On February 27, just the third day of their war, Russia and Ukraine announced direct negotiations in Belarus. Having already said that he was prepared to abandon Ukraine’s pursuit of NATO membership, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky went into the negotiations “without preconditions.” That round of talks, having identified priority topics, led to a second round, again in Belarus.
But, though Ukraine was willing to discuss neutrality and “the end of this invasion,” the United States was not. On February 25, the same day Zelensky said he was “not afraid to talk to Russia” and that he was “not afraid to talk about neutral status,” State Department spokesman Ned Price was asked at a press conference, “What’s the U.S.—what’s your thinking about the efficacy of such a—of such talks?” Price responded, “Now we see Moscow suggesting that diplomacy take place at the barrel of a gun or as Moscow’s rockets, mortars, artillery target the Ukrainian people. This is not real diplomacy. Those are not the conditions for real diplomacy.” The United States said no, and the promising direct talks were not to be.
However, a few days later, Ukraine would attempt indirect, mediated talks. Zelensky would turn to then-Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennet to mediate. In a February 2, 2023 interview, Bennet revealed that “Zelensky initiated the request to contact Putin.” Bennett said, “Zelensky called me and asked me to contact Putin.”
Bennet accepted the request and a flurry of shuttle diplomacy began, first with a series of back-and-forth phone calls between Bennett and Putin and Bennett and Zelensky. On March 5, 2022, Bennet flew to Moscow at Putin’s invitation. The next day, Bennet flew to Berlin for meetings with German chancellor Olaf Scholz. On the following day, March 7, the United States, United Kingdom, Germany, and France held a videoconference that, according to some reports, discussed the talks. On March 10, Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov met Ukraine’s foreign minister, Dmytro Kuleba, in Turkey. Turkish foreign minister Mevlut Cavusoglu, who was present at the meeting, described their meeting as “civil.”
Bennet says that “everything [he] did was fully coordinated with Biden, Macron, Johnson, with Scholz and, obviously, Zelensky.” According to Bennet, Putin told him that “we can reach a ceasefire.” In order to make that happen, Bennet says that Putin and Zelensky both made “huge concessions.” When Bennett asked Putin if he was going to kill Zelensky, Putin answered, “I won’t kill Zelensky.” Putin also “renounced” Russia’s demanded “disarmament of Ukraine.” He also reportedly promised that there would be no regime change in Kiev and that Ukraine would remain sovereign. Putin then passed the message to Zelensky through Bennet that if you “Tell me you’re not joining NATO, I won’t invade.” Bennett says that “Zelensky relinquished joining NATO.”
It is key that in both the direct and mediated negotiations in the first weeks of the war, Ukraine was willing to give up NATO membership for a negotiated settlement with Russia.
In return for abandoning their NATO ambitions, Putin and Zelensky agreed that Ukraine would receive a strong, independent military capable of defending itself analogous to “the Israeli model.”
Bennett reports that “there was a good chance of reaching a ceasefire.” Sources “privy to details about the meeting” said that Zelensky deemed the proposal “difficult” but not “impossible” and that “the gaps between the sides are not great.” But, once again, it was not to be. Former UN Assistant Secretary-General in UN peace missions Michael von der Schulenburg says that “NATO had already decided at a special summit on March 24, 2022, not to support these peace negotiations.” Bennett agrees that the West made the decision “to keep striking Putin.” When Bennet’s interviewer asks him if he means that the West blocked the diplomatic settlement, Bennet simply replies, “They blocked it.”
In March and early April of 2022, there would be one final attempt at negotiations before the negotiating table would be abandoned for the battlefield. This time it was to be Turkey that would play the lead role as mediator. A supporting role was to be played by former German chancellor Gerhard Schröder who, like Bennet before him, was asked by Kiev to play a role in the mediation.
This final round of talks was the most promising. Putin has confirmed, as had already been reported, that Russia and Ukraine had “reached an agreement in Istanbul.” But Putin also revealed for the first time that the tentative agreement had been initialed by both sides. “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.” Russia, too, signed the document: “during the talks in Istanbul, we initialed this document. We argued for a long time, butted heads there and so on, but the document was very thick and it was initialed by Medinsky on our side and by the head of their negotiating team.”
Putin’s account is backed by Lavrov who said at a press conference that “we did hold talks in March and April 2022. We agreed on certain things; everything was already initialled.”
Putin went further than announcing the initialed document, on June 17, 2023, he dramatically held it up before a delegation of African leaders, showing it to the world for the first time. “We did not discuss with the Ukrainian side that this treaty would be classified, but we have never presented it, nor commented on it. This draft agreement was initialed by the head of the Kiev negotiation team. He put his signature there. Here it is.”
The draft agreement was the end product of a position paper presented by the Ukrainian delegation. The Istanbul Communiqué, dated March 29, 2022, agreed that Russia would withdraw to its prewar boundaries and Ukraine would promise not to seek NATO membership. Instead, Ukraine would receive security guarantees from a number of countries, possibly including Russia, China, the U.S., UK, France, Turkey, Germany, Canada, Italy, Poland and Israel. The final proposal of the communiqué proposes a possible meeting between Putin and Zelensky to sign the treaty.
On March 28, Putin reportedly went so far as to express a willingness to withdraw Russian troops from around Kiev. On March 29, the day the communiqué was initialled, the leaders of the U.S., UK, Germany, France and Italy spoke on the phone.
But, again, it was not to be. On April 5, The Washington Post reported that the West would “respect Kyiv’s decisions in any settlement to end the war with Russia, but with larger issues of global security at stake, there are limits to how many compromises some in NATO will support to win the peace.” The Post then spelled it out: “Even a Ukrainian vow not to join NATO—a concession that Zelensky has floated publicly—could be a concern to some neighbors. That leads to an awkward reality: For some in NATO, it’s better for the Ukrainians to keep fighting, and dying, than to achieve a peace that comes too early or at too high a cost to Kyiv and the rest of Europe.”
On April 9, then-UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson rushed to Kiev to rein in Zelensky, insisting that Russian President Vladimir Putin “should be pressured, not negotiated with” and that, even if Ukraine was ready to sign some agreements with Russia, “the West was not.”
And that is just what happened. “We actually did this,” Putin told war correspondents at the Kremlin, “but they simply threw it away later and that’s it.” Talking to the African delegation, Putin said, “After we pulled our troops away from Kiev—as we had promised to do—the Kiev authorities…tossed [their commitments] into the dustbin of history. They abandoned everything.” But Putin did not primarily blame Ukraine. He implicitly blamed the United States, saying that when Ukraine’s interests “are not in sync” with U.S. interests, “ultimately it is about the United States’s interests. We know that they hold the key to solving issues.”
Lavrov says the same. In a September 28, 2023 interview, Lavrov said that “in April 2022…Ukraine proposed ceasing hostilities and settling the crisis based on providing reciprocal, reliable security guarantees.” He then clearly said, “But this proposal was recalled at the insistence of Washington and London.”
But it is not just Russia who says this: two well placed Turkish sources say the same. Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu says that, because of the talks, “Turkey did not think that the Russia-Ukraine war would continue much longer.” But, he said, “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.”
And Numan Kurtulmus, the deputy chairman of Erdogan’s ruling party, told CNN TURK, “We know that our President is talking to the leaders of both countries. 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.”
Schröder agrees. Describing the negotiations, he says that Ukraine “does not want NATO membership,” would accept “compromise” security guarantees, said that they would “reintroduce Russian in Donbass,” and “were ready to talk about Crimea.”
“But in the end nothing happened,” Schröder said. “My impression: Nothing could happen because everything else was decided in Washington.” Like the Russian and the Turkish sources, Schröder reports that “the Ukrainians did not agree to peace because they were not allowed to. They first had to ask the Americans about everything they discussed.”
Schröder adds one more significant detail. It is often reported that the massacre in Bucha played a pivotal souring role in the negotiations, contributing to their termination. Schröder challenges that account: “Nothing was known about Butscha during the talks with Umjerov on March 7th and 13th. I think the Americans didn’t want the compromise between Ukraine and Russia. The Americans believe they can keep the Russians down.”
In all three sets of negotiations, Ukraine renounced their aspirations to join NATO, and in all three, peace was possible but for the U.S. blocking it. Both the Bennet talks and the Istanbul talks were Ukrainian initiatives that put forward Ukrainian solutions. The United States was not supporting Ukraine at the negotiating table: they were overturning the table in order to use Ukrainian bodies to pursue American goals.