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In a frosty atmosphere and with no handshakes, Russian and Ukrainian negotiators began peace talks under the auspices of Turkey this week in the first face-to-face talks in two weeks between the two sides, raising hopes that there could be progress towards ending a conflict that has turned into a war of attrition in Ukraine.
The international powers are hoping for a ceasefire and a political settlement of the conflict that threatens the world with dire consequences if it escalates out of control and expands to neighbouring countries. However, the dynamics on the ground are not encouraging of the chances of success.
The talks started in a surreal atmosphere when the Kremlin was forced to dismiss reports that Russian billionaire Roman Abramovich suffered symptoms consistent with poisoning during an informal round of talks earlier this month, calling the reports “part of the information war” on the war in Ukraine.
The Ukrainian negotiators are seeking a ceasefire without compromising the sovereignty or territorial integrity of Ukraine, while the Russian negotiators want to ensure Ukraine’s neutrality, its non-joining of NATO, the recognition of the legality of its annexation of Crimea, and the protection of Russian minorities in eastern and southern Ukraine.
Both sides have played down hopes of an early breakthrough.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the sponsor of the talks, told the two sides that they had a “historic responsibility” to halt the fighting in Ukraine.
The Ukrainian negotiators have shared details of what has been covered at the talks in Istanbul, stating that Ukraine has proposed adopting a neutral status in exchange for security guarantees, meaning it would not join military alliances or host military bases.
The proposals would also include a 15-year consultation period on the status of annexed Crimea and could come into force only in the event of a complete ceasefire.
Ukrainian negotiator Oleksander Chaly said in comments broadcast on Ukrainian television that “if we manage to consolidate these key provisions, and for us this is the most fundamental, then 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.
“We will not host foreign military bases on our territory, or deploy military contingents on our territory, and we will not enter into military-political alliances. Military exercises on our territory will take place with the consent of the guarantor countries.”
He said there was enough material in the current Ukrainian proposals to warrant a meeting between Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky and Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Mykhailo Podolyak, an adviser to Ukraine’s president and lead negotiator in the talks with Russia, said that a “security guarantees” treaty with an “enhanced analogue” of NATO’s “Article 5” collective defence clause was discussed during the talks, adding that the guarantor states of the US, the UK, Turkey, France, Germany would be legally involved in protecting Ukraine from any aggression. There would be implementation through a referendum and the parliaments of the guarantor states.
There was no immediate Russian response to the Ukrainian proposals.
Meanwhile, European diplomats hope that the negotiations could be a path towards stopping further military and political escalation. French President Emmanuel Macron continued his efforts in this regard in a telephone call with Putin on Tuesday.
At the weekend, Macron warned against the use of inflammatory remarks after US President Joe Biden said Putin “cannot remain in power”, words he stood by in a press conference at the White House on Monday by saying “I make no apologies.”
Biden said he was not calling for regime change in Russia but expressing personal “moral outrage” over Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, defending the unscripted remarks he made at the end of a speech in Poland at the weekend.
Senior figures in the US administration immediately attempted to play down the comments.
Even at the height of the Cold War, there was red line stopping US presidents from calling for regime change in Moscow, whatever the two countries’ differences. The fact that this red line has been crossed by Biden is a source of European concern.
The Europeans are also anxious because on his tour in Poland Biden spoke very little about peace and talked instead about a “long fight” in Europe. “We need to be clear-eyed: this battle will not be won in days, or months, either. We need to steel ourselves for the long fight ahead,” Biden said.
Zelensky has not hidden his misgivings that Moscow could use the negotiations to re-mobilise its military forces and continue its advances to seize areas of eastern and southern Ukraine. He wants the West to strengthen its sanctions against Moscow and to provide his country with planes, tanks, and other military aid.
Hours before the start of the talks in Istanbul, Zelensky said that his country was prepared to declare its neutrality and was open to compromise over the contested eastern region of Donbas, in essence suggesting a reversion to the 2015 Minsk 2 Settlement.
But he also warned that if the “ruthless war” continued, the Ukrainian people would continue to pay for the “weak” Western sanctions with their lives, criticising what he described as the “passive” sanctions imposed by the West on Russia.
“Ukraine cannot and will not agree with the passive sanctions position of some entities towards Russia. There should be no ‘suspended’ sanctions packages — that if the Russian troops do something, then there will be some answer,” he said.
“If the sanctions packages are weak or do not work enough, and if they can be circumvented, it creates a dangerous illusion for the Russian leadership that they can continue to afford what they are doing now. And the Ukrainians pay for it with their lives. Thousands of lives,” he said.
Urging other countries to act with courage, Zelensky said that “Ukrainians should not die just because someone cannot find enough courage to hand over the necessary weapons to Ukraine. Fear always makes you an accomplice.”
“If someone is afraid of Russia, if he or she is afraid to make the necessary decisions that are important to us, in particular for us to get planes, tanks, necessary artillery, and shells, it makes these people responsible for the catastrophe created by Russian troops in our cities,” he said.
However, putting more pressure on Russia could hinder the Istanbul negotiations and make a difficult situation even more difficult. Kremlin Spokesperson Dmitry Peskov made Moscow’s view clear on Tuesday, arguing that the Western sanctions on trade with Russia were akin to “total war” and that the West had pushed the Kremlin “into the corner” with its NATO expansion.
In an interview on the US TV channel PBS, Peskov said that the punitive sanctions levelled against Russia were “quite unfriendly” and made the country feel as if it were at war with the US and its Western allies.
“We entered the phase, the phase of a total war… And we have to adapt ourselves to a new reality. You have to understand Russia,” he said.
Russia’s Defence Ministry said Russia will “drastically reduce” military activity outside the cities of Kyiv and Chernihiv, and Russian Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu said on Tuesday that “the main tasks of the first stage of the operation have been completed. The combat potential of the Ukrainian armed forces has been significantly reduced, which makes it possible to focus our main attention and main efforts on achieving the main goal — the liberation of Donbas.”
His statement was a sign that Moscow may focus on the strategic Donbas region of Ukraine to ensure the division of the country into east and west, a scenario described as “the Korean model” after Korea’s division of two states in the wake of World War II.
As a result, while the Russians and the Ukrainians may be talking about peace, each side is moving on the ground to tighten the noose around the other.
Because of the complexities of the historical relations between the two countries, the lack of trust, and the divergence of their demands, the expectations are that a new cold war between Russia and the West is inevitable. Regardless of the outcome of the talks, relations with Moscow will enter a phase of strategic hostility that will lead to a significant increase in military spending for the NATO countries and Russia.
This militarisation of Western-Russian relations will have disastrous results in addressing serious problems, foremost among them the challenges of climate change and global warming, the fight against poverty, and stopping conflicts in other regions of the world.
In this depressing scenario, Roman Catholic Pope Francis levelled strong criticism this week against the NATO countries for increasing their defence spending, describing it as “madness”.
He said the conflict in Ukraine was a product of “the old logic of power that still dominates so-called geopolitics.”
“It is now clear that good politics cannot come from the culture of power understood as domination and oppression, but only from a culture of care, care for the person and their dignity, and care for our common home. The real answer is not more weapons, more sanctions, and more political-military alliances,” he added.
What is needed is “a different way of governing the globalised world, not by showing your teeth, as is done now, but a different way to frame international relations. I was embarrassed when I read that a group of states has committed to spending two per cent… of GDP on acquiring weapons as a response to what is happening now. Madness,” Francis said.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 31 March, 2022 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly