A leading Ukrainian politician said in a November 24 interview that as early as April 2022, Russia was “prepared to end the war if we agreed to…neutrality.”
On June 13, 2022, when Russian President Vladimir Putin announced that Russia and Ukraine had “reached an agreement in Istanbul” and that the agreement had been initialled by both sides, Davyd Arakhamiia was the Ukrainian official Putin identified: “I don’t remember his name and may be mistaken, but I think Mr. Arakhamia headed Ukraine’s negotiating team in Istanbul. He even initialed this document.”
That a tentative agreement had been reached in Istanbul had already been reported by Fiona Hill and Angela Stent in an August 25, 2022 article in Foreign Affairs. In his recent interview, Arakhamiia, who is the head of Zelensky’s Servant of the People Party and who led the Ukrainian negotiating team in both Belarus and Istanbul, denies that the agreement was initialed. But he confirms that Russia was prepared to abort the war in exchange for a promise that Ukraine would not enter NATO.
According to Arakhamiia, an assurance that Ukraine would not join NATO was the “key point” for Russia: “Everything else was simply rhetoric and political ‘seasoning.’”
“It was the most important thing for them,” Arakhamiia said. “They were prepared to end the war if we agreed to,—as Finland once did,—neutrality, and committed that we would not join NATO.”
Then-Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett, the intermediary in talks that were held only days before, has also said that was the key point: “Tell me you’re not joining NATO,” Putin said to Zelensky via Bennett, “I won’t invade.”
The claim that an agreement was within reach in Istanbul had been previously made by every party to the negotiations but Ukraine. Putin has said that an agreement was reached. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov has seconded that “we did hold talks in March and April 2022. We agreed on certain things; everything was already initialed.” The things that were agreed in the Istanbul Communiqué included that Russia would withdraw to its prewar boundaries and Ukraine would promise not to seek NATO membership.
And it is not just the Russian side that has made that claim. A host of intermediaries, including Kiev selected intermediators, have made the same claim. That the leader of the Ukrainian negotiating team has now made the same claim makes it unanimous. Peace was possible in the first weeks of the war.
Arakhamiia breaks from all other accounts in his denial that Ukraine agreed to the neutrality for peace solution. Hill and Stent report that “Russian and Ukrainian negotiators appeared to have tentatively agreed on the outlines of a negotiated interim settlement.” Putin and Lavrov say it was initialled.
In all the other accounts, a negotiated peace was within reach until the West intervened and blocked it. “We actually did this,” Putin said, “but they simply threw it away later and that’s it.” “The Kiev authorities…tossed [their commitments] into the dustbin of history.” Lavrov says that the change of mind happened “at the insistence of Washington and London.”
The claim is not just a Russian one. The Turkish intermediaries make the same point. Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu says that the talks were on course to end the war, but that “There are countries within NATO who want the war to continue.” “Following the NATO foreign ministers’ meeting,” he explained, “it was the impression that…there are those within the NATO member states that want the war to continue, let the war continue and Russia get weaker.”
The deputy chairman of Turkey’s governing party, Numan Kurtulmus, reports the same thing: “In certain matters, progress was made, reaching the final point, then suddenly we see that the war is accelerating…Someone is trying not to end the war. The United States sees the prolongation of the war as its interest…There are those who want this war to continue…Putin-Zelensky was going to sign, but someone didn’t want to.”
Former German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder was asked by Kiev to play a role in mediating the Istanbul talks. Schröder says that “Nothing could happen because everything else was decided in Washington…[T]he Ukrainians did not agree to peace because they were not allowed to. They first had to ask the Americans about everything they discussed.”
Bennett made the same claim about the preceding negotiations: “There was,” Bennett says, “a good chance of reaching a ceasefire.” But the West, Bennett says, “blocked it.”
Arakhamiia insists that Kiev did not sign because dropping Ukraine’s NATO aspirations would require a change to the constitution and because they did not trust Russia to leave Ukraine secure in the absence of NATO support.
Expanding on the first reason, Arakhamiia says is that it would be “necessary to change the Constitution. Our path to NATO is written in the Constitution.” There are two problems with Arakhamiia’s claim. The first is that amending the constitution is possible. In the same way that, in February 2019, then-Ukrainian president Petro Poroshenko replaced the commitment to remain neutral and not join NATO that was enshrined in the Ukrainian constitution with the newly enshrined commitment to aspire to NATO membership, now president Volodymyr Zelensky could change it back.
The second problem with Arakhamiia’s case is that Zelensky had already, on several occasions, expressed a willingness to do just that. In the very first days of the war, Zelensky clearly stated his preparedness to abandon Ukraine’s pursuit of NATO membership; “We are not afraid to talk to Russia. We are not afraid to say everything about security guarantees for our state. We are not afraid to talk about neutral status.”
Arakhamiia says the second reason Ukraine could not agree to abandon its NATO aspirations is because there was no confidence that Russia would leave Ukraine safe. The West “actually advised us not to go into ephemeral security guarantees,” Arakhamiia says. But “this could only be done,” Arakhamiia continues, “if there were security guarantees.”
But there were. In the set of negotiations mediated by Bennett, he says that Putin and Zelensky both accepted “the Israeli model” of the West helping to build a strong, independent Ukrainian armed forces capable of defending itself. In the Istanbul Communiqué, the two sides agreed that Ukraine would abandon its NATO aspirations in exchange for security guarantees from a number of countries, possibly including Russia, China, the United States, the United Kingdom, France, Turkey, Germany, Canada, Italy, Poland and Israel.
But if Arakhamiia’s first two reasons are insufficient, he then supplements them with a third. “Moreover, when we returned from Istanbul,” Arakhamiia says, “Boris Johnson came to Kiev and said that we would not sign anything with them at all, and let’s just fight.”
Arakhamiia’s statement is the first Ukrainian or Western confirmation of the December 2022 report in Ukrainska Pravda that on April 9, 2022, then U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson hurried to Kiev to tell Zelensky that Putin “should be pressured, not negotiated with” and that, even if Ukraine was ready to sign some agreements with Russia, “the West was not.”
Arakhamiia’s revealing interview confirms, once again, the tragic realization that the war in Ukraine could have ended early with a Ukrainian agreement not to join NATO; an agreement Zelensky was willing to make. It also adds to the already substantial evidence that that hope was blocked by Western intervention.