On March 16, the Financial Times published an article mentioning the existence of an alleged peace plan that could have ended the Russian-Ukrainian war. In order for this to happen, Ukraine should have given up its plans to join NATO (and therefore assume neutrality), reduce the number of its armed forces and not host foreign military bases on its territory and the country would profit from security guarantees from the United States, Turkey, Germany or the United Kingdom. Two days later, in a phone call with his Turkish counterpart Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Russian President Vladimir Putin reiterated the conditions that would lead him to end military hostilities in Ukraine: neutrality, denazification, the officialisation of the Russian language, recognition of the independence of the separatist Republics of Donetsk and Luhansk as well as acknowledging Crimea as Russian territory. If the first three terms could be easily fulfilled by the Ukrainian authorities, the last two further complicate the peace negotiations. As sovereignty and territorial integrity are supreme values for the Ukraine, reaching a compromise which would lead to the withdrawal of the Russian army does not seem possible.
Zelensky proposes a referendum on the peace deal with Russia
On March 21, a new round of peace negotiations was held by videoconference between the delegations of Russia and Ukraine. After an hour and a half, the representatives of the two states mentioned that the talks will continue daily, without giving any further details on their evolution. Shortly after the negotiations, Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky insisted on the need to hold bilateral meetings with his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin, warning that if they fail, the Third World War may break out. Beyond the obvious dissatisfaction caused as a result of the lack of progress in the negotiations between the delegations of the two countries, the Ukrainian president proposed the same evening to organize a referendum in which the citizens would decide on the provisions that could figure in a peace deal with the Russian Federation: recognition of the independence of the breakaway republics of Donetsk and Luhansk, the recognition of Crimea as Russian territory and the security guarantees offered to Ukraine by the West. Although the response of the Ukrainian population is more than obvious, it remains to be seen under what conditions such an electoral exercise will be organized in a country destroyed by war. However, by appealing to the people, the Ukrainian president tells Moscow that he is not willing to cede any territory of Ukraine, unless the Ukrainian citizens support such a change by vote. Moreover, Zelensky tells Ukrainians that they must continue to fight against the Russian Armed Forces because the Ukrainian state backs them unconditionally, being ready to act in accordance with their options freely expressed in the referendum. Thus, the territorial integrity of the country would be maintained and the Ukrainian army would be more prepared in the event of a future offensive by Russian troops that could continue bombing Ukrainian cities on Putin’s orders, in order to get the Ukrainian population to change its option and force the conclusion of a peace agreement more favorable for the Moscow establishment.
The Russian authorities, however, reacted immediately to President Zelensky’s proposal. While acknowledging that Ukraine is a sovereign state that has the right to decide by referendum the terms of the peace agreement with Russia, Presidential Administration spokesman Dmitry Peskov characterized progress in the Russian-Ukrainian negotiations as insufficient and ruled out holding a meeting between the two presidents. He also warned that the deployment of NATO peacekeepers to Ukraine “would have serious, understandable and irreparable consequences”, alluding to the possibility of Russia using its nuclear weapons on Ukrainian soil if the country faced an existential threat to its own security.
Over the past week, Peskov’s aggressive rhetoric has been fueled by several Russian officials close to President Putin. Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu said that maintaining “readiness of strategic nuclear forces” remains a priority for Moscow and the head of the Russian delegation to the negotiations with Ukraine, Vladimir Medinsky, that the West threatens the existence of Russia as a state because it seeks to destroy its political regime. Also, the director of the Foreign Intelligence Service, Sergei Naryshkin, reiterated that the Russian troops in Ukraine aim to destroy the totalitarian-liberal regime in Kyiv supported by the United States and the European Union. However, this is not the first time that the nuclear threat has returned to the speech of members of the Moscow establishment. The Russian president himself has used it several times since the beginning of the war. On 27 February, he warned the West not to intervene in the “special military operation” launched against Ukraine, as it risks facing consequences never seen before in its history. Moreover, at a meeting with Russian officials from the Ministry of Defense, he accused the leaders of the North Atlantic organization of aggressive statements against Russia and asked Minister Sergei Shoigu and the chief of the General Staff Valeri Gerasimov to raise the alert level of the deterrent forces of the Russian army, including nuclear ones. These statements are therefore not new. They serve only as a scarecrow for the Ukrainian authorities, as the Russian army faces logistical problems in all theaters of operations in Ukraine.
New mediation attempts
This week Western leaders also intensified their efforts to mediate the Russian-Ukrainian negotiations, hoping to facilitate the end of the war. For the first time since the outbreak of military hostilities, Swiss President Ignazio Cassis indicated his willingness to host peace negotiations between Russia and Ukraine, called for the immediate opening of humanitarian corridors and assured the Kyiv establishment that Swiss authorities are ready to support the reconstruction of Ukrainian cities destroyed by the Russian army. The Swiss state’s support for Ukraine is somewhat surprising considering that until now, the country has been known in history for its neutrality. Since the beginning of the war however, Switzerland has sided with Western states and has chosen to impose sanctions against Russia. So far, it decided to close the airspace to Russian planes and freeze the financial assets of oligarchs close to Russian President Vladimir Putin.
For his part, French President Emmanuel Macron had another phone call with his Russian counterpart, the eighth since the invasion began, through which he tried to convince him, unsuccessfully, to end the war in Ukraine. At the same time, Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky, in an address to members of the National Assembly, called on France to become one of the guarantors of its country’s security, to support it with weapons in the war effort against Russia and to adopt a new package of sanctions upon the Kremlin. He then continued his diplomatic marathon in Israel, asking members of Parliament to explain why they refuse to send weapons to the Ukrainian army and to adopt sanctions against the Russian Federation. Days after Zelensky’s speech, the Israeli government blocked the sale of the Pegasus spy program to Ukraine and Prime Minister Naftali Bennett announced that he was ready to visit Kyiv only after the two countries’ delegations made substantial progress in peace negotiations. The actions of the Israeli authorities should come as no surprise given that throughout the war they have assumed neutrality. The establishment in Jerusalem wants to maintain good relations with Russia, as it hopes that Moscow will not support the conclusion of a nuclear agreement with Iran and also that it will allow Israel’s army to attack pro-Iranian forces in Syria. Therefore, in the case of Israel, national interests prevail beyond the efforts to mediate the Russian-Ukrainian negotiations, which is also visible in the approach of another state whose decision-makers tried to end the war.
While praising President Zelensky’s initiative to hold a referendum on the terms of a peace deal with Russia, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan refused to impose sanctions on Russian oligarchs and rejected a US proposal to transfer S 400 air defense systems to Ukraine in order to help it fight Russia. It is well known that Turkey purchases half of its natural gas from the Russian Federation, which also supports the construction of the Akkuyu Nuclear Power Plant. Hence Erdogan’s reluctance to take a more categorical stance in dealing with his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin. However, he maintained that he would continue to mediate the Russian-Ukrainian negotiations and was willing to host a future meeting between the two presidents. Moreover, Erdogan said that the leaders of the two countries would have reached a consensus that would have allowed the fulfillment of four of the six conditions put forward by Vladimir Putin for ending the war in Ukraine: the country’s neutrality, disarmament, the provision of security guarantees by the West, as well as the introduction of the Russian as an official language. However, he was immediately contradicted by the Ukrainian Foreign Minister, Dmitro Kuleba, who reiterated in a statement the position of Ukraine. The official said that the Kyiv establishment will continue to insist in the negotiations with Russia on maintaining the territorial integrity of the country (including Crimea and the Donbas), on using only the Ukrainian language, as well as on the withdrawal of the Russian armed forces Ukraine. At the same time, in an interview with El Pais, Kuleba clarified how the countries guaranteeing Ukraine’s security should act in the event of a new aggression by the Russian Federation. According to him, these states will have to send weapons to Ukraine within 24 hours, adopt a resolution at the UN Security Council condemning the action of the Kremlin and also impose new sanctions.
We see, therefore, the obvious difference between the positions adopted by the officials of Turkey and Ukraine. President Erdogan, as a representative of a mediator state in the negotiations, wants to end military hostilities as soon as possible and thus maintain good relations with President Vladimir Putin. For his part, Foreign Minister Kuleba insists that an end to the war should be achieved without Ukraine ceding any territory to Russia. In addition, he calls for Ukraine to be guaranteed the application of Article 5 of the NATO Charter (an attack against one state is an attack against all) if it faces further aggression from the Russian Federation. However, it remains to be seen whether his wishes will come true.
NATO and G7 summits
On 24 March, in Brussels, a series of important summits took place, including that of the heads of state and government of NATO member states and that of the group of 7 strongest economies of the world (United States, Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, Great Britain). Their results were predictable, confirming what we already knew, namely that the West does not want to get involved in the war and thus provoke Russia, but is ready to provide Ukraine with military equipment to defend itself against the Russian army. Specifically, at the end of the summit of the North Atlantic organization, its leaders agreed to provide the Ukrainian military with the necessary equipment to counter chemical, biological, cyber, nuclear threats and dirty bombs. As expected, they refused to send peacekeepers to Ukraine and establish a no-fly zone, sparking discontent from President Volodymyr Zelensky. Instead, they agreed to strengthen the alliance’s eastern flank by creating new tactical groups to be deployed in Romania, Bulgaria, Hungary and Slovakia, and urged China to stop supporting Russia in its war effort against Ukraine. For their part, the G7 countries decided to impose new sanctions on the Kremlin, requiring it to comply with the order of the International Court of Justice and thus end military hostilities in Ukraine.
The next day, Sergey Rudskoy, Chief of the Main Operational Directorate of the General Staff of the Russian Armed Forces, announced at a press conference held at the headquarters of the Ministry of Defense that the first stage of the special military operation has ended and Russian troops will focus on the liberation of the Donbas. We note, therefore, the apparent change of an objective assumed by Vladimir Putin in the war in Ukraine (control of the entire country), given that his forces face unexpected resistance from the Ukrainian army. However, this is not the first time that the Russian president has made such a change, since during the invasion, he abandoned the denazification of Ukraine (replacing Zelensky with a loyal pro-Kremlin successor like Medvedchuk or Yanukovych). Now he needs to win a quick victory on the battlefield in order to force the Ukrainian President to make concessions to him if he wants to conclude a peace agreement. Meanwhile, the Russian army continues to bomb Ukraine’s cities. Latest targets: Lvov and Odessa. It is possible that the war will be prolonged for a few months. The West acted too late. Although it militarily supports the Ukrainian army, it is actually waging a proxy war against Russia. Ukrainian troops will have to fight alone.