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Before and after the counteroffensive: Are there perspectives in peace negotiations with Russia?

Thursday, 28 July 2022, 05:30

On 22 July, the Ukrainian delegation signed a document with the UN and Turkey in Istanbul regarding the lifting of the blockade on Ukrainian ports for the export of grain. Russia signed the same document, but separately, with the same intermediaries.

The Istanbul Grain Agreement was important in at least two aspects. First, after Ukraine had lost Mariupol and the lion's share of metallurgy, grain remained almost the main export product and generator of foreign currency earnings.

Second, the progress of the grain negotiations has had broader meaning: the negotiations were observed to understand whether agreements between Kyiv and Moscow were possible.

The most recent advancement in the peace talks between Ukraine and Russia was achieved in Istanbul, but back on 20 March.

At the last face-to-face meeting of the delegations four months ago, the Ukrainian side conveyed its proposals to the Russians, which were then announced by Vladimir Medinsky, the head of the Russian delegation, and that caused an explosion of indignant interpretations in both Kyiv and Moscow.

Briefly, the Ukrainian proposals suggested creating a new security guarantees agreement for Ukraine with key world countries, including the Russian Federation; non-aligned status; and the withdrawal of Russian troops from most of the captured territories.

It was proposed that the issue of the future of Donbas and Crimea be discussed in direct talks between Volodymyr Zelenskyy and Vladimir Putin.

After that, the official negotiations proceeded in the video communication subgroups format. And the unofficial talks became more active – between the head of the Ukrainian delegation David Arakhamiia and Russian oligarch Roman Abramovich, who, according to Ukrainska Pravda sources in the negotiation process, was in contact with Putin.

At the beginning of April, the framework of the peace agreement was essentially agreed upon in this format. But after the horrors seen in Kyiv Oblast, which the Russians left behind, and the visit of the British Prime Minister Boris Johnson to Kyiv, the dialogue between Kyiv and Moscow took a long pause. The grain negotiations were supposed to show whether or not this pause has turned into the clinical death of the peace process.

Even despite Russia's shelling of the port of Odesa the day after the agreement was signed and the outrage of the democratic world, the grain deal has become the only tangible breakthrough in communications with the Russians over the past 4 months.

Ukrainska Pravda has looked for answers to whether peace talks with the Russians are currently possible, how the lifting of the blockade on the ports was being prepared, and when and if at all Ukraine can sit down at the same table with Russia again.

Behind the scenes of the grain export negotiations

The last time David Arakhamiia, the head of the Ukrainian negotiation delegation, spoke with Medinsky, the head of the delegation of the Russian Federation, was at the beginning of May.

"David called Medinsky and said: 'We can’t negotiate with you until we receive answers to the security guarantees from the West.'. Medinsky asked: ‘And how long will it take?’. David replied that he could not say, but, if it was important for the Russians to show that the negotiations were ongoing, then it was possible to gather some groups once a week via video. Medinsky said that it was not necessary," one of the sources, who is involved in the negotiation process with the Russian Federation, told Ukrainska Pravda.

This conversation between Arakhamia and Medinsky was the last contact between the official representatives of Ukraine and Russia. However, informal communication with the Russians through Roman Abramovich continues to this day.

Abramovich also took part in the signing of the "grain" agreement.

"Roman's role is that he carefully monitors everything, and then tells their boss everything as it is – without embellishments and in accessible language. All their officials there are terrified and afraid to say something wrong to Putin. And Roma can also voice his own opinion, and convey sensitive things from us," a source in the president's team says on condition of anonymity about Abramovich's role.

However, there were significant differences between the peace and grain negotiations. Four parties participated in the negotiations on the lifting of the blockades on the ports: in addition to Ukraine and Russia, the UN and Turkey are present in the process at the level of guarantors. According to Ukrainska Pravda, the representatives of Ukraine and Russia began to communicate with each other only at the final stage of the approval of the agreement itself.

As far as Ukrainska Pravda has managed to figure out, the grain export negotiations took place in several key stages.

It all started with the well-known arrival of the UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres in Kyiv. Before that, he visited Putin in Moscow. And to make the visit to Kyiv memorable, while the UN Secretary General was meeting with President Zelenskyy and Prime Minister Shmyhal, Putin conveyed "fervent congratulations" by hitting the centre of Kyiv with cruise missiles.

However, after the arrival of the UN Secretary General in Kyiv, the start of the second stage of negotiations took place – the Ministry of Infrastructure began working with a group of UN specialists. They worked out the technical basis of the agreement on how the lifting of the blockade on the ports and the export of grain would take place.

At the third stage, the representatives of the Naval Forces of Ukraine joined the negotiations, and they discussed security guarantees and corridors.

Kyrylo Budanov, the head of the Chief Intelligence Directorate of the Ministry of Defence of Ukraine, also joined the conclusion of the agreements. Actually, it was the Chief Intelligence Directorate that communicated with the UN and the Russians.

"Do you know why the Chief Intelligence Directorate is in these negotiations at all? It all started with Azovstal. They managed to build communication in that case with the Russian Main Intelligence Directorate [GRU] and the UN. And that's why Budanov was also involved in the negotiations on ports," a source involved in these negotiations explained to Ukrainska Pravda.

Rustem Umerov, a member of the Ukrainian delegation at the peace talks, and a member of the Parliament from Holos [political party], was also included at all stages of the negotiations.

"Rustem is important because all negotiations with the Turks take place through him. Umerov maintains direct contact with the head of Erdogan's Office, and the Turkish president himself knows him personally. On the one hand, he is a representative of the Crimean Tatars, but on the other hand, he communicates with Yermak [the head of the Office of President of Ukraine] very closely. And if our Office of the President needs something from the Turks, Yermak turns to Rustem first of all," several sources in the President's team told Ukrainska Pravda.

Incidentally, Turkey's role in the negotiation process is very interesting.

As Ukrainian high-ranking officials explain to Ukrainska Pravda, having Istanbul as a mediator satisfies both the Ukrainian side and the Russians. But Erdogan pursues only his own goals in this whole story – to consolidate his position as the leader of the region.

"Turkey is regarded well by us, because Erdogan is on good terms with us, presents Bayraktars as gifts and so on. On the other hand, they are well regarded by the Russians, because Istanbul has become a hub for them for flights, and Russians are currently vacationing in Turkey en masse," one of the representatives of the Ukrainian delegation explains to Ukrainska Pravda.

"But the negotiations were successful not because of the UN or Turkey. Russia had a real desire to negotiate. And this is key. We were able to convey to the whole world that Putin is making Africa and the Middle East starve. And he decided that he could get out of this situation as a ‘saviour’. Well, now they will present themselves as if they were the ones who prevented hunger in the world," adds a source from Zelenskyy's team.

Immediately after the signing of the "grain" agreement, Lavrov, the Minister of Foreign Affairs of the Russian Federation, hastily went on a tour to African countries to tell how Russia is "struggling" with the food crisis and shifting all responsibility to the West.

Negotiations without peace

At the beginning of July, Putin tried to intimidate Ukrainians in his typical superior style by saying that Russia "hasn't seriously started anything yet."

However,  other words were important from that speech by the Russian duce [an authoritarian leader, nickname for Mussolini]: "We do not refuse peace talks, but those who refuse should know that the further it goes, the more difficult it will be for them to come to an agreement with us."

This quote explains the entire non-public strategy of negotiations that the Russians have chosen in the conversation with Ukraine. Its essence is ‘raising the stakes’: in April, Putin was ready to withdraw from the south of Ukraine in exchange for the entire Donbas – now he wants both the south and the Donbas.

"The Russians are blackmailing us to sit at the table, because it will be more and more difficult to negotiate with us. But why don't we raise the stakes? Why don't we start talking about the borders as of 1991, and not as of 23 February 2022? Why should we forget something?" said one of the members of the Ukrainian delegation in a conversation with Ukrainska Pravda.

And indeed, the representatives of the top authorities have repeatedly said that only returning control over the border as of 1991 will be considered a victory by Ukraine. In other words, the proposals to postpone further talks about the fate of Crimea or Donbas are no longer relevant.

And Russia, as the Ukrainian authorities are convinced, would now like to sit down at the table with Ukraine. They voice this desire both publicly and, according to Ukrainska Pravda, privately convey it with the help of Abramovich. Only Moscow does not need negotiations, but the capitulation of Ukraine.

"They would benefit by coming to an agreement with us now, but they say: 'We record where we are now, take a break, and then we'll figure it out.' In other words: again ‘Ukrainians, surrender!’And we definitely don't want to give up," one of the high-ranking officials involved in the negotiations explained to Ukrainska Pravda.

"We should have tangible success on the front in order to sit down at the table with them. Until we have it there, there is nothing to talk about," the official added.

That is, the statement of Oleksii Reznikov, the Minister of Defence of Ukraine, that Zelenskyy gave the order to de-occupy the south of Ukraine is not only a game of muscles.

This is a real plan of the Ukrainian authorities – to try to conduct a significantly effective offensive operation on a separate part of the front to demonstrate to Russia that "we can repeat this" on other fronts. Ukraine would have a completely different negotiating position in such a situation.

"It is important that all our Western partners have publicly said that Ukraine itself should determine what will be acceptable for us and what will be a victory. Macron-Scholz-Draghi said this most loudly during their visit to Kyiv. They also promised in private talks to help until Ukraine achieves its goal. That is, we will not be alone in this situation," explains the source from diplomatic circles.

That is why the main emphasis of the Kremlin is now on destabilising the unity of Western partners by playing along with the opposition in their countries, gas blackmail, etc., etc.

"Our international agreements are one of the key elements of success. The British are now the headliners of the process, but they have begun to experience turbulence due to the election of a new prime minister. Similarly, elections are in sight in the U.S. Therefore, some breakthrough issues are currently suspended," one of the members of the president's team summarises in a conversation with Ukrainska Pravda.

A major security agreement is an illustration of the fragility of the situation: the project where Yermak is involved in Bankova. Ukrainian proposals were worked out and handed over to key potential guarantors.

"We still haven't received the answers. Although we sent our proposals, it's been several months. We are still waiting for feedback. It's already obvious that we won't be given an analogue of NATO’s Article 5 (Article 5 of the NATO Statute provides that in the event of an armed attack on one of the NATO countries, all the members of the Alliance stand up for it – UP). But we are waiting for other security matters now. Accordingly, all negotiations are still at a standstill," one of the sources from diplomatic circles said off the record.

There is another problem in the negotiations – who should conduct them. As Ukrainska Pravda sources explain, both Russian and Ukrainian delegations were formed to solve the challenges as of the beginning of March.

The Russians went [to negotiations] in February-March with the expectation that Ukraine would surrender. Ukrainians wanted to show that they are not afraid and are ready for a normal, civilised solution.

"Medinsky did not cope with the task of forcing capitulation out of us. And in general, the whole group of Russians is quite inflexible, they move only according to the directives of their Ministry of Foreign Affairs. On the other hand, our [group] is more flexible, agile, ready to seek a compromise. And it is not clear whether Putin will want to change the composition of the delegation or not, which couldn’t put the squeeze on Ukraine even at the most critical moment," says one of the sources of Ukrainska Pravda, close to the negotiation process.

Moreover, the Ukrainian side has not yet discussed whether the delegation will remain in the old format. It is not clear, for example, whether Andrii Kostin, who became the Prosecutor General during this time, will remain in the negotiations. Similarly, Budanov could be included in the peace negotiations, because he was already involved in a number of other topics.

All these issues will become relevant only if peace talks are possible at all. As of mid-summer, there is a window of opportunites for talks between Kyiv and Moscow, albeit a small one.

And it can disappear entirely at the beginning of autumn. The reason for that is the "expansion of the geography" of Putin's war and a possible attempt to annex all the already captured Ukrainian territories.

"If, on 11 September, the Russians hold a 'referendum' in Kherson on 'joining' Rashka [dismissive word meaning Russia], then everything – any peace negotiations will simply be impossible," explained a high-ranking source who is connected to peace negotiations with the Russian Federation.

There is some black symbolism in this date – 11 September. Once upon a time, at the beginning of the new millennium, the bloody terrorist attacks in New York became a watershed point in world history. They changed the logic and agenda of all geopolitics for decades to come.

If, on 11 September, Russia tries to "legalise" the territories seized in the course of a brutal war of agression following the example of the 17th-century war, it will be a terrorist act against the world order no less than the tragic events of 2001.

Roman Kravets, Roman Romaniuk, Ukrainska Pravda