Ukraine-Russia Peace Is as Elusive as Ever. But in 2022 They Were Talking.

By mzaxazm

A draft Ukraine-Russia treaty from April 2022, published here in full for the first time.

With Russia and Ukraine locked in their third year of all-out war, there is no clear path to military victory for either side. Nor are there immediate prospects for a ceasefire and an eventual peace plan, with both sides sticking to irreconcilable positions.

Yet the issues that would need to be tackled in any future peace settlement are evident, and in fact were at the center of negotiations two years ago that explored peace terms in remarkable detail.

Documents reviewed by The New York Times shed light on the points of disagreement that would have to be overcome.

The documents emerged from negotiating sessions that took place in the weeks after the start of the war, from February to April of 2022. It was the only time that Ukrainian and Russian officials are known to have engaged in direct peace talks.

The talks failed as both sides dug in on the battlefield, but not before negotiators produced multiple drafts of a treaty that was supposed to guarantee Ukraine’s future security while fulfilling some of President Vladimir V. Putin’s demands.

Today, even with hundreds of thousands dead and wounded, Moscow and Kyiv appear further from peace than at any other time since the full-scale invasion. On Friday, Mr. Putin said Russia would agree to a ceasefire only if Ukraine handed over four regions the Kremlin has declared part of Russia and dropped its NATO aspirations. It was essentially a demand for capitulation, which the Ukrainian government immediately denounced.

Ukraine’s current demands — a withdrawal of all Russian forces from Ukrainian territory — also appear unrealistic given Mr. Putin’s apparent resolve and his army’s current advantages. This includes the Crimean Peninsula, which Mr. Putin annexed in 2014 in a swift operation that he considers central to his legacy.

But at some point, both sides could return to the negotiating table again — a scenario that is expected to be discussed as Ukraine gathers scores of countries, though not Russia, for a peace conference in Switzerland this weekend. If and when Ukraine and Russia resume direct negotiations, the issues raised in the documents produced at the start of the war, including the status of occupied Ukrainian territories and Ukraine’s future security guarantees, would remain relevant.

Russia initially wanted Ukraine to recognize Crimea as part of Russia.

“Ukraine recognizes the Republic of Crimea and the city of Sevastopol as an integral part (subjects) of the Russian Federation and, in this regard, shall make comprehensive changes to the national legislation.”

By April 15, both sides agreed to exclude Crimea from their treaty — leaving it under Russian occupation but without Ukraine recognizing it.

“Paragraph 1 of Article 2 and Articles 4, 5 and 11 of this Treaty shall not apply to Crimea and Sevastopol.”

An examination of the documents shows that the two sides clashed over issues including weapons levels, the terms of Ukraine’s potential membership in the European Union, and specific Ukrainian laws on language and culture that Russia wanted repealed. Ukraine’s negotiators offered to forgo NATO membership, and to accept Russian occupation of parts of their territory. But they refused to recognize Russian sovereignty over them.

Ukraine proposed never joining NATO or other alliances.

“Ukraine does not join any military alliances, does not deploy foreign military bases and contingents …”

Russia demanded that Ukraine make Russian an official language.

“Ukraine, within 30 (thirty) days after signing this Treaty, shall remove all restrictions on the use of the Russian language in any area in accordance with Annex 2.”

Russia, stunned by the fierce resistance Ukraine was putting up, seemed open to such a deal, but eventually balked at its critical component: an arrangement binding other countries to come to Ukraine’s defense if it were ever attacked again.

At the time, little about these peace negotiations was known, and what has leaked out in the two years since has been shoehorned into wartime talking points by each side. Mr. Putin contends the West pressured Ukraine to reject a peace deal; Ukraine’s Foreign Ministry says that “if Russia wanted peace in 2022, why had it attacked Ukraine in the first place?”

The Times is publishing the documents it obtained in full. They are treaty drafts dated March 17 and April 15, 2022, showing the two sides’ competing proposals and points of agreement; and a private “communiqué” at in-person talks in Istanbul on March 29 that summarized the proposed deal.

The documents were provided by Ukrainian, Russian and European sources, and confirmed as authentic by participants in the talks and other people close to them. Some aspects of these documents have emerged, but most of the material has not been previously disclosed.

In addition to reviewing the documents, The Times spent months interviewing more than a dozen Ukrainian, Russian and Western current and former officials and others close to the talks; they include three members of Ukraine’s negotiating team. Many spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the negotiations.

“We managed to find a very real compromise,” Oleksandr Chalyi, a member of the Ukrainian negotiating team, said at a panel discussion in Geneva last December. “We were very close in the middle of April, in the end of April, to finalize our war with some peaceful settlement.”

The Talks Begin

On Feb. 28, 2022, aides to Poland’s president met a group of senior Ukrainian officials at the border and ferried them by helicopter to a military base near Belarus. The Ukrainians then entered Belarus on their own and met a delegation of Russians led by an adviser to Mr. Putin, Vladimir Medinsky.

It was an unusual moment in the history of warfare: the start of direct talks between the invaders and the invaded, just days after Europe’s biggest war of aggression in three generations had begun.

Some of the Ukrainian negotiators who spoke to The Times thought that Mr. Putin had come to the table so quickly because he never expected his army to stumble so spectacularly. But as far as they could tell, the Russians sitting across from them had little sense of how badly their troops were doing.

Ukraine’s defense minister, Oleksii Reznikov, third from right; with an adviser to President Vladimir Putin, Vladimir Medinsky, and a Russian official, Leonid Slutsky, in Belarus. The photo was released by Belarusian state media.

BeITA, via Shutterstock

When Oleksii Reznikov, the Ukrainian defense minister at the time, said his side had tallied 3,000 Russian soldiers killed in action, Mr. Medinsky appeared surprised and looked over at the top Russian military official at the table.

“No, we only have 80 soldiers” killed, the military official, Aleksandr Fomin, said, Mr. Reznikov recalled.

The negotiators soon shifted to video calls, with the Ukrainians dialing in from a conference room at Mr. Zelensky’s presidential offices, Ukrainian negotiators said, or, a few times, from an underground bunker.

Ukraine made a significant concession: it was ready to become a “permanently neutral state” that would never join NATO or allow foreign forces to be based on its soil. The offer seemed to address Mr. Putin’s core grievance — that the West, in the Kremlin’s narrative, was trying to use Ukraine to destroy Russia.

An Early Draft

Though the two sides engaged in regular video sessions after meeting in Belarus, a treaty draft dated March 17 shows how far apart they remained. The Times reviewed an English-language version that Ukraine provided to Western governments.

Ukraine sought Russia’s assent to international “security guarantees,” by which other countries — including Ukrainian allies who would also sign the agreement — would come to its defense should it be attacked again. It wanted the treaty to apply to Ukraine’s “internationally recognized borders,” even as Russian troops were still trying to take Kyiv.

Ukraine wanted its allies to be treaty-bound to intervene if it was attacked again, such as by…

“…closing airspace over Ukraine, providing necessary weapons, using armed forces in order to restore and subsequently maintain the security of Ukraine as a permanently neutral state.”

The Russian team wanted Ukraine and every other treaty signatory to cancel the sanctions against Moscow they had been levying since 2014 and to publicly call on other countries to do the same. Ukraine was to cede its entire eastern Donbas region and recognize Crimea as part of Russia. A seven-point list targeted Ukraine’s national identity, including a ban on naming places after Ukrainian independence fighters.

The latter demand illustrated one of Mr. Putin’s stated rationales for going to war: he had described Ukraine as an artificial country that should be considered part of Russia.

Russia’s treaty proposals read like a laundry list of Kremlin demands, including that Kyiv-controlled parts of eastern Ukraine be ceded to Russia’s proxy “people’s republics.”

“Ukraine recognizes the independence of the Donetsk People’s Republic and the Luhansk People’s Republic within the administrative boundaries of the former Donetsk and Lugansk regions of Ukraine and, in this regard, shall introduce comprehensive changes to the national legislation.”

“Ukraine shall cancel and henceforth not impose, and also shall publicly call on all states and international organizations to cancel and henceforth not impose, any and all sanctions and restrictive measures imposed since 2014 against the Russian Federation.”

“Ban, with the introduction of criminal liability, the glorification and propaganda in any form of Nazism and neo-Nazism, the Nazi movement and organizations associated therewith, including holding public demonstrations and processions, construction of monuments and memorials and naming toponyms, in particular, streets, settlements and other geographical objects.”

The draft included limits on the size of the Ukrainian armed forces and the number of tanks, artillery batteries, warships and combat aircraft the country could have in its arsenal. The Ukrainians were prepared to accept such caps, but sought much higher limits.

A former senior U.S. official who was briefed on the negotiations, noting how Russian forces were being repelled across northern Ukraine, said Mr. Putin seemed to be “salivating” at the deal.

American officials were alarmed at the terms. In meetings with their Ukrainian counterparts, the senior official recalled, “We quietly said, ‘You understand this is unilateral disarmament, right?’”

Pro-Russian demonstrators in front of seized government building in Simferopol, Crimea, in 2014.

Sergey Ponomarev for The New York Times

Leaders in Poland — early and strong supporters of Ukraine — feared that Germany or France might try to persuade the Ukrainians to accept Russia’s terms, according to a European diplomat, and wanted to prevent that from happening.

To that end, when Poland’s president, Andrzej Duda, met with NATO leaders in Brussels on March 24, he held up the March 17 text, said the diplomat, who was present.

“Which of you would sign it?” Mr. Duda asked his counterparts, the diplomat said.

None of the NATO leaders spoke up.

A Breakthrough in Istanbul?

A few days later, on March 29, Russia and Ukraine’s representatives met at an Istanbul palace on the Bosporus. To some, the talks felt like a breakthrough driven by Russia’s battlefield struggles.

After each military setback, a member of Ukraine’s negotiating team said, Mr. Putin “reduced his demands.”

A photo released by the Turkish government showed President Recep Tayyip Erdogan at the opening of Ukrainian-Russian talks in Istanbul in March 2022.

Murat Cetin Muhurdar/Turkish Presidential Press Service, via Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

In Istanbul, the Russians seemed to endorse Ukraine’s model of neutrality and security guarantees and put less emphasis on their territorial demands. Afterward, Mr. Medinsky, Russia’s lead negotiator, said Ukraine’s offer of neutrality meant it was “ready to fulfill those principal demands that Russia insisted on for all the past years.”

Ukraine summarized the proposed deal in a two-page document it called the Istanbul Communiqué, which it never published. The status of Crimea was to be decided over a 10- or 15-year period, with Ukraine promising not to try to retake the peninsula by force; Mr. Zelensky and Mr. Putin would meet in person to finalize a peace treaty and strike a deal on how much Ukrainian territory Russia would continue to occupy.

Zelensky and Putin would meet to hash out final differences, according to the discussions in Istanbul.

“The parties consider it possible to hold a meeting on … … 2022 between the presidents of Ukraine and Russia with the aim to sign an agreement and/or make political decisions regarding the remaining unresolved issues.”

The communiqué, provided to The Times by a Ukrainian negotiator, described a mechanism in which other countries would intervene militarily if Ukraine were attacked again — a concept that the Ukrainians pointedly designated as Article 5, a reference to the mutual defense agreement in Article 5 of the NATO treaty.

To the Ukrainians, binding security guarantees were at the core of a potential peace deal that multiple countries would sign on to.

“Possible guarantor states: Great Britain, China, Russia, the United States, France, Turkey, Germany, Canada, Italy, Poland, Israel.”

“The Guarantor States and Ukraine agree that in the event of aggression, any armed attack on Ukraine or any military operation against Ukraine, each of the Guarantor States, after urgent and immediate consultations between them … will provide … assistance to Ukraine, as a permanently neutral state under attack…”

But Russian officials sent mixed signals in public on whether the Kremlin was really ready to sign onto the deal. The Russians and Ukrainians returned to hourslong negotiating sessions by video call, exchanging treaty drafts via WhatsApp, negotiators said.

‘The Boss’

In early April, after Russia withdrew from the outskirts of Kyiv, images of massacred civilians in the suburb of Bucha, some with their hands tied with white cloth, shocked the world. For Ukrainians, the idea that their country could strike a compromise with Russia seemed more remote than ever.

But Mr. Zelensky, visiting Bucha on April 4, said the talks would go on, even as Russia dismissed the Bucha atrocities as a staged “provocation.”

Bodies in Bucha being taken away for forensic examination in April 2022.

Daniel Berehulak for The New York Times

“Colleagues, I spoke to RA,” Ukraine’s lead negotiator, Davyd Arakhamia, wrote on April 10 in a WhatsApp message to the Ukrainian team. “He spoke yesterday for an hour and a half with his boss.”

“RA” was Roman Abramovich, the Russian billionaire who played a behind-the-scenes role in the talks. His “boss,” Mr. Putin, was urging the negotiators to concentrate on the key issues and work through them quickly, Mr. Arakhamia wrote. (A member of the WhatsApp group showed that message and others to reporters for The Times.)

A spokesperson for Mr Abramovich said his role “was limited to introducing representatives from both parties to each other” and that following that initial stage, he “was not involved in the process.”

Mr. Arakhamia’s message suggested that Mr. Putin was micromanaging not only Russia’s invasion, but also its peace talks. At another point, Russia’s lead negotiator, Mr. Medinsky, interrupted a video conference by claiming that Mr. Putin was phoning him directly.

“The boss is calling,” Mr. Medinsky said, according to two Ukrainian negotiators.

Mr. Putin’s involvement and intentions during the 2022 talks were subjects of debate in Kyiv and Washington, Ukrainian and American officials said. Was he truly interested in a deal? Or was he merely trying to bog Ukraine down while his troops regrouped?

There were signs that Mr. Putin was micromanaging not only the Russian invasion but also the peace talks.

Nanna Heitmann for The New York Times

“We didn’t know if Putin was serious,” said the former senior U.S. official. “We couldn’t tell, on either side of the fence, whether these people who were talking were empowered.”

One Ukrainian negotiator said he believed the negotiations were a bluff on Mr. Putin’s part, but two others described them as serious.

On April 15, five days after Mr. Abramovich told the Ukrainians about his meeting with Mr. Putin, the Russian negotiators sent a 17-page draft treaty to their president’s desk.

Sticking Points

Similar to the month-earlier version, the April 15 draft includes text in red highlighting issues in dispute. But such markings are almost entirely absent from the treaty’s first pages, where points of agreement emerged.

Negotiators agreed that Ukraine would declare itself permanently neutral, though it would be allowed to join the European Union.

Russia dropped its earlier objections to Ukraine’s full-fledged E.U. membership.

“The Parties to this Treaty share the understanding that Ukraine’s status as a permanently neutral state is, subject to the provisions of this Treaty, compatible with Ukraine’s possible membership in the European Union.”

Much of the treaty would “not apply” to Crimea and another to-be-determined swath of Ukraine — meaning that Kyiv would accept Russian occupation of part of its territory without recognizing Russian sovereignty over it.

But crucial sticking points remained. Russia wanted the firing range of Ukraine’s missiles to be limited to 25 miles, while Ukraine wanted 174 miles — enough to hit targets across Crimea. Russia still wanted Ukraine to repeal laws related to language and national identity, and to pull back Ukrainian troops as part of a cease-fire.

Russia’s ceasefire proposal declared that Ukraine would need to withdraw its troops on its own territory.

“Ukraine carries out the withdrawal (return) of units of its armed forces, other armed formations, weapons and military equipment to places of permanent deployment or to places agreed upon with the Russian Federation.”

The biggest problem, however, came in Article 5. It stated that, in the event of another armed attack on Ukraine, the “guarantor states” that would sign the treaty — Great Britain, China, Russia, the United States and France — would come to Ukraine’s defense.

A military vehicle making its way toward the Polish border from Germany for NATO exercises in April.

Laetitia Vancon for The New York Times

To the Ukrainians’ dismay, there was a crucial departure from what Ukrainian negotiators said was discussed in Istanbul. Russia inserted a clause saying that all guarantor states, including Russia, had to approve the response if Ukraine were attacked. In effect, Moscow could invade Ukraine again and then veto any military intervention on Ukraine’s behalf — a seemingly absurd condition that Kyiv quickly identified as a dealbreaker.

Russia tried to secure a veto on Ukraine’s security guarantees by inserting a clause requiring unanimous consent.

“The Guarantor States and Ukraine agree that in the event of an armed attack on Ukraine, each of the Guarantor States … on the basis of a decision agreed upon by all Guarantor States, will provide … assistance to Ukraine, as a permanently neutral state under attack…”

With that change, a member of the Ukrainian negotiating team said, “we had no interest in continuing the talks.”

What Now?

Two years later, there are still no signs that Russia and Ukraine might return to the negotiating table. At a Swiss resort this weekend, Mr. Zelensky will seek to persuade dignitaries from about 100 countries and organizations, including Vice President Kamala Harris, that victory remains realistic.

Russia is not invited, and China, its most powerful partner, opted not to attend. Mr. Zelensky has pledged to keep fighting, describing his peace plan as one in which Russia withdraws from all of Ukraine’s territory, pays reparations and is punished for war crimes.

“If we don’t make progress this year, then we will try again next year,” Mr. Zelensky privately told a European counterpart recently, according to a European diplomat who was present. “And if we don’t make progress next year, we will try again the following year, and the one after that.”

President Volodymyr Zelensky of Ukraine is to meet with dignitaries from over 100 countries and organizations in Switzerland this weekend.

Daniel Berehulak/The New York Times

Mr. Putin in recent months stepped up efforts to stoke Western divisions by portraying peace as having been within reach in 2022 — and saying he was prepared to restart those talks. Ukraine’s leaders have dismissed Mr. Putin’s statements on the subject as deception.

“Putin is a habitual liar, and his recent rants are no exception,” Ukraine’s foreign ministry said in a statement.

Mr. Putin shifted to a harder line on Friday, insisting that he would order a cease-fire and negotiate only if Ukraine withdrew from the four regions that Moscow has claimed as its own and dropped its aspirations to join NATO.

Even before Mr. Putin’s latest demand, experts said it was hard to imagine going back to the kind of deal discussed in 2022. Ukraine is more determined than ever to join NATO, a message it will reinforce when leaders of the alliance meet in Washington next month.

Instead, the more likely end to the fighting could be an uneasy truce. Marc Weller, a Cambridge international law professor who specializes in peace negotiations, said he expected leading Western countries to focus on defending Ukraine’s future battle line with Russia “rather than seek accommodation across it.”

“The Iron Curtain will now fall on the line of occupation administered by the Russians across Ukraine,” Mr. Weller said.

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