After many tense months in which the Russian Federation amassed up to 190,000 troops on the border with Ukraine, the inevitable happened because on February 24, following the recognition of the independence of the separatist Republics of Donetsk and Luhansk, Vladimir Putin announced the start of a “special military operation” with the aim of “demilitarizing and denazifying” Ukraine. Although the Russian president claimed that it is not aimed at occupying Ukrainian territories, in fapt we are dealing with a large-scale military invasion that started from several fronts: from the east – from the Russian Federation, from the south-from the occupied Crimea and obviously from the north-from Belarus. More than two weeks after the start of military hostilities, the Russian army is trying to occupy the capital Kyiv and the main Ukrainian cities including Mariupol, Kharkov, Kherson, Odessa or Zaporozhya. However, it faces unexpected resistance from Ukraine’s armed forces. But one question arises: Is it possible to end the Russian-Ukrainian war?
First negotiation attempts
The first politician who sought to stop the invasion of Ukraine by the Russian Federation was President Volodymyr Zelensky On the day of military hostilities, in a message posted on his Telegram channel, he had asked the Russian authorities to conduct a telephone conversation with his counterpart Vladimir Putin, but he did not receive an answer. In the same video, Zelensky criticized the attempts of Russian propaganda to portray Ukraine as an aggressor state, ready to attack the Donbas and wanted to reassure its citizens that his country wanted peace and was not a danger to Russia. The one who tried to persuade Vladimir Putin to stop the war and negotiate with Zelensky was Emmanuel Macron. After a phone call with the Russian leader on the evening of February 24, however, the French president had to be content only with explaining the reasons that had prompted Moscow to launch the “special military operation”, not with a promise to start negotiations between the two presidents. Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov argued the next day that the negotiation process between Russia and Ukraine could take place in Belarus only if the Ukrainian army accepted President Putin’s urge to lay down arms. Zelensky has vehemently rejected such an ultimatum and has tried to change the venue for possible talks with Russia, preferring a neutral state to one involved in the war against Ukraine as it is the case with Belarus. He had obtained the support of Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett, who also proposed to the Russian President that peace talks with Ukraine take place in Israel. Although he confessed that Russia was ready to hold the first talks with Ukrainian representatives, Vladimir Putin remained equally intransigent as he insisted that they take place in the city of Gomel, where a Russian delegation of Foreign and Defense Ministry officials was already located.
In the following days, the Ukrainian president received several proposals from leaders who had offered to host negotiations between the two countries. After describing Russia’s war in Ukraine as “a severe blow to regional peace and stability,” Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan suggested that Zelensky meet with Vladimir Putin in Ankara. He was immediately followed by his Azerbaijani counterpart, Ilham Aliyev, who was willing to hold peace talks between the two states in Baku. Moreover, cardianal Pietro Parolin became the first high-ranking official from the Papal State to admit that Russia is waging a war with Ukraine and was ready to mediate talks between the two countries at the Vatican. The hosting of these negotiations by the small state of the Italian peninsula is not surprising, but in this case it is worth noting the trenchant position of the Secretary of State of the Vatican who contrasted with the countless calls for peace of Pope Francis, in which he urged the two countries to resolve the conflict through cooperation and dialogue, without making any further assessments. In any case, if at least some of these initiatives had materialized (and not just one of them), this states could have been much safer and more effective mediation platforms than Europe’s last dictatorship. However, it seems that Volodymyr Zelensky was forced to make a first concession to Vladimir Putin in the hope that future negotiations will bring peace. But he would be wrong.
Negotiations in the Republic of Belarus
In full swing of the Russian-Ukrainian war the Republic of Belarus therefore hosted – for the third time in history after the signing of the Minsk agreements of 2014 and 2015 -, the peace negotiations between the two countries. Before the first round of talks took place, Alexandr Lukashenko did not miss the opportunity to harshly criticize his Ukrainian counterpart for the appeal he made to the Belarusian citizens, whom he urged to condemn the invasion of Ukraine by the Belarusian armed forces and reject the proposed amendments to the Belarusian Constitution. In a press conference attended by representatives of the state-controlled media, immediately after voting in the referendum of February 27, the Belarusian president compared the Ukrainian president to Napoleon and claimed that he was fully responsible for triggering military operations on Ukrainian soil. At the same time, Lukashenko denied the presence of the Belarusian army in Ukraine but admitted that the Russian forces had launched ballistic missiles from Belarus, for strictly defensive purposes, in order to prevent strikes planned by the Ukrainian army. A few hours later, however, the Belarusian president had a phone call with Zelensky through which he tried to convince him to accept that the peace negotiations with Russian representatives be held in Belarus after his Ukrainian counterpart had initially rejected this proposal, opting instead for other much safer European cities, such as Bratislava, Warsaw, Budapest or Baku.
The first round of negotiations between Russia and Ukraine was held in Gomel region on February 28. Although Lukashenko assured Zelensky that “all planes, helicopters and missiles stationed on Belarus territory will remain on the ground during the travel, negociations and return of the Ukrainian delegation”, it chose to travel to the talks using the car to Poland and then the helicopeter to Gomel, proof of the distrust that the representatives of this country had towards Aleksandr Lukashenko-one of the artisans of the war efforts against Ukraine alongside his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin. The composition of the two delegations indicated that this first peace talks were unsuccessful from the beginning, given that each of them included lower-ranking representatives of the political establishments in Moscow and Kiev, respectively. The Russian delegation was headed by Vladimir Medinsky, Russian presidential aide and former minister of culture who was joined by the Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs Andrey Rudenko, Deputy Head of the Russian Defense Ministry Alexander Fomin and Russian Ambassador to Belarus Boris Gryzlov. The Ukrainian delegation included Defence Minister Aleksei Reznikov, Deputy Foreign Minister Nikolai Tochitsky, adviser to the head of the presidential office Mikhail Podolyak and Verkhovna Rada deputy Rustem Umerov. After three hours of negotiations, in which military operations on the territory of Ukraine continued unhindered, the two sides could not reach a compromise that would allow an end to the war as representatives of the Russian Federation refused the demands of the Ukrainian delegation to cease fire and withdraw their troops from Ukraine.
The second round of talks between Russia and Ukraine took place in the Brest region, located on the border between Belarus and Poland. Shortly after their conclusion, Vladimir Medinsky and Mikhail Podolyak announced that they had reached a partial armistice that would have allowed the cessation of military hostilities and the creation of humanitarian corridors for the evacuation of civilians from the bombed areas. However, the agreement reached by members of the two delegations remained unimplemented, being violated by the Russian army, which refused to operate the fire and accept the evacuation of civilians from the eastern cities of Ukraine. Moscow has instead proposed the evacuation of Ukrainians to Russia and Belarus, an option vehemently rejected by Kyiv.
Ahead of the March 7 negotiations in Belozhevskaya Pushcia, Russian presidential administration spokesman Dmitry Peskov presented the teams that would lead Vladimir Putin to end the war in Ukraine: amending Ukraine’s constitution to provide neutrality, recognizing the independence of the separatist republics of Donetsk and Lugansk, acknowledging Crimea as Russian territory as well as the ceasefire by the Ukrainian army. We see, therefore, a substantial reduction in the claims of the Russian president, who at the beginning of the military hostilities sought to denazify and control the entire ukrainian territory as well as to impose a pro-Kremlin president in Kyiv (with Medvedciuk and Yanukovych among the possible candidates). However, it seems that the unexpected extention of the war due to the resistance of the Ukrainian military forces and the imposition of new tougher economic sanctions by the West made him want to gain only the recognition of control over Crimea and the Donbass. Enough to keep Ukraine captive in russki mir forever. The Ukrainian delegation rejected these conditions, preferring to continue the war against Russia.
New mediation attempts
Shortly after the third round of negotiations, another official expressed a desire to mediate the dispute between Russia and Ukraine. On March 7, at a press conference after the First Annual Meeting of the Parliament, China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi said that his country was willing to work with the international community to ensure mediation between the two countries when necessary. The proposal for mediation by the Chinese authorities is not surprising given that during the conflict they tried to maintain the appearance of neutrality. Although it was ready to provide humanitarian aid to Ukraine, China refused to vote on the UN resolution condemning Russia’s war on Ukraine , urging Western states instead to respect Moscow’s legitimate security concerns. Moreover, the Beijing establishment failed to characterize Russian military operations by the term “war”, instead opting for words such as “crisis” or “conflict with a complex history”, similar to the way the Russian authorities chose to portray the situation from Ukraine in the Kremlin-affiliated media. If we also consider the alleged requests for arms and economic assistance made by Russia to China (but denied by Beijing), we can say that the Chinese initiative to mediate the Russian-Ukrainian negotiations is a PR exercise, without chances to become a reality.
On March 10, the first meeting of Russian and Ukrainian foreign ministers was held. During the diplomatic forum in Antalia, Sergey Lavrov and Dmytro Kuleba tried to reach an agreement on a ceasefire and the creation of a humanitarian corridor to in order to ensure the evacuation of civilians from Mariupol. After an hour and a half of talks, they failed as the Russian Minister insisted that Ukraine fulfill the conditions stated by Dmitry Peskov before the last round in Belarus, but these were vehemently rejected by his Ukrainian counterpart.
In the following days important leaders of the democratic world intensified their efforts to mediate the Russian-Ukrainian negotiations, hoping to facilitate the end of the war. Israeli Prime Minister Neftali Bennett agreed to set up a field hospital in western Ukraine and provide humanitarian assistance to Ukraine, after initially rejecting a request by Kyiv to send weapons to the country’s soldiers in order to support them in the war effort against Russia. French President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Olaf Scholz also promised Zelensky that they would seek a ceasefire as well as the release of the mayor of Melitopol, Ivan Fedorov, who was kidnapped by the Russian troops. Despite successive phone calls from the three officials with Vladimir Putin, he refused to end the “special military operation” and accused Ukraine of using civilians as human shields.
Negotiations via videoconference
In his talks with Emmanuel Macron and Olaf Scholz, Vladimir Putin said that the next Russian-Ukrainian negotiations will be conducted via videoconference which was later confirmed by both his spokesman Dmitry Peskov and the adviser of President Zelensky Mikhail Podolyak. A first progress was made on March 16 when Vladimir Medinsky and Sergey Lavrov claimed that the two delegations had reached a compromise which would have assumed the neutrality of Ukraine based to the Swedish or Austrian model.
Moreover, in the following hours the Financial Times published a 15-point peace plan, which provides for a ceasefire and withdrawal of the Russian army from Ukraine, if it agrees to become neutral, reduces the number of its armed forces (enough to not pose a threat to Russia) and will not host military bases of other states on its territory. In addition, the country would benefit from security guarantees from the United States, the United Kingdom or Turkey. Mikhail Podolyak did not deny the existence of such a proposal, but said that in his view, the protection offered by Western states should be absolute so as to allow them to intervene militarily and support Ukraine in the event of a future confrontation with the Russian Federation.
Let’s not forget, however, the conditions put forward by Vladimir Putin for ending the war in Ukraine. The first of them, Ukraine’s neutrality and implicitly renouncing NATO integration, seems to have already been fulfilled after Volodymyr Zelensky admitted in a press conference, that Ukraine’s accession to the North Atlantic organization is blocked for the moment and in the next years the country will have to rely on its own military capabilities. Moreover, its disarmament, the officialisation of the Russian language and denazification (thus the condemnation of any form of Nazism) could also be implemented without too much effort by the Ukrainian authorities. However, the recognition of the independence of the separatist republics of Donetsk and Lugansk and the acknowledge of Crimea as part of Russia, will be the real stake of future negotiations. Meanwhile, the war continues. Russia has not yet been defeated. Putin wants to gain time to bring new troops and fighting equipment to Ukraine. He will have to win a decisive victory in the war if he wants to get an advantage in the event that he signs a peace agreement with his counterpart Volodymyr Zelensky. Its conclusion, however, will not guarantee peace in Ukraine. In the history of bilateral relations there are already two precedents that prove it: the Budapest Memorandum and the Minsk agreements.