KIEV, Ukraine – Peace negotiations are traditionally thought of as two parties brought together by a mediator who tries to provoke potential concessions out of anger and destroy the battlefield.
But recent talks about the eight-year war in Ukraine are different. The conflict — and the openly threatened Russian invasion that the talks aim to thwart — is in Ukraine. But Ukraine will miss two of the three negotiating sessions scheduled for this week.
It is clear that such a limited role for Ukraine in the talks alarmed the government in Kiev. Fearing that the talks would yield little or nothing, and with President Biden stating that the United States would not intervene militarily if Russia invaded, Ukraine quietly pursued its own negotiating path with Moscow.
The latest threat of invasion began last month, when Russia massed more than 100,000 troops along its border with Ukraine and demanded broad – and, for Western analysts, impossible – concessions from the United States and NATO on European security matters.
These were laid out in two draft treaties proposed by Moscow that the government in Kiev – as it was not a member of the coalition – had no say. Russian President Vladimir Putin later threatened to launch an invasion of Ukraine if talks on her proposals failed.
In effect, this made Ukraine a “hostage” to Russia, said Kostyantin Yelisiyev, the former Ukrainian ambassador to the European Union.
Mr Yelisiyev said Moscow’s marginalization of Ukraine, and its demand for direct talks with the US and NATO, were deliberate.
One of Russia’s main demands is that NATO rule out any possibility of Ukraine’s membership in the alliance – and NATO has already rejected this demand – and halt all military cooperation with the country. Russia also insisted that the coalition halt all military activities throughout Eastern Europe and Central Asia.
The talks got off to a rough start on Sunday when a senior Russian official warned that the United States had a “lack of understanding” of the Kremlin’s security demands, and the United States expressed doubts about whether Russia was “serious” about de-escalation. The crisis in Ukraine.
In comments reported by Russian news agencies, Deputy Foreign Minister Sergey A. Ryabkov said he was intent on negotiating “dynamically, without ceasing” to prevent the West from “holding back all this and burying it in endless discussions.”
Secretary of State Anthony J. Blinken, in an appearance on the network’s Sunday morning news programme, said the United States was “not aiming to make concessions” under the threat of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, eight years after its annexation of Crimea.
“It’s about seeing if, in the context of dialogue and diplomacy, there are things that both sides can do to reduce tensions,” he said on CNN. “We’ve done that in the past.”
The current threat to Ukraine comes after eight years of low-level conflict. Russia intervened militarily in Ukraine in 2014, annexing Crimea and triggering separatist uprisings in two eastern provinces, killing more than 13,000 people.
“The issues concern all of Europe, including Ukraine, but Putin is proposing discussions between Russia and the United States,” Mr. Yelisiyev said. In this way, Russia declared a zone of influence. Leave the former Soviet space to us and do whatever you want elsewhere.”
A Ukrainian delegation will participate in the third of the three rounds of talks scheduled for Thursday in Vienna under the auspices of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe. The United States said it was coordinating closely with authorities in Kiev, and Biden spoke by phone with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky a week ago.
“There are no decisions on Ukraine without Ukraine,” said Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba, Spread On Twitter last week, he indicated that he would also meet with NATO officials in Brussels. “Part of a broad diplomatic effort to deter further Russian aggression.”
Understand Russia’s relationship with the West
Tensions are rising between the two regions, and Russian President Vladimir Putin is increasingly willing to take geopolitical risks and assert his demands.
Given the risks for Ukraine, Zelensky’s government decided not to rely entirely on US-led negotiations. Mr. Zelensky announced a separate Ukrainian diplomatic initiative with Russia in late December, details of which were later published in Russia’s Kommersant newspaper.
The 10-point Ukrainian plan, which is sure to be highly controversial in Ukraine, begins with three confidence-building steps – a ceasefire, a prisoner exchange and the opening of crossing points for civilians on the frontline in eastern Ukraine. War – then turns to political issues. The first point, the ceasefire, has already been implemented.
Political matters include direct talks between Mr. Zelensky and Mr. Putin and a final point, No. 10, under which the Ukrainian government will introduce parliament laws granting autonomy to breakaway regions and delegating some powers to these regions, according to Kommersant.
According to the Russian interpretation, these laws would give proxies in eastern Ukraine veto power over foreign policy decisions by the central government, including Ukraine’s NATO membership, which could satisfy enough Russia’s request to thwart a disastrous war in Ukraine.
Western diplomats say the proposed laws leave room for interpretation, and that Mr. Zelensky is unlikely to grant Moscow a veto over future NATO membership. The proposal says nothing about the aspiration for NATO membership written into Ukraine’s constitution, and appears to have been halted after the ceasefire, which was announced on December 22.
Like many other diplomatic efforts to end the war, this attempt has been given little chance of success by most analysts, but it may serve other purposes. Oleksandr Danilyuk, former Secretary of the Security Council of Ukraine, said that Ukraine can do nothing in diplomacy, but is waiting for a possible outbreak of violence. This is why Putin does this. His goal is to show that Ukraine can do nothing.”
And the negotiating effort could have a lasting effect: Mr. Zelensky’s apparent willingness to negotiate the autonomy of the breakaway regions and any hint of accepting neutrality between the West and Russia could set off a firestorm in Ukrainian politics.
I understand the rising tensions around Ukraine
So far, none of the diplomatic talks with Russia, whether with the United States or Ukraine, has slowed the flow of ominous statements from Russian officials that diplomats and analysts fear could be used to justify military action or prepare the Russian population for war.
In July, Mr. Putin published an article arguing that Russia and Ukraine are essentially the same country, share a common history and culture, which points to the reason for the unity.
Threats became more focused in August after the US withdrawal from Afghanistan, when top Russian security officials publicly taunted Ukraine that it, too, might soon lose the US as a protector.
“The country is heading towards collapse, and the White House at a certain moment will not even remember its Kiev supporters,” Nikolai Patrushev, the secretary of the Russian Security Council, told Izvestia newspaper shortly after the fall of Kabul.
In December, Putin, speaking before a gathering of generals and security officials, said Moscow might resort to “military-technical” means if “Western countries continued their clearly aggressive stance.”
Russia’s deputy foreign minister, Alexander Grushko, more explicitly linked the threat to use Russian military force to the breakdown of the talks.
“The Europeans should also consider whether they want to avoid making their continent the scene of a military confrontation,” said Mr. Grushko. “They have a choice. Either you take what is on the table seriously or you face a military-technical alternative.”
Echoing US allegations that were used to justify the invasion of Iraq in 2003, Shoigu, Russia’s defense minister, claimed without providing evidence that Moscow had intelligence showing that US mercenaries had brought an “unknown chemical element” into Ukraine.
Pro-Kremlin commentators have hailed the Kremlin’s hard-line stance as a victory for Russian nationalists.
One newspaper favorably compared Moscow with the character of a gangster in a Russian movie, “Raising his heavy fist and looking into the eyes of his interlocutor, he asks gently again: Where is your strength America?”