Kyiv willing to start peace talks with Russia if its forces reach Crimea

Kyiv willing to start peace talks with Russia if its forces reach Crimea
Kyiv willing to start peace talks with Russia if its forces reach Crimea, an advisor to President Zelenskiy says. / bne IntelliNews
By bne IntelliNews April 7, 2023

In a major concession, Kyiv says it is willing to start peace talks with Russia if its forces reach the Crimea borders, the Financial Times reported on April 6.

Quoting a top adviser to President Volodymyr Zelenskiy, Andriy Sybiha, the statement comes after peace talks were cut short with the Kremlin in April last year.

Since then Zelenskiy has taken a hard line, saying he won’t meet with President Vladimir Putin in person and that peace negotiations cannot begin until Russian forces quit the entire territory of Ukraine, including Crimea, which was annexed by Russia in 2014.

Now, Sybiha said that if Ukraine’s forces reach the border of the Russian-occupied peninsula, negotiations can be opened to discuss the issue. However, Sybiha emphasised that the possibility of the liberation of Crimea by the Ukrainian army has not been excluded.

Crimea remains a thorny issue. During the April peace talks the Ukrainian side suggested a ceasefire and a discussion over the status of the Donbas that included the possibility of creating an autonomous region within Ukraine’s borders that would in effect hand de facto control to Russia, but maintain Donbas as being under Ukraine’s sovereignty.

At the same time, Kyiv suggested kicking the issue of the status of Crimea down the road, with a possible eventual referendum on its status sometime in the future.

The Kremlin indicated it was open to this solution and the deal was very nearly done. As reported by bne IntelliNews, the deal failed in the end after UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson travelled to Kyiv a few days later and said that the West would not support any peace deal with Russia.

Sybiha’s comments bring new hope that a peace deal may be struck this year, and relief to Western officials, who have been sceptical about Ukraine’s ability to reclaim the peninsula, which has been heavily fortified by Russia.

Western officials worry that any military attempt to recapture the peninsula could escalate the war and possibly result in a nuclear exchange. Under Russia’s nuclear strategy, the Kremlin is entitled to resort to nuclear weapons in case there is an “existential threat” to Russia’s sovereignty. As the Kremlin has long seen Crimea as part of Russia, its capture by Ukraine would be classed as an existential threat.

Mykhailo Podolyak, another adviser to Zelenskiy, revealed that Ukrainian forces would be on Crimea’s doorstep in “five to seven months”.

Both sides are widely expected to launch spring offensives in the coming months.

Ukraine’s willingness to negotiate could face resistance at home, as the polls show the population is adamantly opposed to conceding territory to Russia to bring the war to an end.

A recent poll conducted by the Kyiv International Institute of Sociology (KIIS) in February and March showed that 87% of Ukrainians considered any territorial concessions for the sake of peace unacceptable, the FT reported.

Only 9% would agree to concessions if they meant lasting peace. The poll found that 64% of Ukrainians want the country to attempt to retake all of its territory, including Crimea, even if there is a risk of decreased Western support and a protracted war.

Sybiha is a veteran diplomat focusing on foreign policy in the president’s office and has been at Zelenskiy’s side during key moments in the war.

Sybiha’s comments come after several suggestions that peace talks should start soon.

In a surprising admission, Zelenskiy told two AP journalists that Ukraine may be forced to start peace talks if it loses control of Bakhmut in the Donbas, during a two-day conversation with AP journalists on March 28-29.

The battle for Bakhmut has been going on for seven months, with neither side gaining much advantage, leading some analysts to ask why Kyiv is expending so many resources to maintain control of the relatively strategically insignificant town.

Zelenskiy told the AP journalists that if Ukraine gives up the town it may be forced to sue for peace. Zelenskiy predicted that if Russia defeats Ukraine in Bakhmut, Putin would set out to “sell” a victory to the international community and at the same time it could change the mood of the domestic population, making it impossible for him to continue the war.

“Our society will feel tired,” he said. “Our society will push me to compromise with [Russia].” Zelenskiy warned that a loss anywhere at this stage in the war could put Ukraine’s hard-fought momentum at risk.

At the same time, several of Russia’s allies have also called for peace talks to start. China floated a 12-point peace plan on February 24, but the terms are unacceptable to Kyiv. The Chinese plan would leave most of the occupied territory in Russia’s hands, including the Donbas and Crimea, and turn the eastern half of the country into a demilitarised zone.

While this plan is seen as unworkable, French President Emmanuel Macron and President of the European Commission Ursula von der Leyen were both in Beijing this week to meet with President Xi Jinping. They called on the Chinese premier to use his leverage over Russia to help bring an end to the fighting.

Beijing has not commented on the war, and has refused to condemn it. However, Xi has also talked about the need to respect the sovereignty of countries and is attempting to position China as a mediator in the war. Xi has also yet to talk to Zelenskiy after spending three days in Moscow in March, but told Macron and von der Leyen that he would do so “when the time is right.”

Less significantly, Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko also called for a ceasefire during his state of the nation speech last week. Lukashenko proposed a truce without the right to move groups of troops and transfer weapons and equipment. He also said it necessary to immediately start negotiations between Moscow and Kyiv to bring peace to the region, in another proposal that is considered unworkable by experts.

Another Putin ally, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, caused a storm last week after saying that his country supports the Chinese peace plan for Ukraine during a radio interview, and that a ceasefire is the necessary first step.

“We also consider China’s peace plan important and support it,” the Hungarian leader said.

Nato and the Western leaders have largely dismissed these suggestions, especially the Chinese plan, as none of these countries have condemned Russia’s war. The West contends that these suggestions for a ceasefire are simply a ruse to lock in the territorial gains that Russia has made and freeze the conflict where it is.