What the Istanbul Agreements Reveal About the Future of Russia-Ukraine Negotiations
March 1, 2024
  • Ivan Grek

    Director of the Russia Program at the George Washington University
Ivan Grek reflects on the potential conditions of future peace negotiations between Russia and Ukraine, suggesting that the Istanbul agreements of 2022 can already provide significant insights into their content.
David Arakhamia. Source: YouTube
As strategic advances in the Russia-Ukraine war appear increasingly unlikely, discussions about potential negotiations are intensifying. They often rely on abstract assumptions and lack a framework that builds on the previous wartime contact between Kyiv and Moscow. However, there is a potential design for peace talks, if they are to come anytime soon.

To envisage possible negotiations, we need to return to the Istanbul agreements of March 2022. This document has been simultaneously praised and neglected by both sides. On the one hand, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky banned any negotiations with Putin’s Russia and thus disregarded previous agreements. On the other hand, current and former members of the Zelensky administration involved in negotiations such as Oleksandr Chalyi, a former first deputy minister of foreign affairs, David Arakhamia, the leader of Zelensky’s Servant of the People party in the Rada, and Oleksiy Arestovych, a former strategic communications adviser in the president’s office, recently started to interpret the agreements as a generally good deal and their interruption as a mistake. In Russia, Vladimir Putin has referred to this agreed but unfulfilled conflict resolution as a viable option for all involved. Yet Russian propaganda has disregarded them, rather emphasizing Russia’s right to do what it wants.

Both Kyiv and Moscow have revealed some key details of the document, yet they have stuck to the mutual agreement not to publish it. Even though the text remains inaccessible, the details confirmed by both sides shed light on the fundamental reasons behind Russia’s invasion, the structure of possible negotiations and Moscow’s evolving demands. It is likely that the agreement to keep the document secret is due to the fact that it represents a significant framework for future talks, while the ongoing war will set the stage for reinterpretations of the different points concluded in March 2022.

What do we know?

On the first day of the invasion, Russia offered Ukraine terms of capitulation through Russian Deputy Prime Minister Dmitri Kozak and Belarusian Defense Minister Viktor Khrenin. This launched the peace process. The first three rounds of Russia-Ukraine negotiations occurred in Belarus: in Gomel on February 28 and then in Brest on March 3 and March 7.

Russia started the negotiations with demands that Turkish presidential spokesman Ibrahim Kalin described as “unrealistic.” Oleksiy Arestovych explained that Russia indeed attempted to impose a capitulation that included demands for “denazification” (banning right-wing political groups, equalizing the Russian and Ukrainian languages, etc), and the political subjugation of Kyiv. However, as Russia’s attempts to storm Kyiv failed one after another, it began to drop its unrealistic claims, starting with “denazification.” Both Russian and Ukrainian sources claim that by mid-March the sides had come up with the core terms for a truce: a neutral geopolitical status for Ukraine, a special political status for the Donetsk and Luhansk “people’s republics” within Ukraine, no negotiations about Crimea for the next 10-15 years and discussions on the size of the Ukrainian peacetime army to be conducted at the presidential level.

Ukraine’s possible membership in NATO — note that former President Petro Poroshenko wrote Kyiv’s intention to join the alliance into the Constitution at the time of his 2019 presidential campaign — was indeed a major concern for the Russians, who were primarily discussing their security concerns at the negotiations. Ukrainian sources emphasize that non-NATO status for Ukraine was the key demand of the Russians. The Russian delegation had initially demanded neutrality, an internationally regulated legal status that prevents the country from any military cooperation with or discrimination of any country at war. By the end of March, Ukraine had pushed Russia to agree to “nonaligned” status, which is legally less binding. In September 2023, the Russian Foreign Affairs Minister Sergei Larov confirmed that Russia is demanding nonaligned status for Ukraine.

As the leaks about the negotiations show, the only military-related question on which the parties could not reach agreement was the size of the regular Ukrainian army (i.e., no limits on mobilization), as Russia refused to back off its demands that it should be reduced significantly. At a meeting with African leaders, Putin flashed a document that detailed how the Ukrainian army should be reduced from 250,000 to 85,000 men. While other sources claim different numbers, this document, perhaps forged, reflects wishful thinking on the part of Moscow. At Istanbul, both sides agreed to shift this conversation to the presidential level.

Russia thus seemed ready to bargain conquered territories for “security guarantees,” i.e., non-NATO status for Ukraine. Gerhard Schröder, who mediated in the negotiations, claimed that Putin was ready to return the DNR and LNR to Ukraine if they had “autonomous status.” Until February 22, 2022, Moscow officially considered the DNR and LNR self-proclaimed republics that were part of Ukraine, not as independent entities, and systematically refused their claims for incorporation into the Russian Federation. It thus hoped to make Ukraine more federative, which would have resulted in significant influence over domestic Ukrainian affairs. The Istanbul agreements show that Russia and Ukraine agreed to discuss “autonomous status” for both entities. The Russian delegation claimed that means independence, while some Russian journalists argue that interpretation was to be discussed at the presidential level, and other, Ukrainian sources state that Moscow was to give up the separatist regions.

During the negotiations, Russia’s official position was that Crimea should be recognized as Russian territory.
“Multiple Russian and Ukrainian sources suggest that both parties agreed to exclude Crimea from negotiations for a significant period of time, with 10-15 years mentioned.”
This postponement of the Crimea issue would likely strengthen the Russian presence there, though Moscow’s negotiating position at that time was far from “restoring justice over its historical lands,” as Russian propaganda has claimed since then. Again, territorial demands appeared to be secondary to security issues.

Why did the war not stop?

On March 29, 2022, the Russian and Ukrainian delegations entered the final round of negotiations. The Istanbul communique likely included nonaligned status for Ukraine, discussion of autonomous status for the DNR and LNR, postponing the Crimea issue for a number of years and continued negotiations on the size of the Ukrainian army at a politically higher level. The head of the Ukrainian delegation, David Arakhamia, and the head of the Russian delegation, Vladimir Medinsky, as well as a number of observers and diplomats, considered the terms good, yet the agreements ultimately failed.

Until a recent interview with Arakhamia, the general public thought it was the massacre in Bucha that stopped the peace process. However, neither Arakhamia, Zelensky’s man in parliament and the head negotiator, nor Arestovych, a now-opposition politician and a participant in the negotiations, fingered the Bucha massacre as the reason why the talks were interrupted.
Grave in Bucha after Russian occupation. Source: Wiki Commons
On March 30, Russia withdrew troops from areas around Kyiv, including Bucha, Irpin and Borodyanka, as well as Chernihiv Region. In theory, the withdrawal of troops from Kyiv should have served to build trust, but in reality it revealed the mass murder of civilians in the territories that had been under Russian occupation. On April 14, 2022, Zelensky announced it was now impossible to continue the negotiations after the Bucha massacre. But recently, on November 25, 2023, Arakhamia claimed that the negotiations were interrupted because Ukraine could not trust Russia generally, combined with the fact that it would have been difficult to amend the Constitution to remove the intention to join NATO and, most importantly, on April 7, 2022, then-UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson arrived in Kyiv and promised weapons to fight Russia until the end of the war (Johnson called Arakhamia’s claim “Russian propaganda”). Thus, it seems that at the time Russian atrocities against civilians were not the reason why the peace process broke down; rather, Kyiv likely took the strategic decision to quit the negotiations to try to win the war militarily.

How do the Istanbul agreements help make sense of what’s next?

In his interview to Tucker Carlson, Putin mentioned the peace talks almost 20 times and consistently referred to the Istanbul agreements as the negotiation platform that “Russia has never quit,” adding that there are ways to return to them “honorably.” As in many previous comments,
Putin directly calls for a return to these agreements, and it seems that Kyiv’s respect for the confidentiality of the peace process signals that Zelensky’s office has not shut the door either.
The Istanbul agreements will likely frame future talks, but the change in the situation on the battlefield will affect the terms. After the successful operations in Kharkiv and Kherson regions, Ukraine was in a position to amend the Istanbul agreements as Russia was on the verge of a major military collapse. The Zelensky administration decided to continue the offensive, which forced the Kremlin to call a mass mobilization in Russia that, by the end of the second year of the war, has given Moscow the edge at the front and made Ukraine’s official victory plan of returning to the 1991 borders look unrealistic. The initiative is with Russia now.

But territory now matters for Moscow. After the successful Ukrainian military operations in Kharkiv and Kherson regions, Russia annexed the partially occupied Zaporizhzhia, Kherson, Donetsk and Luhansk regions, claiming them as Russian lands. In January 2024, Putin for the first time pronounced that Russia would not give away the “conquered” lands. The annexation is no longer about having another bargaining chip in negotiations, but creating an old-fashioned security buffer. Indeed, the war has consolidated Russia’s Soviet-inspired military strategy, which relies on land warfare and large battalions with field artillery. Thus, Russia now considers the brunt land extended by a demilitarized zone — or a “sanitary zone” as Putin puts it — as a part of its security claims, to be added to the platform of the Istanbul agreements. The buffer that Russia will claim will likely be measured militarily and calculated as the distance between Russian anti-missile systems and mass tactical ballistic missiles (around 300 km).

Russia will not retract its demand for Ukraine to be nonaligned, and might even return to the demand of neutral status for Kyiv. Neutral status could be supported by the international community and countries that will become its guarantors. In the flashed Istanbul agreements document, Putin mentioned the US, France, Russia, the UK and China. Thus, Moscow intends to bring China into a new European security system to regulate the resolution of the war in Ukraine. Having refused to participate in meetings about resolving the conflict that do not involve Russia, Beijing seeks to strengthen its position in Europe through the backdoor proposed by Putin.

The future is highly uncertain, with the warring countries influenced by the battlefield realities and changes in the global and domestic backdrops, such as the US presidential election in November. Still, the Istanbul agreements will continue to provide the basic framework to envisage what a peace could look like. This framework will not resolve the question of justice, but might prevent more injustices from occurring.
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