Ukraine Is Ready for Painful Concessions

The government and its people are recognizing what a cease-fire deal with Russia would really mean.

Vohra-Anchal-foreign-policy-columnist18
Anchal Vohra
By , a columnist for Foreign Policy and a freelance TV correspondent and commentator on the Middle East based in Beirut.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky attends a ceremony welcoming Ukrainians, who were freed by pro-Russian rebels during a prisoner exchange, at the Boryspil airport outside Kiev on Dec. 29, 2019.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky attends a ceremony welcoming Ukrainians, who were freed by pro-Russian rebels during a prisoner exchange, at the Boryspil airport outside Kiev on Dec. 29, 2019.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky attends a ceremony welcoming Ukrainians, who were freed by pro-Russian rebels during a prisoner exchange, at the Boryspil airport outside Kiev on Dec. 29, 2019. SERGEI CHUZAVKOV/AFP via Getty Images

Putin’s War

In recent days, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky walked the first steps toward peace by announcing his openness to making several concessions to Russian demands. These include a commitment to Ukrainian neutrality with respect to military alliances, a rejection of any nuclear arsenal, and an acceptance of Russian control over Ukraine’s eastern regions. He even indicated a readiness to change language policies that had disadvantaged Russian speakers. Zelensky’s announcements gave the face-to-face talks convening this week in Istanbul some hope of a cease-fire. 

Although Ukrainians increasingly view these concessions as inevitable, they are not enthused about making them. They are right when they say that they should not be expected to volunteer concessions, as Russia is the aggressor. They are also right to be disappointed at the West’s own failure to meet its moral condemnation of Russia with more material support for Ukraine. The United States, Europe, and the United Kingdom have made it clear that while they will punish Russia economically and might even cut off Russian energy imports completely over time, militarily they will only offer defensive equipment. Despite repeated calls by Zelensky, the West has agreed neither to impose a no-fly zone nor to send ground troops, seeking to avoid being dragged into a direct conflict with Moscow. 

Zachary Paikin, a researcher at the European policy think tank CEPS, said that in the past the West had nurtured Ukraine’s ambitions to join NATO without having any intentions of irking Russia by actually allowing it to do so. “This only served to irritate Moscow to no apparent end. The endless invocation of principles at the expense of creative diplomacy and strategy is a recipe for disaster,” he told Foreign Policy

In recent days, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky walked the first steps toward peace by announcing his openness to making several concessions to Russian demands. These include a commitment to Ukrainian neutrality with respect to military alliances, a rejection of any nuclear arsenal, and an acceptance of Russian control over Ukraine’s eastern regions. He even indicated a readiness to change language policies that had disadvantaged Russian speakers. Zelensky’s announcements gave the face-to-face talks convening this week in Istanbul some hope of a cease-fire. 

Although Ukrainians increasingly view these concessions as inevitable, they are not enthused about making them. They are right when they say that they should not be expected to volunteer concessions, as Russia is the aggressor. They are also right to be disappointed at the West’s own failure to meet its moral condemnation of Russia with more material support for Ukraine. The United States, Europe, and the United Kingdom have made it clear that while they will punish Russia economically and might even cut off Russian energy imports completely over time, militarily they will only offer defensive equipment. Despite repeated calls by Zelensky, the West has agreed neither to impose a no-fly zone nor to send ground troops, seeking to avoid being dragged into a direct conflict with Moscow. 

Zachary Paikin, a researcher at the European policy think tank CEPS, said that in the past the West had nurtured Ukraine’s ambitions to join NATO without having any intentions of irking Russia by actually allowing it to do so. “This only served to irritate Moscow to no apparent end. The endless invocation of principles at the expense of creative diplomacy and strategy is a recipe for disaster,” he told Foreign Policy

In the middle of a war that threatened Ukraine’s existence as a nation, Zelensky and Ukrainians finally seem to have realized that they will have to give up on their aspiration to join the Western defense alliance and probably erase that aspiration from their constitution. 

After negotiations on Tuesday, the Russians seemed to believe that their Ukrainian counterparts were no longer interested in being a part of NATO, and they described the Istanbul talks as “meaningful.” They said Russia would “reduce military activity” near Kyiv and the northern Ukrainian city of Chernihiv, and that they were encouraged to organize a meeting between Zelensky and his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin sooner than initially envisaged. 

“We have received Ukraine’s written proposals confirming its striving toward a neutral, off-block, and nuclear-free status, with a refusal from the production and deployment of all types of weapons of mass destruction,” said Russian presidential aide Vladimir Medinsky, who led the Russian delegation in the talks, according to the Russian news agency TASS. “We have received these written proposals.”

Zelensky, however, is adamant that Ukraine’s promise to remain neutral and non-nuclear depends on security guarantees from NATO nations: the United States, the U.K., France, Germany, and Turkey. The insistence on security guarantees emerges from a long experience of Russia’s lies and deception. In 1994, under the Budapest Memorandum, Ukraine agreed to give up its Soviet-era nuclear arsenal in exchange for an end to Russia’s meddling in its internal affairs and a promise that Ukraine would maintain complete sovereignty and territorial integrity. But despite these assurances, Russia annexed Crimea in 2014 and launched a full-fledged invasion of Ukraine this February. 

Paikin added that Ukraine is looking for a collective obligation to defend Ukraine’s territorial integrity in the event that its neutrality is violated. “In theory, this should represent a viable option to respect the rights of countries in the Euro-Atlantic space that want to be neutral,” he said. It seems unlikely, however, that the West will make any promises that amount to directly being involved in any future conflict, either. 

The other major issue between the two countries is the status of the eastern regions. In 2014, as popular protests led to the fall of Russia-backed Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych, Russian separatists in the eastern regions of Donetsk and Luhansk declared independence. Back then, Russia responded to the revolution by annexing Crimea, and this February it declared Donetsk and Luhansk as independent republics, claiming that their protection was one of the main aims of the invasion. Russian troops have steadily infiltrated the eastern and southern regions to carve a land bridge from Crimea to Donetsk and Luhansk, and bombarded cities that stand in the way. It has so far occupied Kherson and carpet-bombed Mariupol, which is the only barrier standing in the way of the bridge. 

Despite Russia’s promise on Tuesday that it will “by multiples, reduce military activity,” its intentions remain suspect. It might just be buying time to increase its manpower and occupy more areas. Experts said that the fact that the Russian military has been massing in the Donbass means it doesn’t intend to give up the region. “It is possible Russia will annex the Donbass outright and seek to remove the issue from its main demands, or alternatively press Ukraine for a process that gives the region independence,” Michael Kofman, director of Russia studies at CNA, a defense research institute, told Foreign Policy before the Tuesday talks in Istanbul.

In a conversation with Russian journalists before the talks on Tuesday, Zelensky alluded to a compromise. “I understand it’s impossible to force Russia completely from Ukrainian territory. It would lead to third world war,” he said. “I understand it, and that is why I am talking about a compromise. Go back to where it all began, and then we will try to solve the Donbass issue.” Ukraine is mindful of how unpopular conceding any territory might be and has decided not to give out the details of what a possible compromise might look like. 

This is among the trickiest issues, and reaching even a tacit understanding will require diplomatic finesse between Ukraine and Russia. Nick Reynolds, research fellow for land warfare at Royal United Services Institute, said that Zelensky’s statement might be seen as an admission of the ground reality that, “even if its broader war aims are thwarted, Russia will still be able to hold onto some Ukrainian territory in future, and that he doesn’t want that to prevent negotiations from taking place on the basis of an unachievable stipulation of total Russian withdrawal.”

In Istanbul, Ukrainian leadership dared to take a realistic view and proposed a plan to settle the issue of Crimea over the next 15 years—implying it will not try to take it by force—and suggested that the future of Donetsk and Luhansk be discussed when the two presidents meet. 

On its part, Russia has not reiterated the outlandish and ambiguous demands of “de-Nazifying” (widely interpreted as a demand for the fall of Zelensky’s government) and demilitarizing Ukraine that Putin made at the start of the war. The Russian president had tried to co-opt Ukraine’s generals at the start of the invasion when he offered them a deal: Save your homes and avoid destruction of the country by letting Russian troops simply walk in. But they chose to side with their president, derided as a comedian and an ineffective figure by the Kremlin. There is no way that Ukraine’s army will bow to Russia, but it could agree to not host foreign bases and troops, something Putin had cited as a reason in his address declaring war on Ukraine on Feb. 24. 

Russia’s claims that Ukraine’s leaders are Nazis are simply untrue. While there are certain ultranationalist organizations in Ukraine, and a paramilitary volunteer group within Ukraine’s armed forces known as the Azov Battalion has harbored neo-Nazi sentiments, Ukrainians simply want to guard their independence. They want to protect the status of Ukrainian as their official language to protect their identity as a separate nation in the face of constant Russian claims that they merely speak a dialect of Russian and have no right to exist outside the Russian Federation. However, speaking to Russian journalists in Russian, the Ukrainian president said he was open to discussing the status of the Russian language, which is the native language of one-third of Ukrainian citizens, in the final settlement to the conflict. 

Ukraine has offered to resolve most of Russia’s concerns in the hope it will end the war. But two enormous questions remain: whether U.S. President Joe Biden, U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson, French President Emmanuel Macron, and German Chancellor Olaf Scholz are willing to commit to credible security guarantees that the future of negotiations depends on—and whether the Russian president wants peace at all. 

Anchal Vohra is a columnist for Foreign Policy and a freelance TV correspondent and commentator on the Middle East based in Beirut. Twitter: @anchalvohra

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