Scoop 31 March 2022

Peace talks

A major step forward in Russia-Ukraine peace talks could be imminent. The two sides have yet to sign any agreement, but the basis of the Ukrainan proposals announced on Tuesday in Istanbul has been agreed with Moscow. Only two key issues remain unresolved. The Bell spoke with a source who offered insight on the progress of negotiations from the Russian side.

Istanbul negotiations

The talks in Istanbul on Tuesday lasted about four hours. For Ukraine, it was important to put forward proposals Russia could accept, a source close to the talks told The Bell. Russia was prepared to move toward a genuine agreement because any further military advance would mean fighting in major cities and a repeat of the destruction of Mariupol, the source believes.

The head of the Russian delegation, Vladimir Medinsky, said Ukraine’s written proposals would be submitted to President Vladimir Putin prior to a discussion at Foreign Minister level. A presidential meeting between Putin and Volodymyr Zelenskyy would take place only when a peace treaty was ready, he said.

It is assumed that any ceasefire would include agreements on a neutral, nuclear-free Ukraine with security guarantees. Further clauses would ensure mutual respect for languages and cultures. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy has said he would like to broker similar agreements with all Ukraine’s other neighbors: Poland, Hungary, Romania, Slovakia, Belarus and Moldova.

“Reduction of military activity”

Russia’s deputy minister of defense, Alexander Fomin, made the biggest announcement of the day – about a “dramatic, manifold reduction in military activity” around Kyiv and Chernihiv.

On the one hand, this is merely a statement of the fact – over the past week Russian forces have made no serious advances in these areas and the Ministry of Defense stated Friday that Russian forces will concentrate their resources on “liberating Donbas”. Medinsky later clarified that the Ministry of Defense statement did not amount to a ceasefire.

However, this is the first time the Russian military has made such a statement – and followed it up with action on the ground. Within an hour of Fomin’s comments, a U.S. intelligence source said the U.S. was indeed observing the partial withdrawal of Russian forces near Kyiv and Chernihiv.

Any decision on a complete ceasefire has been postponed. It seems that both sides feel time is on their side and hope to occupy territory that can bolster their negotiating positions, the source close to the talks told The Bell.

Russia’s official statement:

  • Negotiations were constructive, and Ukraine’s proposals confirm its desire for neutrality and non-nuclear status. They will be referred to Russia’s leadership.
  • Any meeting between Putin and Zelenskyy will only happen after foreign ministers reach an agreement and a treaty is ready to be signed. At the same time, it remains possible to discuss “various political nuances and details”.
  • While the Ministry of Defense promised a reduction of military activity near Kyiv and Chernihiv, nothing was said about Mariupol and Mykolaiv to the south where heavy fighting is ongoing.
  • Russia called on Ukraine to comply with the Geneva Convention in respect of prisoners of war.

Ukraine’s official statement:

  • The guarantors of Ukrainian security should be the permanent members of the UN Security Council (U.S., Russia, China, UK, France), plus Turkey, Germany, Canada, Italy, Poland and Israel. Other countries can join if they wish.
  • All parties to the agreement undertake not only to refrain from interfering, but also to promote Ukraine’s accession to the European Union.
  • Ukraine proposes that the wording of the security guarantees be modelled on Article 5 of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO): if Ukraine is attacked, it has the right to demand consultation with its guarantors within three days. If there is no diplomatic solution to the problem, the guarantor nations are obliged to provide military assistance and close Ukrainian airspace (tantamount to entering a military conflict on the Ukrainian side).
  • If these guarantees are agreed, Ukraine will continue its current status as a non-aligned, non-nuclear state, refuse to host foreign military bases on its territory and refrain from joining military-political alliances.
  • The treaty will be voted on by Ukrainians in a referendum and, if approved, will be ratified by the Ukrainian parliament and parliaments of the guarantor countries.
  • Crimea’s future will be a separate part of the treaty. This will confirm Russia and Ukraine’s intention to resolve the status of Crimea within the next 15 years. During this time, both sides will abandon attempts at a military resolution.
  • The future of Donbas will be a separate issue to be discussed by the presidents of Russia and Ukraine.

What remains to be resolved?

The most difficult questions are Crimea, Donbas, and the fashioning of an agreement on Ukrainian security, The Bell’s source said.

  • The fate of Donbas is the most complicated question. All options are still on the table, from the self-proclaimed republics reverting to their pre-war status, to the possibility of full independence.
  • Theoretically, there are compromise options. One possibility is borders aligned with the extent of Russia’s military occupation at the moment when an agreement is reached.
  • Negotiators on both sides are determined to delay any final decisions on territorial issues until a presidential meeting. The future of Mariupol is likely to depend on the outcome of the fighting in the coming days.
  • A Russia’s “land bridge to Crimea” (including occupied territories in the Kherson and Zaporozhye regions of Ukraine that link the Donbas to Crimea) and of the possible absorption of Donbas into Russia (a prospect raised by local separatist leaders but not unanimously supported in Moscow) will not be discussed for the moment.
  • The wording of an agreement on security guarantees for Ukraine is another difficult question. It’s important to understand that the wording proposed on Tuesday came from the Ukrainian delegation, according to The Bell’s source. Russia is highly unlikely to agree to a formulation modelled on NATO’s founding document. There must real security guarantees for Ukraine, the source said, but these must have a clearly defined mechanism so NATO countries cannot use these guarantees to harm Russian interests.
  • The issue of easing or partially lifting Western sanctions against Russia is not, at least for the time being, part of negotiations. Russia has not officially raised this question, The Bell’s source said.