense negotiation between Moscow, Kyiv, and several others that could have stopped the war virtually before it had begun.

The US international relations journal and think tank, Foreign Affairs, has acquired copies of the various draft versions of a peace treaty. They show how the discussions progressed and how the text of the treaties changed until eventually they reached a point where insurmountable differences stopped the process.

The negotiating processes.

The first round of talks, which lasted more than five hours, was facilitated by President Alexander Lukashenko of Belarus and was held in the Gomel region of Belarus on Feb. 28. Three days later they met again in Belovezhskaya Pushcha, also in Belarus. These talks resulted in an agreement to establish humanitarian corridors to evacuate civilians.

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At the third round of talks on March 7, in the Brest region, also in Belarus the two sides laid out their “red lines” for peace, at which point it was becoming obvious that there was unlikely to be a meeting of minds on the subject.

According to the New York Times Kyiv demanded that Russians be held accountable for war crimes, its forces needed to withdraw from all occupied Ukrainian territory, including Crimea, and agree to pay financial reparations.

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In its turn Moscow insisted that Ukraine should recognize its 2014 annexation of Crimea, declare its permanent neutrality, and agree to autonomy for the ethnic Russian areas of eastern and southeastern Ukraine.

Despite the lack of progress both sides agreed to continue talking and to include representatives of their presidential administrations, foreign and defense ministries in the future. Kyiv did signal that it was willing to consider Russia’s demand for military neutrality if, in turn, Moscow accepted Kyiv’s future membership in the European Union.

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On March 10 Russian Foreign Minister, Sergey Lavrov, and his Ukrainian counterpart, Dmitry Kuleba, met on the sidelines of a diplomatic forum in Antalya, Turkey for a one-and-a-half-hour meeting chaired by Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu. The main agenda item was to agree on a temporary cease-fire in Mariupol and other areas of intense fighting, to allow civilian evacuation.

Again, there was no progress primarily, according to Kuleba, because “unfortunately, Minister Lavrov was not in a position to commit to anything” without the agreement of Putin. Russia said it was because Ukraine wanted to go back on issues agreed during the meetings in Belarus. Cavusoglu seemed to think there had been progress in his comments to Turkish media.

Further talks, held via video conferencing between March 13 and 17, seemed to offer real hope of a breakthrough. On March 15, President Volodymyr Zelensky said there had been “real progress” and Lavrov spoke of some hope for reaching a “compromise.”

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The Financial Times said a 15-point draft deal had been prepared wherein Kyiv would give up its NATO ambitions in return for security guarantees outside NATO. Ukraine detected a softening of Russia’s demands which Ukrainian presidential advisor Mykhailo Podolyak attributed to a reflection of how badly Putin’s “blitzkrieg” invasion was going which left him with “no chances whatsoever to move further into Ukraine territory.”

By the time of the sixth round of negotiations on March 21, the air of optimism was beginning to wane. Zelensky requested a face-to-face meeting with Putin which was rejected as it “should happen once the two sides are closer to agreeing on key issues.” The resulting temporary halt to negotiations caused by this snub coincided with Ukraine’s March 22 counteroffensive which by April 3 had ended the Russian threat to Kyiv.

March 29, the seventh round of talks was held face-to-face in Istanbul during which a draft peace treaty began to take real shape. In return for permanent Ukrainian neutrality and non-nuclear status, it would receive security guarantees, described by some as “NATO Article 5 Lite,” underwritten by the five permanent members of the UN Security Council, Belarus (Russia’s nomination) Canada, Germany, Israel, Italy, Poland and Turkey (Ukraine’s choice).

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In return, Russia would agree to a 15-year consultation period on the status of Crimea, and Ukraine would reserve the right to take back the occupied Luhansk and Donetsk regions. It also clearly stated that all guarantors (including Russia), “confirm their intention to facilitate Ukraine’s accession to the European Union.”

Russia also agreed to voluntarily reduce its military activity that threatened Kyiv to “create the necessary conditions for further negotiations.” The fact that Ukraine’s week-old counteroffensive had already forced Russian forces a long way back from the capital suggested the Russian offer was hardly voluntary.

Putin called the March 29 draft a “not bad result” and indicated he was now prepared to meet Zelensky. The discussions ended with the expectation that the draft treaty laid down firm foundations for an end to the war and it was only the fine details that needed to be settled.

As the Ukrainians pushed Russian forces back from Kyiv revealing the atrocities committed by Moscow’s troops in Bucha, Irpin and elsewhere in the Kyiv region, negotiations continued.

Foreign Affairs quoted the then-Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett, who had been one of the mediators between Moscow and Kyiv, more than 15 drafts were prepared between March 29 and April 15, with this last version proposing to sign the final agreement by the end of the month.

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How did success turn to failure?

The “not-so-simple truth” according to many including, significantly, Putin himself, was that Ukraine walked away from the deal because of pressure from the West and the poor performance of Russian forces led Kyiv to believe they would win the war.

Others said that the talks were just a sham with both sides merely going through the motions because that was what the international community expected. Russia’s Putin-led views were too fundamental to accept anything other than victory, and each side was merely buying time to see how the war went.

It was suggested that although Ukraine said it was willing to renounce NATO membership, it did not trust the principle of third-party security guarantees because of the failure of the 1994 Budapest Memorandum, by which Kyiv gave up its nuclear deterrent in return for security guarantees by among others the US and Russia, as well as the Minsk agreements which were supposed to have ended the post-2014 fighting in the Donbas.

To many it was obvious that there was no way Russia would ever voluntarily give up the annexed territories of Crimea and the Donbas. It was only the initial failure of the invasion that brought Moscow to the negotiating table while the success of Ukrainian forces not only persuaded Kyiv it could win but also gave impetus to Western allies to provide support to the “winning side.” That combination also finally persuaded Kyiv that it no longer needed to make concessions – a view which further successes in the summer of 2022 only reinforced.

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The Foreign Affairs publication quoted commentators who thought the whole basis of the negotiations was off beam. They say if the dialog had been truly meaningful it should have concentrated on conducting a cease-fire, de-escalation and protecting the civilian population. In fact, the whole basis of the discussions on both sides had been in trying to agree a post-war order when the outcome of the war was always in doubt. As the publication says: “putting the cart of the post-war order before the horse of the end of the war.”

 What about the future?

There has been little change in the views of either side, both seeing the only way forward being a military victory over the other. Many believe that, with the military situation becoming effectively deadlocked, the time is ripe to renew peace talks. There have been reports of “secret talks” between US and Russian officials and publicly voiced peace initiatives by Ukraine itself as well as China, the Vatican, Brazil, Mexico and others. The consensus is that after more than two years the war is going nowhere and, eventually, someone will lose patience and nuclear escalation will be the probable outcome.

The bottom line is surely that every war eventually ends in negotiation and compromise. The April 15 draft or something very similar seems as good a starting point as anything suggested so far. The big question is just how much is either side prepared to give and reduce its demands on the other to end this ultimately pointless war.

Will Ukraine cede some of the territory it has already lost, and will Russia be prepared to give some back?

Will Ukraine give up its desire for NATO membership or will Russia accept that joining the alliance is not the existential threat its public pronouncements suggest?

Will both Ukraine and Russia truly believe that the external security guarantees Kyiv has signed with the G7 nations and others are worth the paper they are written on?

Will peace lead to Russia re-entering the international community and the ending of economic and political sanctions or will Kyiv and others insist on some form of wide-ranging punishment including reparations for Ukraine being exacted on the Kremlin?

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