Fresh evidence suggests that the April 2022 Istanbul peace deal to end the war in Ukraine was stillborn

Fresh evidence suggests that the April 2022 Istanbul peace deal to end the war in Ukraine was stillborn
Russia and Ukraine successfully negotiated a peace deal in April 2022, but by not including its Western partners and including security guarantee obligations on them the resulting deal was stillborn. / bne IntelliNews
By Ben Aris in Berlin April 17, 2024

Fresh evidence has indicated that a peace deal thrashed out between Russia and Ukraine in April 2022 that could have ended the war only months after it had begun was probably too ambitious and by failing to consult with its Western partners during the negotiations the resulting deal was stillborn, according to an analysis by  Samuel Charap and Sergey Radchenko in an article for Foreign Policy.

While the peace talks and its conclusion remains controversial, as bne IntelliNews has reported, the evidence that a deal was agreed has become overwhelming. More than seven senior officials, six of whom participated in the meetings, as well as the White House’s top security advisor on Russia, Fiona Hill, who didn’t, confirmed the existence of the talks and their successful conclusion.

New evidence has now come to light after the authors of the Foreign Policy article examined draft agreements exchanged between the two sides, some details of which have not been reported previously. We have also conducted interviews with several participants in the talks as well as with officials serving at the time in key Western governments, to whom we have granted anonymity in order to discuss sensitive matters.

“When we put all these pieces together, what we found is surprising—and could have significant implications for future diplomatic efforts to end the war,” Charap and Radchenko concluded.

Samuel Charap is the Distinguished Chair in Russia and Eurasia Policy and a Senior Political Scientist at the RAND Corporation. Sergey Radchenko is Wilson E. Schmidt Distinguished Professor at Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies in Europe and one of the best-known commentators on Russia.

While the existence of the talks is not in dispute, and even the head of the Ukrainian delegation, Oleksiy Arestovych, says they ended successfully with a deal to end the conflict, critics have dismissed the significance of the talks entirely, claiming that the parties were merely going through the motions to buy time for battlefield realignments or that the draft agreements were unserious.

The deal was ultimately rejected in April 2022. The public mood in Ukraine hardened with the discovery of Russian atrocities at Irpin and Bucha. And with the failure of Russia’s encirclement of Kyiv, President Volodymyr Zelenskiy became more confident that, with sufficient Western support promised by former UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson, he could win the war on the battlefield.

“But Putin and Zelenskiy surprised everyone with their mutual willingness to consider far-reaching concessions to end the war. They might well surprise everyone again in the future,” says the authors.

Nato’s role

After the failure of an initial round of talks in the first month of the war in Belarus, the Istanbul round kicked off on March 10, when Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba met with his Russian counterpart, Sergey Lavrov, in Antalya, Turkey and spoke of a “systematic, sustainable solution” for Ukraine, adding that the Ukrainians were “ready to discuss” guarantees it hoped to receive from Nato member states and Russia. Ukraine had already conceded giving up its Nato ambitions during the Belarusian talks, enshrined in the Constitution since 2014, and returned to its neutrality stance that was previously enshrined in the Constitution.

Ukraine’s relationship with Nato played a key role in the talks. Kyiv demanded that if it gave up its Nato ambitions it wanted firm security guarantees from Nato and Russia to ensure its security – something its Western partners were unwilling to agree to.

Nato had no intention of admitting Ukraine before the war, so why would it agree to this after the war?

“The Ukrainian negotiators developed an answer to this question, but in the end, it didn’t persuade their risk-averse Western colleagues. Kyiv’s position was that, as the emerging guarantees concept implied, Russia would be a guarantor, too, which would mean Moscow essentially agreed that the other guarantors would be obliged to intervene if it attacked again. In other words, if Moscow accepted that any future aggression against Ukraine would mean a war between Russia and the United States, it would be no more inclined to attack Ukraine again than it would be to attack a Nato ally,” the authors said, who obtained a copy of the full text of the draft communiqué, titled “Key Provisions of the Treaty on Ukraine’s Security Guarantees.”

On March 29, the talks achieved a breakthrough.

“The treaty envisioned in the communiqué would proclaim Ukraine as a permanently neutral, nonnuclear state. Ukraine would renounce any intention to join military alliances or allow foreign military bases or troops on its soil. The communiqué listed as possible guarantors the permanent members of the UN Security Council (including Russia) along with Canada, Germany, Israel, Italy, Poland, and Turkey.”

The communiqué also said that if Ukraine came under attack and requested assistance, all guarantor states would be obliged, following consultations with Ukraine and among themselves, to provide assistance to Ukraine to restore its security.

“Remarkably, these obligations were spelled out with much greater precision than Nato’s Article 5: imposing a no-fly zone, supplying weapons, or directly intervening with the guarantor state’s own military force,” the authors said, citing the text of the communiqué.

The question of Ukraine’ membership of the EU was left open, but Russia had no objection to its accession in principle.

The communiqué also included another “stunning” concession: it called for the two sides to seek to “peacefully resolve their dispute over Crimea” next ten to 15 years. Russia has refused point blank to talk about the status of Crimea since it was annexed in 2014.

The tricky question is why Putin would agree to this deal, given he has the upper hand in the war on paper with hundreds of thousands of troops on-the-ground fighting an under-armed and under-supplied Ukraine.

“We can only conjecture as to why. Putin’s blitzkrieg had failed; that was clear by early March. Perhaps he was now willing to cut his losses if he got his longest-standing demand: that Ukraine renounce its Nato aspirations and never host Nato forces on its territory. If he could not control the entire country, at least he could ensure his most basic security interests, stem the haemorrhaging of Russia’s economy, and restore the country’s international reputation,” the authors wrote.

Deal collapses

In remarks he made on March 29, immediately after the conclusion of the talks, Vladimir Medinsky, the head of the Russian delegation, sounded decidedly upbeat saying the talks had entered a “decisive phase.”

The next day, he told reporters, “Yesterday, the Ukrainian side, for the first time fixed in a written form its readiness to carry out a series of most important conditions for the building of future normal and good-neighbour relations with Russia.” These comments came as Russia was pulling its troops back from Kyiv and calling off that assault. Medinsky continued, “They handed to us the principles of a potential future settlement, fixed in writing.”

But the pull back stiffened Zelenskiy’s resolve, removing an immediate threat to his government, and demonstrated that Putin’s vaunted military machine could be defeated. This success also bolstered Western confidence that Ukraine could win a victory with sufficient military support. The emerging reports of the massacre at Bucha on April 4 only catalysed this confidence, although the two sides continued the negotiations around the clock.

In his February 2023 interview, former Israeli Prime Minister Nafital Bennett, who participated in the talks, reported seeing 17 or 18 working drafts of the agreement in the first week of April; Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko also reported seeing at least one.

“We have closely scrutinised two of these drafts, one that is dated April 12 and another dated April 15, which participants in the talks told us was the last one exchanged between the parties. They are broadly similar but contain important differences—and both show that the communiqué had not resolved some key issues,” the authors said.

A key issue was the language covering the guarantor states obligations to to come to Kyiv’s aid in the event of another attack on Ukraine. The Kremlin insisted that such action would occur only “on the basis of a decision agreed to by all guarantor states”—giving the likely invader, Russia, a veto as it was to be one of the guarantors.

Ukraine insisted on the original formula, under which all the guarantors had an individual obligation to act and would not have to reach consensus before doing so.

Russia also added several items that Ukraine refused to discuss including a demand that Ukraine ban “fascism, Nazism, neo-Nazism, and aggressive nationalism”—and, to that end, to repeal six Ukrainian laws (fully or in part) that dealt, broadly, with contentious aspects of Soviet-era history, in particular the role of Ukrainian nationalists during World War II.

“The Russians knew these provisions would make it more difficult for the Ukrainians to accept the rest of the treaty. They might, therefore, be seen as poison pills,” say the authors.

Arakhamia later downplayed the importance of these provisions suggesting they were not a deal breaker.

The size and the structure of the Ukrainian military was also the subject of intense negotiation as Russia wanted to demilitarise Ukraine to some extent.

“As of April 15, the two sides remained quite far apart on the matter. The Ukrainians wanted a peacetime army of 250,000 people; the Russians insisted on a maximum of 85,000, considerably smaller than the standing army Ukraine had before the invasion in 2022. The Ukrainians wanted 800 tanks; the Russians would allow only 342. The difference between the range of missiles was even starker: 280 kilometres, or about 174 miles, (the Ukrainian position), and a mere 40 kilometres, or about 25 miles, (the Russian position),” the authors wrote, citing the final draft of the proposed treaty.

The talks had deliberately skirted the question of borders and territory and the thorny issue of sovereignty over both the Crimea and the occupied Donbas regions were to be left to direct negotiations in a mooted summit between Putin and Zelenskiy at a later date.

“Despite these substantial disagreements, the April 15 draft suggests that the treaty would be signed within two weeks. Granted, that date might have shifted, but it shows that the two teams planned to move fast,” the authors wrote.

“We were very close in mid-April 2022 to finalising the war with a peace settlement,” one of the Ukrainian negotiators, Oleksandr Chalyi, recounted at a public appearance in December 2023. “[A] week after Putin started his aggression, he concluded he had made a huge mistake and tried to do everything possible to conclude an agreement with Ukraine.”

But the deal was rejected, because the Western powers intervened via the UK’s Johnson because they were more interested in weakening Russia than in ending the war, Putin claims.

The West remained sceptical of the deal as the communiqué sidestepped the question of territory and borders, and the parties remained far apart on other crucial issues.

“Moreover, a former US official who worked on Ukraine policy at the time told us that the Ukrainians did not consult with Washington until after the communiqué had been issued, even though the treaty it described would have created new legal commitments for the United States—including an obligation to go to war with Russia if it invaded Ukraine again,” the authors wrote. “That stipulation alone would have made the treaty a nonstarter for Washington. So instead of embracing the Istanbul communiqué and the subsequent diplomatic process, the West ramped up military aid to Kyiv and increased the pressure on Russia, including through an ever-tightening sanctions regime.”

The United Kingdom took the lead with Johnson coming out with a hard line, saying on March 30 that, “we should continue to intensify sanctions with a rolling program until every single one of [Putin’s] troops is out of Ukraine,” before he arrived in Kyiv on April 9.

He told Zelenskiy any deal, “would be some victory for [Putin]: if you give him anything, he’ll just keep it, bank it, and then prepare for his next assault.”

According to the Charap and Radchenko account, the Istanbul deal would have been still born as it contains an obligation by the Western powers to provide real security guarantees that oblige them to commit troops in Ukraine if Ukraine was attacked again – something that Kyiv had not cleared with its Western allies during the talks and something they did not want to do.

This version of events tallies with earlier bne IntelliNews reporting, suggesting the proposed security deals the West was supposed to offer, but never actually agreed to ahead of, or during, the talks was the real dealbreaker.

“Even if Russia and Ukraine had overcome their disagreements, the framework they negotiated in Istanbul would have required buy-in from the United States and its allies. And those Western powers would have needed to take a political risk by engaging in negotiations with Russia and Ukraine and to put their credibility on the line by guaranteeing Ukraine’s security. At the time, and in the intervening two years, the willingness either to undertake high-stakes diplomacy or to truly commit to come to Ukraine’s defence in the future has been notably absent in Washington and European capitals,” the authors said.

In the 2023 interview, Arakhamia ruffled some feathers by seeming to hold Johnson responsible for the outcome. “When we returned from Istanbul,” he said, “Boris Johnson came to Kyiv and said that we won’t sign anything at all with [the Russians]—and let’s just keep fighting.”

By late April, Ukraine had hardened its position, demanding a Russian withdrawal from the Donbas as a precondition to any treaty, effectively abandoning the Istanbul deal. Oleksii Danilov, the chair of the Ukrainian National Security and Defence Council, said on May 2: “A treaty with Russia is impossible—only capitulation can be accepted.”

Charap and Radchenko conclude that the final reason the talks failed is that, “the negotiators put the cart of a postwar security order before the horse of ending the war.”

Essential questions of conflict management and mitigation were glossed over such as the creation of humanitarian corridors, a cease-fire, troop withdrawals, and instead the parties tried to craft a long-term peace treaty before the hostilities had ended, without agreeing on how those hostilities should be ended.

“It was an admirably ambitious effort—but it proved too ambitious,” the authors said. “This history suggests that future talks should move forward on parallel tracks, with the practicalities of ending the war being addressed on one track while broader issues are covered in another.”