Reconstructing the Istanbul Accords

Reconstructing the Istanbul Accords

The negotiations between Russia and Ukraine in Spring 2022 never had a chance, and their course revealed profound differences between Moscow and Kyiv.

 

The Istanbul Accords have reached a mythic status in segments of the non-interventionist commentariat with whom I usually agree. Numerous thinkers whom I greatly esteem—Alexander Mercouris, Alastair Crooke, Branko Marcetic, Ivan Katchanovski, Aaron Mate, Glenn Greenwald, David Sachs, and Doug Bandow—have held that Ukraine and Russia were on the brink of an agreement in Istanbul in spring 2022, only to have the settlement vetoed by the United States. I disagree. I think the Istanbul Accords were a phantom.

The critics enlist as evidence for their view people who were close to the negotiators—mediators like Gerhard Schröder, the former German chancellor and confidant of Russian president Vladimir Putin; Israeli prime minister Naftali Bennett, who played an essential early role in starting negotiations (and obtained Putin’s pledge that he wouldn’t kill Ukrainian resident Volodymyr Zelensky); and Turkish foreign minister Mevlut Cavusoglu. Each mediator has presented a similar narrative: there was an agreement in hand that was rejected under U.S. pressure. “The Ukrainians did not agree on peace,” Schröder argued, “because they were not allowed to. For everything they discussed, they first had to ask the Americans.”

 

As Mercouris has argued, “What we almost got on the 29th of March and thereafter was an armistice agreement, a cessation of hostilities, followed by a substantive negotiation between the Russians and the Ukrainians sorting out the accumulated problems that had emerged between them and which had led to the war. And what we got instead was the abortion of that entire process, the cancellation of the all-but-agreed armistice and cessation of hostilities.” The abortion was performed by the United States, whose emphatic rejection of negotiations was delivered by then-British prime minister Boris Johnson on April 9, 2022. “The result was months, and years, of war, which have brought Ukraine to the brink of military defeat,” said Mercouris.

This account misses the central elements of what actually happened in the peace negotiations. Much evidence shows Russia and Ukraine were never on the brink of an agreement at any point in their negotiations. Although the course of the talks revealed surprising points of consensus, large and intractable differences remained. Consequently, there was no prospect of an immediate ceasefire. This impasse had emerged well before Johnson’s April 9 trip. 

These contentions, in my view, do not absolve the United States of responsibility for inciting and prolonging the war in other respects—that is a separate question—but they do attest to the intractability of the differences existing, then as now, between the parties. Most critically, the aforementioned critics present a false picture of Ukrainians longing for peace, pulled back from that happy outcome only by Anglo-American pressure. The truth is that the Ukrainians didn’t want peace on terms anywhere close to what was on offer by the Russians. A few seers apart, they wanted to fight. A review of the negotiations will make these points clear.

Breakthrough at Istanbul?

Peace negotiations commenced in Belarus a week after Russia’s invasion on February 24. Russia wanted Ukrainian recognition of the independence of the Donbas republics and Crimea’s incorporation within the Russian Federation, together with the demilitarization and “denazification” of Ukraine. Ukraine demanded “legally verified security guarantees; ceasefire; withdrawal of Russian troops.”

The first inkling of a breakthrough came in mid-March 2022 when the FT reported progress on “a tentative peace plan including a ceasefire and Russian withdrawal if Kyiv declares neutrality and accepts limits on its armed forces.” Ukraine would promise “not to host foreign military bases or weaponry in exchange for protection from allies such as the United States, United Kingdom, and Turkey.” As negotiations proceeded, the Russians reportedly dropped “denazification” as a war aim. They also accepted that Ukraine could join the EU but not NATO.

Then came the Istanbul Communique of March 29, 2022, drafted by Ukraine. It built on the tentative peace plan previously disclosed. Ukraine presented this at the first and only meeting of the parties in Istanbul. Subsequent negotiations were conducted by video conference. Oleksiy Arestovych, then a close aide to Zelensky, said that Zelensky shut down negotiations on April 3 or thereabouts after learning of alleged Russian atrocities at Bucha—the theme also of Yaroslav Trofimov’s reporting in the Wall Street Journal—but negotiations of some sort continued, perhaps with a reshuffled Ukrainian negotiating team. Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov on April 7 spoke of a Ukrainian draft treaty being delivered on April 6, though he didn’t like what he saw. 

Russia responded warmly to certain propositions in the Istanbul Communique. “For the first time ever,” said Lavrov, “the Ukrainian side has put on paper that it is prepared to declare Ukraine a neutral, non-aligned and non-nuclear state, and to refuse to deploy weapons from foreign states on its territory or to conduct exercises on its territory with the participation of foreign military personnel, unless they are approved by all guarantors of the future treaty, including the Russian Federation.”

On March 29, the Ukrainian delegation thought they had achieved “completely successful negotiations.” Arestovych recalls that they celebrated with champagne on their return from Istanbul. But they misread the Russian response as total acceptance of their propositions. Vladimir Medinsky, who led the Russian delegation, greeted the Istanbul Communique as “a constructive step” from the Ukrainian side “towards reaching a compromise” and promised “an appropriate response” after due consideration. Alexander Mercouris noted in his March 31, 2022, broadcast that Russian officials had “made it perfectly clear that these are only tentative moves by the Ukrainians. They do not in any way approximate to the kind of offer that the Russians could accept, and they all predict long, tough negotiations continuing and going forward.” 

On April 4, 2022, Mercouris emphasized the rancor of the negotiations after March 29: “The Ukrainians yesterday were making all kinds of claims that the Russians have retracted most of their demands and accepted Ukrainian proposals almost in their totality. The Russians very quickly came out and said that this was simply untrue and that Russian demands remained as they were.” The negotiations after Istanbul were marked by heated accusations of bad faith. Both sides, it seems, thought they had agreed on something, but they did not agree on what that was. Rather than being on the brink of an agreement, they quickly discovered that their positions remained far apart. 

These points of disagreement can be traced in Lavrov’s commentaries on the negotiations. On April 7, Lavrov held that “a glint of realism” had informed Ukraine’s March 29 Istanbul Communique but insisted that the Ukrainian draft agreement of the previous day (April 6) departed in signal respects from it. It lacked clarity regarding the status of Crimea and Sevastopol. It demanded that there be a cessation of hostilities before a meeting of Putin and Zelensky, which was unacceptable to Russia. Ukraine also insisted that the provisions regarding military exercises by external powers on Ukrainian territory could be executed with the consent of the majority of the guarantor states, eliminating the veto that Russia thought it had gotten on March 29. 

The gap between the parties on the meaning of neutrality is especially pronounced if we examine Zelensky’s explication of Ukraine’s proposals on March 28. These envisaged security guarantees from the permanent members of the UN Security Council (the United States, Russia, China, Britain, and France) and a coalition of other states: Turkey, Germany, Canada, Italy, Poland, Israel, and any other nation that wished to join. In Zelensky’s view, the purpose was to substitute for the security guarantee that NATO was then unwilling (and remains still unwilling) to give. The security guarantees would mandate a no-fly-zone within seventy-two hours of a Russian infraction of the treaty, far in advance of anything that NATO had offered. In his view, the movement of these forces in aid of Ukraine would not be subject to a Russian veto.

The security architecture Zelensky envisioned meant guarantees that were more emphatic than those offered in NATO’s Article 5. His conception was much more like the 1839 Treaty of London guaranteeing Belgian neutrality (whose violation by Germany in 1914 helped provoke British intervention in the European War) than the kind of neutrality Finland had enjoyed during the Cold War, which is what the Russians wanted for Ukraine. Zelensky insisted that getting these external guarantees—a potentially lengthy process—was a condition for Ukraine’s ratification of the treaty, as was a national referendum. In the meantime, he wanted a ceasefire paired with a Russian withdrawal to the February 23 lines. 

The Istanbul discussions over neutrality, often seen as a conceptual breakthrough, were something of a conceptual muddle, as the parties entertained sharply conflicting notions of what that would or could practically entail. Russia thought it got a veto on international military exercises in Ukraine, as stated in Proposal 3 of the Istanbul Communique; Ukraine later backpedaled on that point. The initial offer probably didn’t reflect Ukraine’s bottom line, as the negotiators never intended that their security would be subject to a Russian veto.