KYIV BLOG: Did the West’s failure to offer bilateral security guarantees scupper the March 2022 peace deal?

KYIV BLOG: Did the West’s failure to offer bilateral security guarantees scupper the March 2022 peace deal?
The evidence that a peace deal between Russia and Ukraine was worked out in in March 2022 is overwhelming, but why did President Zelenskiy walk away from it? Ukraine wanted bilateral security deals but the West was unwilling to offer them seems a likely reason. / bne IntelliNews
By Ben Aris in Berlin January 8, 2024

The controversial story of the Ukrainian peace deal reached with Russia in March 2022 came up again at the weekend, after senior Wall Street Journal correspondent Yaroslav Trofimov published an extract from his upcoming book in the paper that includes a denial that a deal was done by Ukraine’s Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba.

bne IntelliNews has reported extensively on this story as there are now eight people – seven of which were members of the delegation that negotiated the deal – who have confirmed in great detail that a deal was agreed in principle, but never signed. But since then, Bankova has denied any agreement was reached.

Reading the piece carefully, actually Kuleba was playing the story down rather than flat out denying it. He confirms the talks did take place and Trofimov even admits that in the run-up to the revelation of the Bucha massacre the delegates were “fine tuning” the agreement, which makes it pretty clear that the talks had made a lot of progress and were into the details of what the agreement should contain.

What Kuleba actually said was “a conversation is not an agreement”. However, a lot of commentators simply dismiss the story as Kremlin propaganda, ignoring the fact that the story was originally broken by Ukrayinska Pravda, one of Ukraine’s most reliable news outlets, and was confirmed by several people, including Fiona Hill, the Russia security advisor to the White House, before the Kremlin ever commented on the existence of the deal.

This is part of the problem with the debate on the war at the moment: a lot of the commentary and analysis is based on emotional, not rational, arguments. The main counterargument used to prove the talks didn’t happen is “I can’t believe it”, which is of course no argument at all. The reasoning is that the deal came at a time when Russia was withdrawing from the north of Ukraine and the assumption Russian President Vladimir Putin “would never concede to such a humiliating concession after he had invaded Ukraine”.

Personally, I don’t think that this holds much water, but more importantly we can’t know what Putin was thinking and after the debacle of the failed “three-day campaign” maybe he was willing to cut his losses and stop the war.

David Arakhamia, who led the Ukraine delegation, is qualified to speculate on the deal as he was there. He says that it was clear to him that the Kremlin’s main goal in the negotiations was to get Ukraine to neutrality, and the rest was details. And that was already agreed. As bne IntelliNews reported, Ukraine had already conceded it would give up its Nato ambitions after only ten days of war and readopt neutrality that was part of the constitution until 2014. Projecting a cartoon character understanding of Putin as totally evil and “always lies” is attractive, but not helpful.

Despite these objections, the fact of the peace deal framework is now increasingly accepted, but nub of the debate now is why did Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy withdraw from it at the last minute.

Here too, the argument becomes emotional. Zelenskiy met with former UK prime minister Boris Johnson on April 9 and Putin announced two days later that the deal was dead.

We don’t actually know what was said at that meeting, although bits and pieces have been reported. However, a common take by the less ardent supporters of Ukraine is that the West “forced” Zelenskiy to drop it. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said as much in his Empire of Lies speech in the UN last year.

This line assumes that the West (and most single out the US) simply wanted Ukraine to fight Russia to the “last Ukrainian” to deplete Russia’s military power for decades and thought only one month of fighting was not enough.

A more sympathetic take on Zelenskiy’s decision is that he simply didn’t trust Putin to stick to the bargain and when BoJo promised to support Ukraine “a thousand percent” he decided it was better to fight on. That is not an irrational decision to make.

However, I’ve become increasingly interested in the role of Western security guarantees in this process. As I said above, Ukraine had already agreed to drop its Nato ambitions during the first talks in Gomel in Belarus, but at those same meetings, the Ukrainian delegation suggested that instead of Nato membership, Ukraine could sign bilateral security deals with each of the EU members and the US instead.

What is coming out now is a suggestion that this came up in the BoJo meeting, Johnson said that while the West was prepared to supply Ukraine while it was fighting, it was not prepared to sign bilateral security agreements with Ukraine if it did a peace deal with Russia – something that would be crucial for Zelenskiy. How could he guarantee Ukraine’s safety against a renewed attack by Russia a year later without those guarantees? Offering Ukraine bilateral security deals is almost as unappealing to the West as letting Ukraine into Nato. Say Latvia offers Ukraine a bilateral deal and Zelenskiy signs off on Putin’s peace deal but then invades again in the spring of 2025. Then Latvia would be committed to not only supporting Ukraine with arms as it is now, but also sending Latvians into Ukraine to fight Russian soldiers.

Latvia is a Nato country but if its soldiers were killed in Ukraine this would not trigger Nato’s Article 5 collective response unless Russia fired a rocket at Vilnius. However, you can see how uncomfortable this setup is and a key point here, as US Senator Lindsey Graham has said, is not a single US life has been lost in the conflict in Ukraine and it seems that the West wants to keep it that way.

The West is happy to send arms and spend money, but not to send our boys to die on a foreign battlefield in the Donbas. From the very outset Nato Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg has made it plain his first priority is to “avoid starting WWIII” and helping Ukraine is a distant second.

While the Ukrainian delegation in Gomel brought up the idea of bilateral security guarantees in March 2022, looking back over the subsequent reports I don’t remember seeing any comment or confirmation that the West was willing to actually sign those deals.

Indeed, the first confirmation that there could be security deals only came up over a year later when French President Emmanuel Macron said Ukraine needs “clear, strong security guarantees” at the June Nato summit in Lithuania, where Zelenskiy was otherwise disappointed by the collective silence on Ukraine’s possible Nato accession.

But Macron’s comments were just that – comments. No action or road maps were drawn up. I have seen almost nothing else that would suggest there is actually any concrete plan for the West to offer Ukraine any security guarantees of any kind. Zelenskiy wrote the Riga summit off as producing nothing of value at all for Ukraine’s security.

If this was BoJo’s message on April 9, 2022 – we will send you lots of arms but forget about bilateral security deals if you sign a peace deal – then it becomes a lot easier to understand why Zelenskiy would have rejected the proposed peace plan as Putin’s promise alone is hardly a solid foundation to build a long-term peace with Russia on.