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The Lost Peace (Short Version)

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The Lost Peace by Robert Skidelsky February 2024As the Ukrainian war enters its third year, there has been renewed, if rather limp, talk of a ceasefire followed by negotiations. The premise is that since neither side can ‘win’, it makes sense to start making peace. Few now remember that the war almost ended before it got going. On 24 February 2022, Russia launched ground and air attacks on Ukraine on four fronts. On 28th February 2022, Russian and Ukrainian officials came together to start to negotiate peace. There were seven rounds of talks over the next month before they were called off.The first three rounds took place in Belarus. By 7 March, Kremlin spokesman Dmitri Peskov said Russia would stop its operations ‘in a moment’ if Ukraine enshrined neutrality in its constitution, and

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The Lost Peace by Robert Skidelsky February 2024
As the Ukrainian war enters its third year, there has been renewed, if rather limp, talk of a ceasefire followed by negotiations. The premise is that since neither side can ‘win’, it makes sense to start making peace. Few now remember that the war almost ended before it got going. On 24 February 2022, Russia launched ground and air attacks on Ukraine on four fronts. On 28th February 2022, Russian and Ukrainian officials came together to start to negotiate peace. There were seven rounds of talks over the next month before they were called off.
The first three rounds took place in Belarus. By 7 March, Kremlin spokesman Dmitri Peskov said Russia would stop its operations ‘in a moment’ if Ukraine enshrined neutrality in its constitution, and accepted the loss of Crimea and the breakaway regions of Donbas. (Reuters) The Ukrainians demanded a complete Russian withdrawal, including from Crimea, but Kyiv said it was willing to consider guaranteed neutrality.(New York Post 7 March 2022)
Turkey’s prime minister Recip Erdogan was eager to broker a peace deal, and so on 10 March, there was a switch of venue to the seaside resort of Antalya in Turkey, where the Russian and Ukrainian foreign ministers Sergey Lavrov and Dmytro Kuleba met for the first time since the war started. A couple of inconclusive video conferences followed.
The seventh round of talks on 29 March brought face-to-face negotiations in Istanbul. European Pravda reported that this had so far been the ‘most effective round of Ukraine-Russian negotiations’. A draft treaty was drawn up, the gist of which was permanent Ukrainian neutrality and non-nuclear status, in return for which Ukraine would have security guarantees similar to Article 5 of the NATO military alliance, but including China and Russia. Ukraine would also start a 15 year consultation period on the status of Crimea, though reserving the right to reconquer Luhansk and Donetsk (Ukrainian Pravda). For its part, Russia would “ drastically reduce” military activity near Kyiv to ‘create the necessary conditions for further negotiations”. (See European Pravda, 30 March 2022; Washington Post 29 March 2022)
Putin would wave this draft on Russian television on 17 June 2023, calling it a “not bad result” (TASS, 13 June 2023). The expectation was that it would be initialled by the principals, Putin and Zelensky, laying the foundations for a compromise peace. This could have ended the war before the subsequent devastation of Ukraine’s infrastructure, loss of lives, and increased risk of unchecked escalation. But the draft was never initialled , there were no further bilateral talks.
Was there a real chance for peace in March 2022? If so, why was it lost?
The two sides were never as close to each other as the formulae they concocted suggested. Yes, Ukraine was willing to renounce joining NATO, but knew that equivalent security guarantees by the great powers would be hard to come by. Nor was there any real prospect of Russia ‘negotiating away’ its annexation of Crimea in 2014. And as far as known, no progress had been made in settling the future of Donbas -the Russian-speaking provinces of eastern and south-eastern Ukraine, now partly occupied by the Russian army.
These matters might have been addressed in further talks. However, there were also two dramatic events which tilted the balance against peace. As Russian forces were driven out of the Kyiv region at the end of March, Ukrainians claimed to have discovered evidence of atrocities -rapes, murders, massacres, looting, indiscriminate bombings and other war crimes- in Bucha, Irpin, Borodianka, and Azovstal. These atrocious events, Russian responsibility for which has been confirmed by the UN High Commission on Human Rights (December 2022) gave Ukraine an additional reason to break off negotiations,—
a move strongly supported by the West.
An even bigger obstacle to further talks may have been the arrival in Kyiv on 6 April of British Prime Minister Boris Johnson. Zelensky’s chief negotiator Davyd Arakmahia summed up the gist of Johnson;s intervention as follows: “Johnson brought two simple messages to Kyiv. The first is that Putin is a war criminal; he should be pressured, not negotiated with. And the second is that even if Ukraine is ready to sign some agreements on guarantees with Putin, they [the NATO powers] are not’. (Ukrainska Pravda, 14 June 2023, 24 November 2023.) This amounted to an Anglo-American veto on further peace talks. Days after Johnson returned to London, a cascade of arms’ supplies from Britain and the USA was announced and Putin announced publicly that talks with Ukraine “had reached a dead end (On US and British sabotage of tentative Ukrainian-Russian peace talks, see David Ignatius in the Washington Post, 22 September 2022; Ted Snider, ‘Why Peace Talks, but No Peace’, American Conservative, 16 August 2023; Ukrainska Pravda 5 May 2022, The Times, 11 January 2023)
What of the future? The fortunes of war are obviously crucial. Putin’s initial expectation of a triumphal roll into Kyiv was a disastrous miscalculation. A point which cannot be made too strongly is that Ukraine has fought successfully for its independence, like Finland did in 1939-40. This is its victory and Russia;s defeat. However, after two years of war, the military situation in Ukraine is ‘stalemated’ according to Ukrainian General Valey Zaluzhny, so unless one believes that Ukraine is about to recover all its lost territories , the case for peace is overwhelming. There have been reports of ‘secret talks’ between US and Russian officials. There have been public peace initiatives by China, the Vatican, Brazil, Mexico and others. Analysts Anatol Lieven and Jeffrey Sachs have strongly argued the case for an immediate ceasefire. These initiatives are based on a sound a sense that the war is going nowhere, but that were it to go somewhere, it could easily escalate into a nuclear confrontation.

In the idea of ‘security guarantees’ for Ukraine outside NATO lies the germ of something more promising. Ukraine’s security should no more hinge on NATO membership than Russia’s on preventing it. What was needed, said Bill Burns , director of the CIA, in 1995, was a security order in Europe ‘sufficiently in Russia’s interests so that a revived Russia will have no compelling reason to revise it’. This was never achieved. Ukraine war has made the task of addressing it ever more urgent.

Robert Skidelsky
Keynesian economist, crossbench peer in the House of Lords, author of Keynes: the Return of the Master and co-author of How Much Is Enough?

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