With Russia’s assault on Ukraine now in its second week, Ukrainian and Russian delegates have met twice for talks on the Belarusian-Polish border. The two sides are entering these discussions with utterly contrasting demands. But does this mean that these peace negotiations are doomed to fail, or is there scope for progress?
Dr. Donald N. Jensen, director for Russia and Europe at the US Institute of Peace, and Dr. Neil Melvin, director of International Security Studies at the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI), talk to Reaction about what we can expect to unravel during these negotiations. And Dr Marcin Kaczmarski, an expert on Russia-China relations, shares his insight into how Beijing’s involvement might shape the outcome of these talks.
How much can we really expect to be achieved by these talks in the short-term?
Progress between Ukraine and Russia during these negotiations is highly unlikely at this point, warns Jensen: “There’s an ocean between the two of them.”
“Journalists always talk about a breakthrough in negotiations. In reality, there is rarely a breakthrough. Both delegations generally prepare texts, converse and it usually goes nowhere.
“When you see the head of the Russian delegation this week, you can be almost certain that it will not go anywhere because he is not a serious player.”
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The Russian delegation is headed by Vladimir Medinsky, the conservative former Minister of Culture, who, according to the Carnegie Moscow Centre, “oversees the obscurantist Military Historical Society.”
“The man who was the negotiator for Russia, Dmitry Kozak, essentially got fired from his job a few weeks ago,” Jensen says. “They brought back the old, hardline guy – not a good sign.”
While the Ukrainian side contains what Jensen describes as “a more weighty set of ministers”, Medinsky “is almost a ludicrous figure. He represents a view of history that is completely at odds with the Ukrainian position. It’s almost insulting.”
Why would they pick such a figure? In Dr. Neil Melvin’s view, “The Russians want to be shown to be engaging but at this stage, I don’t think they are interested in a substantial negotiation.
“Russians went into these first talks with broad ambitions, almost a bunch of slogans: denazification, demilitarisation, neutralisation of Ukraine. Plus recognition that Crimea is part of Russia and that these two breakaway regions are independent.
“But the Ukrainian minimum makes the Russian demands impossible. They want to be a sovereign state and be able to elect their own leadership.”
Jensen adds: “There is no sign that the Ukrainians are going to give up their position.”
Why isn’t Russia taking the negotiations seriously?
At present, Ukrainians have more to gain from meaningfully engaging in these discussions.
Melvin says: “Ukrainians essentially went into the talks looking for a ceasefire because their main aim is to bide time and slow things down. This means they can reorganise and allow weapons and support to come in. But at this stage, unless Ukraine surrenders, the Russians don’t want to stop the fighting.”
Jensen echoes this sentiment: “The Russians are in a military campaign. The military campaign’s outcome is uncertain so the Russians are not going to want to do anything that would undercut their position at the moment.”
Will this change?
Battlefield progress and talks are linked, says Jensen.
“Once there is a decisive operational outcome, for instance Russia takes Kyiv, then Moscow might decide it’s time to start negotiating an outcome that will prevent it from having to go further militarily.”
Both men agree that the most likely scenario in which a thaw occurs will be one in which Russia starts to overwhelm Ukraine militarily, forcing the latter to shift its position.
But, Jensen says, “people have a tendency in the West to underestimate the resilience of the Ukrainians. They are defending their homelands, their homes, their families and they are not going to lay down their arms unless they have guarantees. They wont give up their position easily.”
Is Ukrainian military defeat the only scenario which could create a thaw?
Not necessarily. Moscow could also come under increasing pressure to make some compromises.
If Putin’s inner circle starts to turn on him, he may be forced to take peace negotiations more seriously.
“What happens in Russia is going to be important now,” says Melvin. “If Russia doesn’t begin to make serious progress and instead ends up in a situation in which they are killing a lot of civilians in cities and the costs are going up economically, then Putin’s hand will grow weaker domestically. This could shift the equation for Russia. Putin may be forced to look for something else.”
How will we know if Putin is starting to take the talks more seriously? “If the Russians bring in higher profile figures to the delegation, that would indicate that they’re shifting their position,” says Jensen.
What types of compromises might either side be forced to make?
“Some have suggested a formal neutrality for Ukraine as a way forward but Ukrainians absolutely reject that,” says Melvin.
Neutrality would mean having to make a statement in the constitution that the state would not join any military alliances. But we must remember, adds Melvin, that “in 2014, Ukraine did have a neutral status. And that was when Russia first invaded in Crimea.
“Since then, Ukraine has concluded that the only guarantee of its security is NATO membership.”
Would the two countries ever settle for an agreement in which Ukraine handed over the Donbas region to Russia? Even if Ukraine did reluctantly agree to this, it wouldn’t be enough for Russia, Melvin says. “Territory that is external to Ukraine doesn’t actually help the Russians because they want to exert political influence over Ukraine.”
Having said that, if Ukraine is defeated militarily, “it may have to accept a partition that would break Ukraine as a country,” says Melvin.
“And then we would have a situation like Germany during the Cold War with East and West Germany. This would be a territory bigger than the Donbas region, and it would act as a kind of buffer within the Russian sphere of influence, like the Warsaw Pact countries were.
“It would not only be independent but actually under Moscow’s direct control and that would allow Russia to feel that there was a security zone around it so then Putin would have a territorial buffer between NATO and Russia.
“This scenario might allow Putin to claim a victory but the cost would be the breaking of Ukraine.”
How much will other countries, besides Ukraine and Russia, influence the outcome of peace negotiations?
We must remember, says Melvin, that “this is not just a Russia-Ukraine conflict, it’s a European security issue. So the diplomatic process will probably have to be a larger discussion, bringing in a much wider set of countries and interests.”
Turkey and Israel could play a useful role as mediators, Jensen suggests, since they have a fairly good relationship with both Ukraine and Russia. Previously, Germany and France were potential mediators, but now they are too strongly tilted towards Ukraine.
But also, crucially, China has agreed to act as a peace negotiator.
Dr Marcin Kaczmarski says: “China does have leverage over Russia. The big question is whether it will actually use it?”
At present, China is staying neutral but essentially lending support to Russia by choosing not to outright condemn it, Kaczmarski argues.
But will Beijing put pressure on Moscow to meaningfully engage with the peace negotiations? “We are counting on China’s goodwill but we haven’t seen much of it recently.” Ultimately it boils down to money, he says. “As long as China doesn’t suffer economic losses, it will continue to pretend to be neutral.”
What’s more, economic incentives could push it one of two ways.
If Chinese companies start to become indirectly affected by Western sanctions imposed on Russia – for instance, facing secondary sanctions through the purchase of Russian oil – this will incentivise Beijing to help bring about an end to the conflict.
On the other hand, “Beijing may decide it is in its interest to offer Russia an economic lifeline.” Sanctions will lead to reduced competition within Russian markets and Beijing might choose to capitalise on this – for instance, buying shares that Russian companies may not otherwise be willing to sell, Kaczmarski says. If Beijing does offer Moscow a lifeline, “it will make isolation of Russia more limited and it will be more difficult for sanctions to bite Putin.” As a result, Moscow may we less willing to take peace talks seriously. “At this stage, however, we can’t tell which path China will take.”
It’s also worth noting, says Kaczmarski, that even if China does take its role as peace negotiator seriously, it actually lacks diplomatic experience in this area. “Beijing has taken a backseat in many other global conflicts.” This too could limit how much it will achieve in its role.
So as things stand, there appears to be little scope for achieving a huge amount through peace negotiations. But, Melvin reminds us, “it’s a fast moving situation. And the dynamics around the conflict will soon change.”