Peace talks between Russia and Ukraine in Turkey have concluded, with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan stating that the negotiations had been the most meaningful to date. Despite the positive signals, the two sides failed to agree upon a comprehensive ceasefire, and the war rages on.
As the human cost of the war in Ukraine adds up, the pressure on both the Ukrainian and Russian peace delegations has continued to mount.
Russia has already warned that there will be no extra meetings in Istanbul following the conclusion of peace talks. These talks were the first negotiations for two weeks. In that time, Russian forces have almost completely destroyed the eastern city of Mariupol and heavily bombarded major civilian centres, significantly deteriorating the humanitarian situation in the region.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has stated that “more difficult issues” remained to be negotiated between the two warring parties, but some tentative progress has been made.
Russian forces agreed to reduce the intensity of attacks against Ukrainian defences in its northern regions in order to “boost mutual trust” and facilitate further negotiations.
“Due to the fact that negotiations over an agreement on Ukraine’s neutrality and non-nuclear status and security guarantees are moving into a practical stage…the Ministry of Defence of the Russian Federation has taken the decision to drastically reduce combat operations in the Kyiv and Chernihiv areas,” a statement by Russian Deputy Defence Minister Alexander Fomin states.
Chelsea owner turned key figure
Media attention has focused on the role of Roman Abramovich in the negotiations, who became a mysterious figure and go-between for the Russian President Vladimir Putin and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky.
As the owner of Chelsea football club, Abramovich has always rejected his close ties with the Kremlin, and for reasons yet unknown, has played a public role in the negotiating talks.
Sometime in early March, sources close to Abramovich claimed that the shadowy billionaire had been poisoned with a chemical agent during talks near the Ukraine-Belarus border.
If trust was once low between the two parties, these allegations risked further derailing the tenuous negotiations. Before the landmark meeting, Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dymtro Kuleba had advised his delegates to refrain from eating, drinking, or touching any surfaces during the talks.
Despite the distrust and growing Ukrainian anger over suspected war-crimes in the east of Ukraine, the first five rounds of negotiations have demonstrated, if nothing else, that neither side is inflexible in their demands. Ukrainian delegates, however, still worry that Russia is negotiating in bad faith.
Ukraine is negotiating from a position of relative strength. The planned Russian blitzkrieg of key government and military infrastructure has completely failed to materialise. Ukraine has inflicted massive losses against its enemy, up to 17,000 according to some estimates, and has stalled the Russian offensive against Kyiv.
In fact, it is the humanitarian dimension of the war which brings Ukrainian diplomats to sit face-to-face with Russia delegates, many of whom still espouse Putin’s view that Ukraine is a state of “Neo-Nazis” and “drug addicts.”
There had been hopes that a ceasefire would allow for humanitarian respite for besieged cities in the east of Ukraine, however Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dymtro Kuleba was not ready to trade “people, land, or sovereignty” to achieve this.
Nevertheless, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky has stated that Ukraine is ready to compromise to put a stop to the war. Ukraine’s NATO aspirations, a key topic in Russia’s justification for war, is up for debate, especially in the context of potential European Union membership.
At the talks in Istanbul, Ukraine stated it would adopt a neutral status in exchange for security guarantees from other countries. The Ukrainian negotiators reportedly mentioned among others Israel, Canada, Poland and Turkey. Head of the Russian delegation Vladimir Medinsky stated the Russian delegation “did not object to Ukraine’s desire to join the European Union," according to Russian state media agency RIA Novosti.
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Russia originally launched its “special military operation” under the guise of self-protection from Ukraine’s NATO aspirations. With this prospect off the table, Russia is shifting its justifications for war again.
Colonel-General of the Russian army Sergey Rudskoy stated that the main focus of its operation was now the “liberation of Donbas.” Draft peace agreements made by Russia have dropped all mentions of regime change, “denazification”, and “demilitarisation”, likely reflecting Russia’s failure to capitulate Ukraine quickly.
On March 27, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky suggested that the status of the Donbas region may be up for debate. This is a significant development in Ukraine’s negotiating position. Nevertheless, any concession on territory in Ukraine is likely to be unpopular at home.
Russia softens its tone, Ukraine unconvinced.
“We’ve seen this script before,” says Peter Zalmayev, director of the Eurasia Democracy Initiative, “prior to each successive round of peace talks we have some kind of positive signal from the Russian then it's back to business as usual.” Zalmayev also believes Russia may simply be using the negotiations to prepare for future assaults on Ukraine’s capital city Kyiv.
“It would be very naïve to take (the Russians) at their word now,” Zalmayev said. “While we cannot rule out that the Russians may be willing to offer some kind of ceasefire…this may be a ploy by Vladimir Putin to gain some time, regroup, rearm, and try to take Kyiv a second time.”
Zalmayev says that Putin had not changed his attitude towards Ukraine, remaining “obsessed” and wishing to control the whole country. Ukrainian intelligence chief General Kyrylo Budanov stated on March 27 that he believes that Russia will seek to split Ukraine in two, emulating a post-war “Korea scenario.”
Despite fears that Russia may be negotiating disingenuously, the international markets have responded positively to the latest round of talks. The French CAC40, and German Dax ticket up more than 3% at the end of the talks. The UK’s FTSE100 climbed by 1.34%. International oil prices have also tapered off. The price of Brent crude dropped by 6% after the talks.
There are no plans yet for further peace talks. The next few weeks will test the veracity of Russia’s promises to reduce the frequency of attacks on the capital. The prospect of a ceasefire is not implausible, but still distant.