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The West Should Be Receptive to Russia’s Openness to Talks

The Kremlin has issued a flurry of statements in the past few weeks that suggest that Russia is ready to negotiate a diplomatic settlement to the war in Ukraine. 

The joint statement issued by Russia’s President Vladimir Putin and China’s President Xi Jinping after their May 16–17 state visit included the statement that “both sides emphasized that dialogue is a good way to resolve the Ukraine crisis.”

In Belarus one week later, when asked about his willingness for peace talks, Putin answered, “Let them resume.” The Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov has said that Russia does not want “eternal war,” and on May 24, Reuters reported that a “senior Russian source” said that “Putin can fight for as long as it takes, but Putin is also ready for a ceasefire—to freeze the war.”

Other statements out of Moscow hold hints as to the possible starting points for such talks and to the compromises Russia might be willing to offer.

The logical place to start, according to Putin and other Russian officials, would be where the Istanbul Communiqué ended. This idea was first raised by Belarusian President Aleksandr Lukashenko, who hosted the first round of Russian–Ukrainian peace talks in Belarus, on April 11, 2024. “Take the document (that you once showed me), put it on the table and work on it,” Lukashenko suggested. “This is a sensible position. There is an acceptable position for Ukraine as well. They were ready to sign it after all. ‘Of course,’ Vladimir Putin confirmed.” 

Peskov later confirmed that Moscow believed the Istanbul Communiqué could be “the basis for starting negotiations.”

The very existence of such a tentative agreement, signed by the heads of both the Russian and Ukrainian negotiation delegations, was doubted by many, but has now been confirmed by at least three independent sources. On March 1, 2024, the Wall Street Journal confirmed that what they called a “draft peace treaty” does exist because they “and others familiar with the negotiations,” had “viewed” it. On April 16, 2024, Samuel Charap of RAND and Sergey Radchenko of John Hopkins University wrote in Foreign Affairs that they had “closely scrutinized two of these drafts.” And on April 26, 2024, the German paper Die Welt reported that it had “the original document.”

According to Germany’s former Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder, who became involved as an intermediary at the request of the Ukrainian government, the agreement contained five key points: The first was no NATO membership for Ukraine, though Russia did not object to EU membership. The second was bilingualism at the official level. The third was regional autonomy for Donbass along the model of South Tyrol in Italy. The fourth was security guarantees backed by the UN Security Council and key Ukrainian allies. The final point regarded territorial adjustments. Crimea would be recognized as Russian, and the status of Donetsk and Lugansk were to be determined through personal meetings between Putin and Zelensky. The Kherson and Zaporozhye regions that Russia incorporated after the talks broke down were at that time still part of Ukraine.

Ukraine’s agreement not to join NATO has consistently been seen as “the key point,” according to the leader of Ukraine’s negotiating team in Istanbul, Davyd Arakhamia. Russia was “prepared to end the war if we agreed to…neutrality,” he says. Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky echoes this, saying “as far as I remember, they started a war because of this.”

Although the two sides remained quite far apart on the size of the Ukrainian armed forces and security guarantees, Die Welt concludes that “Kyiv and Moscow largely agreed on conditions for an end to the war. Only a few points remained open. These were to be negotiated personally by Vladimir Putin and Volodymyr Zelensky at a summit meeting.”

Recent remarks by Putin hint at a way forward on these issues. Putin has suggested that a Russia-Ukraine peace deal should be part of a new and comprehensive European security arrangement with security guarantees for all. 

“We are open to a dialogue on Ukraine,” Putin reportedly said, “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.”

Russia has long sought such a “comprehensive, co-operative and indivisible security community throughout our shared OSCE area.” Indeed, it thought that the West had agreed to this concept in the final declarations of the 1999 Istanbul Summit and the 2010 Astana Summit, and felt betrayed when later informed that they were not legally binding. In this context, Russia views NATO’s unilateral decision to expand eastward, taking in all of Europe except for Russia, as threatening and intolerable, and continues to insist that any permanent solution to the conflict in Ukraine must also address the foundational European security crisis.

Doing so would clearly benefit both Ukraine and Europe. The Istanbul agreement was blocked by the West, in part, because the West balked at security guarantees to Ukraine that would oblige them to go to war with Russia should it invade Ukraine. A comprehensive European security structure that embraced both countries would go a long way toward assuaging Western worries, since its architecture would oblige all the parties to prevent war, rather than intervene after one had begun. Such a comprehensive security framework would thus simultaneously give both Ukraine and to Russia the security guarantees they seek. 

While restarting the Istanbul dialogue of 2022 seems hard to imagine, multiple Russian sources told Reuters that Putin would “settle for what land he has now and freeze the conflict at the current front lines.” If true, then Putin might be willing, at least for now, not to push on to Odessa or Kharkiv, and may even be willing to give up parts of the newly annexed regions that are not yet fully under Russian military control.

There is clearly a path around the roadblocks that have prevented peace so far—security guarantees that would satisfy both Ukraine and Russia and serve as a starting point for territorial compromises. It would leave a secure Ukraine with 80 percent of its territory, which is more than it has been able to gain on the battlefield, and lead to EU membership. As Alexey Arestovich, a former Zelensky advisor who was involved in the Istanbul negotiations put it, for Ukraine this would be “not a bad deal at all.” 

With tens of thousands of Ukrainian and Russian soldiers being wounded or killed each month, and the acute risk of more territory being lost, isn’t the option of negotiating a settlement with Russia at least worth exploring?

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