Former German leader Schroeder divulges more detail on thwarted Russia-Ukraine peace deal

Former German leader Schroeder divulges more detail on thwarted Russia-Ukraine peace deal
According to Schroeder the peace deal that was taking shape was shot down by the US at the last moment. / bne IntelliNews
By Ben Aris in Berlin October 24, 2023

Former German chancellor Gerhard Schroeder is the latest figure to confirm that a Russia-Ukraine peace deal was nearly reached in the spring of 2022. He discussed the apparent near-success that could have brought the war in Ukraine to an early end in an interview with Berliner Zeitung on October 21.

"At the peace negotiations in Istanbul in March 2022 with [the now Defence Minister of Ukraine] Rustem Umerov, the Ukrainians did not agree on peace because they were not allowed to. For everything they discussed, they first had to ask the Americans,” Schroeder told the German newspaper.

The question of whether a peace deal was so very nearly sealed between Ukraine and Russia remains a hugely controversial topic. As bne IntelliNews reported at the time, a contemporary report by Ukrainska Pravda claimed a deal between the Kremlin and Bankova was put together in March and April.

“Wow! The Ex-leader of Germany corroborates statements by ex-Israeli PM [Naftali Bennett], Ukrainian officials close to [Ukraine's leader Volodomyr] Zelenskiy, ex-senior US officials and Russian leaders,” Ivan Katchanovski, a professor of political studies at the University of Ottawa, said in response to the interview with Schroeder.

As the parties moved towards concluding the deal, the massacre at Bucha in Ukraine, a slaughter of hundreds of innocent civilians committed by retreating Russian troops, was discovered. The effort to seal the agreement was reportedly abandoned after former UK PM Boris Johnson flew to Kyiv to meet with Zelenskiy a few days later and advised him to abandon the path to the deal as the West would withdraw its support if he did not.

Schroeder was involved in the talks and, according to his interview, most of the peace deal negotiations were conducted before the Bucha story broke. Moreover, he claims it was the White House that refused to accept a deal as it wanted to “keep Russia small”, by continuing to fight a resource-burning proxy war in Ukraine. Schroeder’s version of events suggests that Johnson was delivering a US message, not expressing his own view.

Schroeder remains one of the very few former Western leaders that remains close to Russian President Vladimir Putin. The two men worked together for almost a decade when Schroeder was German chancellor. Schroeder was immediately given a seat on the board of Russia’s biggest oil company Rosneft after he left office. He has remained a strong advocate for Russian interests and was a vocal Putin supporter in the run-up to the war in Ukraine.

Thanks to his close rapport with Russia, Schroeder was included in the March 2022 talks held in Istanbul that attempted to bring the conflict to an end.

Prior to Schroeder's statements, Israel’s Bennett confirmed that a peace deal was almost cut in Istanbul, but that the efforts were scuppered at the last moment by the US. Putin also recenlty confirmed a deal was agreed. 

Putin made his first public remarks on the deal during a press conference taking questions from war correspondents at the Kremlin on June 13, 2023. He also confirmed that a peace deal had been tentatively agreed in March in Istanbul. The deal would have seen Russia withdraw to its pre-war position in exchange for a Ukrainian promise to give up its Nato aspirations.

But at the June press conference, Putin corroborated other reports on just how the deal had progressed. The tentative agreement had been initialled by both sides. “I don’t remember his name and may be mistaken, but I think Mr Arakhamia headed Ukraine’s negotiating team in Istanbul. He even initialled this document.” Russia, too, signed the document: “during the talks in Istanbul, we initialled this document. We argued for a long time, butted heads there and so on, but the document was very thick and it was initialled by Medinsky on our side and by the head of their negotiating team.”

The host of the Istanbul talks has also confirmed a deal was done. Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu told the local Turkish press that, because of the talks, “Turkey did not think that the Russia-Ukraine war would continue much longer.” But, added, “There are countries within Nato who want the war to continue.”

“Following the Nato foreign ministers’ meeting,” he explained, “it was the impression that…there are those within the Nato member states that want the war to continue, let the war continue and Russia get weaker.”

Cavusoglu is not alone. Numan Kurtulmus, the deputy chairman of Erdogan’s ruling party, told CNN TURK that “We know that our President is talking to the leaders of both countries. In certain matters, progress was made, reaching the final point, then suddenly we see that the war is accelerating… Someone is trying not to end the war. The United States sees the prolongation of the war as its interest… There are those who want this war to continue… Putin-Zelenskiy was going to sign, but someone didn’t want to.”

More recently Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov confirmed elements of the same story, with remarks made during his “Empire of Lies” speech at the UN, saying Russia signed off on the details of a ceasefire.

"We were not only ready – we agreed to negotiate, we reached an agreement in April 2022. And after that, as I understand it, Zelenskiy was told: since they agreed so quickly, let's exhaust [Russia],” said Lavrov.

Details of the deal

According to Schroeder the deal would have included the following main aspects:

·      Ukraine would abandon its Nato aspirations;

·      The bans on the Russian language in Ukraine would be removed;

·      Donbass would remain in Ukraine but as an autonomous region (Schroeder: "Like South Tyrol");

·      The United Nations Security Council plus Germany should offer and supervise the security agreements; and

·      The Crimea problem would be addressed.

“Umerov opened the conversation with greetings from Zelenskiy. As a compromise for Ukraine's security guarantees, the Austrian model or the 5+1 model was proposed. Umerov thought that was a good thing,” said Schroeder. “He also showed willingness on the other points. He also said that Ukraine does not want Nato membership. He also said that Ukraine wants to reintroduce Russian in the Donbass. But in the end, nothing happened.”

“My impression was that nothing could happen, because everything else was decided in Washington,” said Schroeder, who had two sessions of talks with Umerov, then a one-on-one meeting with Putin in Moscow, and then a meeting with Putin's envoy.

In an interview posted to his YouTube channel in February this year, Bennett said something very similar in reference to the US and its European allies. “Basically, yes. They blocked it, and I thought they were wrong [to do so],” he said, speaking of the efforts to end the war in March and April last year.

Schroeder also confirmed that the Europeans didn’t push for the deal. “They have failed. There would have been a window in March 2022. The Ukrainians were ready to talk about Crimea. This was even confirmed by Bild newspaper at the time,” Schroeder said holding up a copy of the German daily with the title "Finally peace in sight?"

Bild reported at the time that Zelenskiy was no longer insisting on his country's accession into Nato and that he was also ready for a “compromise” on Crimea and the breakaway provinces in the Donbass. 

bne IntelliNews reported at the time that Ukraine was prepared to give up on its Nato ambitions, and that this was announced by members of the Ukraine negotiating team meeting with their Russian counterparts during the several weeks the talks went on.

Schroeder insisted that the US was in the driving seat of the negotiations, although the White House has repeatedly stated that the only people that can decide to start ceasefire talks are the Ukrainians. Schroeder flatly contradicted that rhetoric.

“[The Ukrainians] first had to ask the Americans about everything they discussed… My impression: Nothing could happen because everything else was decided in Washington. That was fatal. Because the result will now be that Russia will be tied more closely to China, which the West should not want,” Schroeder said.

Schroeder also said that Bucha didn’t change anything. Interviewed by the BBC on-the-ground in Bucha, Zelenskiy confirmed to a reporter that the peace deal talks were still on: “I have to [have these talks],” Zelenskiy said at the time.

The Berliner Zeitung reporter repeated to Schroeder Ukrainian statements that the Bucha massacres committed by the Russian soldiers meant the end of the negotiations.

“Nothing was known about Bucha during the talks with Umerov on March 7 and 13,” Schroeder replied. “I think the Americans didn't want the compromise between Ukraine and Russia. The Americans believe they can keep the Russians down. Now it is the case that two actors, China and Russia, who are constrained by the USA, are joining forces. Americans believe they are strong enough to keep both parties in check. In my humble opinion, this is a mistake. Just look at how torn the American side is now. Look at the chaos in Congress.”

However, Schroeder did not end his interview without offering some hope for peace. Asked if he thought the peace plan could be revived he replied: “Yes. And the only ones who can initiate this are France and Germany.”

Asked how the West could come to trust the Russians after the litany of broken promises in the lead-up to the war and since it started, Schroeder scoffed at the idea that Russia has ambitions to invade Europe.

“We have no threat. This fear of the Russians coming is absurd. How are they supposed to defeat Nato, let alone occupy Western Europe?” Schroeder replied.

“What do the Russians want? Status quo in Donbass and Crimea. Not more. I think it was a fatal mistake that Putin started the war. It is clear to me that Russia feels threatened. Look: Turkey is a Nato member. There are missiles that can reach Moscow directly. The USA wanted to bring Nato to Russia's western border, with Ukraine as a new member, for example. All of this felt like a threat to the Russians. There are also irrational points of view. I don't want to deny that. The Russians responded with a mix of both fear and forward defence. That's why no one in Poland, the Baltics, and certainly not in Germany - all Nato members, by the way - has to believe they are in danger. The Russians would not start a war with any Nato member,” Schroeder concluded.

Schroeder noted that while the West continued to supply Ukraine with arms, it was not combining that with an offer to start talks.

“If you combine that with an offer, you can do that,” said Schroeder. “Why do [German Chancellor Olaf] Scholz and [French President Emmanuel] Macron not combine the arms deliveries with an offer to talk? Macron and Scholz are the only ones who can talk to Putin… None of the people who matter are moving. The only one who got anything done, even though he is always vilified, was [Turkish President Recep Tayyip] Erdogan with his grain agreement. This really bothers me.”

Schroeder described what he regarded as Russian paranoia over Western expansion and said any deal would have to take account of Russian fears.

“Nobody in the West wants to hear it: No matter who is in power, there is a conviction in Russia that the West wants to expand further with Nato, namely into the post-Soviet space. Keywords: Georgia and Ukraine. No one at the head of Russia will allow this. This threat analysis may be emotional, but it is real in Russia. The West must understand this and accept compromises accordingly, otherwise peace will be difficult to achieve....” Schroeder ended.