Among critics of U.S. policy toward the Ukraine War, it has become widely accepted that British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, carrying out the wishes of the United States, sabotaged an April 2022 peace agreement between Russia and Ukraine. Russian President Vladimir Putin made the same point in a summer meeting with African heads of state. He waved in the air a draft for a peace agreement signed by both parties at their final meeting in Istanbul. The West, Putin alleged, brought the arrangement crashing down.
Similar interpretations have recently been offered by Oleksiy Arestovych, a former aide to Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelensky and now a sharp critic of the regime, and by Davyd Arakhamia, the leader in Parliament of Volodymyr Zelensky’s Servant of the People party. Both men participated in the spring 2022 negotiations with Russia. Arakhamia said in a recent interview that the Russians “were prepared to end the war if we agreed to—as Finland once did —neutrality and committed that we would not join NATO.” Ukraine’s acceptance of neutrality, Arakhamia insisted, was Russia’s “key point” and “the biggest thing for them.”
In Arakhamia’s recollection, there were several obstacles to an agreement, including the manifest lack of trust between the parties and the difficulty of amending Ukraine’s constitution to renounce its bid for NATO membership. Then Johnson showed up in Kyiv on April 9 carrying the West’s message that it “would not sign anything with [the Russians] at all, and let’s just fight.” The peace negotiations collapsed.
Does this sequence of events show that the West nixed a promising agreement? Not quite. With the support of the United States, Johnson may have sought to sabotage a deal, but there was not much of a deal to sabotage. Russia and Ukraine were not on the brink of a peaceful settlement in early April 2022. There remained huge differences between the parties.
When Putin waved the Istanbul treaty before the African delegation, he showed only the first page of a hefty document composed of eighteen sections. The full text, incredibly, has yet to be published or leaked by either party or any of the mediators. (Putin’s copy was dated April 13, 2022, the same day he declared the talks at a dead end.) Arakhamia emphasized the provision on neutrality but dismissed the rest of the text as “simply rhetoric and political ‘seasoning’ about denazification, the Russian speaking population and blah-blah-blah,” suggesting that many of its provisions were inexactly defined and thus subject to contrary interpretations by the parties. At the time (March 28, 2022, in an interview with the FT), Arakhamia said, “in every single item there are unresolved points.”
Some observers have written that the agreement entailed a Russian withdrawal to the February 23 lines in exchange for Ukrainian neutrality, in effect requiring Russia to end its battle for Mariupol and to abandon the land bridge to Crimea. Others say that Russia offered to return, in effect, to the 2015 Minsk II agreement, accepting for the Donbas a decentralized status within the Ukrainian nation-state, like the autonomous province of South Tyrol in northern Italy. Still, others say the borders were to be determined later in a meeting of the two presidents, such that the territorial provisions remained in flux. The latter interpretation is probably correct.
In his meeting with African leaders, Putin also waved another document in the air, purportedly showing an agreement on Ukrainian military limitations. However, this only inadvertently demonstrated the vast gulf that remained between Kyiv and Moscow. That addendum dealt with the size and equipment of Ukraine’s army during peacetime. Russia wanted to cap Ukraine’s military personnel at 85,000, with its National Guard at 15,000, whereas Ukraine wanted a 250,000-man force. Russia said that Ukraine should only be allowed 342 tanks; Ukraine wanted 800. Russia restricted Ukraine’s multiple rocket launchers to 96; Ukraine wanted 600. And so on down the line. Ukrainian negotiators said at the time that “Russia was shifting its position almost day by day” in the talks over “demilitarization.” Still, this document is surely illustrative of the basic positions taken.
These were not minor differences. They show the parties to have been far apart on the critical question: the distribution of military power between them. Zelensky said of the negotiations on March 28, 2022, “We’re not going to sit at the table if they’re talking about any kind of ‘demilitarization,’ any ‘denazification.’ Those things are absolutely incomprehensible to me.” But demilitarization is what the Russian position in the military annex called for. The Ukrainians were far from accepting this view.
The Spring 2022 negotiations had another peculiar feature. In the Ukrainian view, the end of Ukraine’s NATO bid, deemed crucial by Russia, was to be followed by the creation, in effect, of a super-NATO. The guarantors were to include not only the permanent members of the UN Security Council (the United States, Russia, China, Britain, and France) but also Turkey, Germany, Canada, Italy, Poland, Israel, and any other nation that wanted to join. These “legally binding security guarantees for Ukraine,” Zelensky insisted, would be “analogous in content and form to Article 5 of the North Atlantic Treaty.” Ukraine would be neutral, in other words, but joined at the hip to half the planet.
Contrary to Arakhamia’s comparison, this bright idea in no way resembled the neutrality that Finland enjoyed in the post-World War II era. In truth, the super-pact was more a figment of Zelensky’s imagination than a realistic prospect, though he made its creation a condition for a deal with Russia. Zelensky expected the guarantors to be ready to send armaments and to impose a no-fly-zone within seventy-two hours of any new Russian transgression, though later acknowledged it would take a long time to get all the necessary commitments from Ukraine’s new allies. A Ukrainian referendum on the whole package was also mandatory. Would the war have stopped in the meantime?
NATO didn’t like Zelensky’s proposed concert of guarantors. Had NATO approved, there is little reason to believe the Russians would have done so, too. If the Russians found Ukraine’s NATO membership intolerable, why should they approve an arrangement with yet more explicit guarantees? Clearly, Zelensky wasn’t searching for a formula that would satisfy Russia. He wanted a formula to reconstitute the guarantee that NATO, to his immense disappointment, was unwilling to give. All in all, what he projected was a very unneutral neutrality.
Who was Winning?
Even if Russia and Ukraine had agreed on substantive terms, the lack of trust between the parties, as Arakhamia emphasized, was a big obstacle to moving forward. Not mentioned by him, but of equal if not greater importance, is that both sides at the time thought they could win the war.
Given the setbacks of the war’s first month, Putin was doubtless not as confident as he was on the day he launched the “special military operation,” but he was still confident that Russia would prevail in the fight.
A month into the war, by contrast, Ukraine was much more optimistic that it could win than it had been at the war’s outset. Recall the mood in Ukraine and the West then existing: exultation that the Russian move toward Kyiv had been turned back; grim determination to impose massive costs on the Russian economy, expected to shatter the Russian war machine; widespread reports of desertion, incompetence, corruption, and outright stupidity in the Russian military, alongside predictions that it would break; confidence that the surge of Ukrainian nationalism would carry the day if they got the support they craved.
The great expectations on both sides would have been an insuperable barrier to a peace agreement.
In his recent statement, Arestovych claimed that Ukraine by itself won the first stage of the war. “This war of ours,” he wrote, “could well have been crowned with the Istanbul Agreements, and a couple of hundred thousand people would have been alive. And then another war began. And we could not win this other war without aircraft and long-range missiles and five times more supplies for the Ground Forces.” He pinned the blame for this deficiency squarely on the West: “The real responsibility lies with those who promised us, Ukraine, real support for a real, large-scale war and did not provide it. Essentially, they betrayed us.”
I’ve thought from the beginning of the war that it would end with the Ukrainians accusing the Americans of betrayal. That sentiment now seems to be running full throttle in Kyiv, but it is a half-truth at best. It pins on the West the exclusive blame for sabotaging a Russo-Ukrainian peace deal, whereas, in fact, the Ukrainians had much agency in that decision. The West’s leading governments were adamantly opposed to a negotiated settlement that could be read as Russia profiting from the use of force, but so too was the Ukrainian government.
When Boris Johnson went to Ukraine in April, he told the Ukrainian leaders what they wanted to hear, indeed what they were demanding to hear: that Ukraine would have full Western support in fighting the war. Had he come with a different message—“you don’t have our support and you should make a deal with Russia”—the Ukrainian government would have been furious. At the time, neither the Americans nor the Ukrainians anticipated the grim reality that now reigns supreme: Western arsenals are exhausted, and Russian arsenals are replenished. If the failure to foresee that was a massive intelligence failure, as arguably it was, it was one shared equally by the United States and Ukraine.