Ukraine-Russia talks offer glimmer of hope in fifth week of war

Ukraine has offered a detailed proposal for neutrality, but both sides are pressing their advantages on the ground.

Local residents sit on a bench near an apartment building destroyed in the course of Ukraine-Russia conflict.
Local residents sit on a bench near an apartment building destroyed in the course of Ukraine-Russia conflict in the besieged southern port city of Mariupol [Alexander Ermochenko/Reuters]

Week five of Russia’s war in Ukraine brought some Ukrainian successes around Kyiv and a Russian reorientation to focus on “liberating” the eastern Donbas region, suggesting Moscow is giving up on regime change and focusing on territorial gains with a view to a settlement.

The week also offered a glimpse of what that settlement might look like.

Ukraine put forward a detailed proposal of neutrality as negotiators met in Istanbul on March 29. It included pledges to not join military alliances or host foreign troops, and that it would remain a non-nuclear power.

That would mean Ukraine would give up its aspirations to join NATO, as Russian President Vladimir Putin has demanded.

Ukraine suggested guarantors will be permanent members of the UN Security Council – the United States, the United Kingdom, France, China and Russia – as well as Israel, Turkey, Germany, Canada and Poland.

Some experts have said such a peace deal would weaken Ukrainian sovereignty and reward Russia.

“In terms of international legal norms, it is absolutely unacceptable that stronger powers violate international borders and dictate their terms to the weaker side,” said Greek former Deputy Foreign Minister Yiannis Valinakis.

“However, wars usually end up creating new realities on the ground … Russia will insist on at least partial demilitarisation of Ukraine,” he told Al Jazeera.

Valinakis believes security guarantees will be problematic for both sides.

“I cannot see Putin‘s interest in accepting the proposed guarantees. NATO itself will not encourage its members granting security guarantees to Kyiv; in case of a Russian attack on a guarantor power, the Alliance would risk activating article 5 [on collective defence] and thereby a catastrophic escalation to a Russia-NATO war.”

Ukrainian negotiator Oleksander Chaly highlighted the proposal’s positives.

“If we manage to consolidate these key provisions … Ukraine will be in a position to actually fix its current status as a non-bloc and non-nuclear state in the form of permanent neutrality,” he said.

Territorial concessions in Luhansk and Donetsk would be discussed directly by Putin and his Ukrainian counterpart Volodymyr Zelenskyy, according to the Ukrainian proposal. The fate of Crimea would be the subject of a 15-year consultation.

“These are diplomatic formulas designed to alleviate public opinion pressure on Zelenskyy,” Valinakis said. “In the absence of a sizeable rollback of Russian troops to the east, I don’t see a very different outcome for the peace negotiations.”

The peace deal would be put to a referendum in Ukraine.

Military stasis

Diplomatic overtures were accompanied by Russian redeployments this week.

Russia unilaterally said it would “radically, by a large margin, reduce military activity in the Kyiv and Chernihiv directions”, Deputy Defence Minister Alexander Formin said on March 29.

However, on Wednesday, Russia continued to shell parts of Kyiv and Chernihiv.

Earlier in the week, Russia said it would focus its military activity in the Luhansk and Donetsk regions in the east, which it already largely controls.

“The main objectives of the first stage of the operation have generally been accomplished,” said General Sergey Rudskoy, head of the general staff’s main operational directorate, in what may have been a face-saving posture.

Russia has made little progress against Kyiv’s defences, and US defence sources have said Russian forces are stalled 15-20km (9-12 miles) from the city centre.

Russia has also been unable to capture Chernihiv, Kharkiv and Mariupol – which have been devastated by Russian shelling. Ukrainian officials say thousands of civilians have been killed in besieged Mariupol, where an estimated 160,000 people remain trapped with little food, water or medicine.

There are US reports that Ukrainian forces are contesting Kherson, the only city to have fallen into Russian hands.

NATO has estimated that Russia has lost 7,000-15,000 troops during a month of war. The upper estimate aligns with Ukraine’s own assessment, and is equal to the number of troops Russia lost across a decade in Afghanistan.

These losses appear to be translating into bad morale. Western sources believe the commander of the Russian 37th Motor Rifle Brigade was deliberately killed when he was run over by one of his unit’s armoured vehicles. The unit has suffered a 50 percent casualty rate besieging Kyiv.

Meanwhile, the number of people who have fled Ukraine since Russia invaded on February 24 has surpassed four million, the United Nations said on Wednesday.

Unity in outrage

US President Joe Biden visited Europe midweek to demonstrate the transatlantic unity brought about by the Ukraine war. US officials had to clarify that a remark made by Biden in Poland – that Putin “cannot remain in power” given the atrocities he has committed – was not a call for regime change in Moscow.

Biden has at various times called Putin a “war criminal”, a “brute” and a “butcher”, straining faith in any possible future discussion between the two men.

But the outrage Biden was tapping into highlighted the deepening US-EU ties he came to showcase.

“Vladimir Putin gave NATO and the EU-US consensus the kiss of life,” said Alexandros Mallias, Greece’s former ambassador to Washington.

“NATO is entering a second youth … I never remember such strong cooperation between the US and Europe on countering Russia,” he told Al Jazeera.

On March 23, Secretary of State Antony Blinken said, “The US government assesses that members of Russia’s forces have committed war crimes in Ukraine … Many of the sites Russia’s forces have hit have been clearly identifiable as in-use by civilians.”

The level of destruction wrought on Ukrainian cities by Russian forces underline Putin’s determination not to appear to lose, Mallias said.

“Since 2008, when Russia invaded Georgia, every time we said Putin wouldn’t do something, our predictions were proven wrong … Someone who doesn’t hesitate to give orders for children to be killed, for cities to be levelled, wiped off the map, for hospitals and schools to be bombed – why would such a person have any compunction about using a weapon of mass destruction? He’s already causing mass destruction with conventional weapons,” Mallias told Al Jazeera.

Source: Al Jazeera