Interim results of the Ukrainian-Russian negotiations in Istanbul

Text written by Centre for Defence Strategies

Following the Ukrainian-Russian negotiations in Istanbul, the Ukrainian side outlined the agreement parameters on Ukraine’s security guarantees. In general, the Ukrainian proposals are based on two premises. First, on a trust in the possibility of securing the country with international agreements. Second, the negotiator believe that their ideas can create a new security architecture framework and not just a European one. The Russian side took the proposals into consideration and, “as a step towards deescalation”, reported on a “radical reduction of the military activity in the Kyiv and Chernihiv areas.” However, Russians failed to mention that they are transferring some of the forces stopped by the successful defense and counterattack of the Ukrainian Armed Forces of Kyiv and Chernihiv frontiers to a more priority section of the front. And some troops are leaving Ukraine for recovery and replenishment after suffering heavy losses. Now, the Russian goal is to to “encircle and destroy” the Ukrainian Armed Forces’ positions in the area of the Donetsk and Luhansk regions. The news has been announced as if it has always been an original plan, while we know that this is perhaps a Plan D, after A,B and C failed.

Last month, Ukrainian-Russian negotiations took place in two formats: between foreign ministers, and between negotiating groups in Istanbul. However, the main input into negotiating position of Ukraine has been made by Ukrainian armed forces, which has shown Russia that they are incapable of reaching their military goals despite massive forces deployed. By successfully conducting a strategic defense operation, Ukrainian Armed Forces are creating a favorable background and strong arguments for bringing the Russian leadership closer to realizing the futility of continuing armed aggression and the need to move to diplomacy with serious intentions. According to the Ukrainian Foreign Minister, it was impossible to reach even the slightest agreement with his Russian counterpart, as Serhiy Lavrov does not influence decisions on any issues. Instead, the Russian Foreign minister claims that the only negotiating format capable of working out draft political decisions to stop Russia’s aggression is the one headed by Russian President’s aide Vladimir Medinsky.

Thus, on March 29, another round of talks ended in Istanbul. The Ukrainian negotiation team briefed on the key elements of the agreement on security guarantees to Ukraine. According to the negotiators, the security guarantee agreement must be signed and ratified by at least five permanent members of the UN Security Council (who are also nuclear powers), but others may also join. In case of an act of aggression against Ukraine, consultations must be held within three days. If a diplomatic settlement fails, the guarantors must provide Ukraine with necessary capabilities including a no-fly zone if reuquired. With such strong security guarantees, the negotiators propose to commit to Ukraine’s neutral status and refrain from any integration into military-political blocs. The problematic issues of all temporarily occupied territories are taken out of scope, and guarantees will not cover them (temporarily). The status of the temporarily occupied Crimea and the city of Sevastopol must be resolved within 15 years.

Russian negotiators have promised to study the proposals and reduce the intensity of shelling of the Ukrainian capital Kyiv and the city of Chernihiv as a step of goodwill. However, this statement should be taken in the context of successful Ukrainian defense forces’ deterrence of Russian attempts to siege Kyiv. The Ukrainian army not only stopped the Russian invaders but also pushed them back in several areas. So, realizing the current lack of capabilities, the Russian General Staff seems to have decided to send the forces, losing the offensive on Kyiv, to the East to surround and defeat the most capable Ukrainian defense grouping in the Donetsk and Luhansk region. If successful, it will cut off Ukraine from the Black and Azov Seas and return to the siege of Kyiv.

The plan proposed in Istanbul has immediately raised number of questions and sparked comments and analysis. The readiness to accept neutral status, how that will impact Ukraine-NATO collaboration and partnership? Will it limit Ukrainian westernization of its military, which has been successfully ongoing for years? Will western and other nations agree to “article 5 like” security guarantee. How such commitment may be enforced? What about nuclear threats? The most difficult points of the proposal are the ideas of separate talks on Crimea and holding a Ukrainian-Russian summit. A separate problem will be the approval of such an agreement in an all-Ukrainian referendum, as Ukrainians have repeatedly shown their commitment to territorial integrity.

Less problematic is Ukraine’s refusal to host NATO military bases and its commitment not to develop nuclear weapons. Such plans and steps were put forward only in response to the Russian leadership’s rhetoric.

Overall, the Istanbul proposals fit and develop the ideas of security guarantees proposed by the Russian Federation, which Moscow sent to its Western partners, in a more constructive direction. On the other hand, with constructive proposals, Ukrainian negotiators signal that the Ukrainian-Russian armed conflict has no military solution, only a diplomatic one and take an initiative in providing the proposal.

We all understand that Russia can ‘play’ this negotiation game forever. Minsk group took years to discuss Minsk agreements, where disagreements were set by completely different strategic positions of the side: Ukraine wanted retain its sovereignty, Russia – a complete control over occupied territories, which would be integrated into Ukraine.

Russia will start real negotiations only if it understands it systemically fails on battlefield. It is unknown how many losses it needs to experience. With new plan with Donbass it desperately tries to concentrate its forces and achieve at least some success.