The Sticking Points That Kept Russia and Ukraine Apart

Ukraine's President Volodymyr Zelenskyy attends a news conference as part of the Ukraine peace summit in Obbürgen, Switzerland, Saturday, June 15, 2024. Switzerland is hosting scores of world leaders this weekend to try to map out the first steps toward peace in Ukraine. (AP Photo/Laurent Cipriani)

Russia and Ukraine failed to agree on a range of critical issues when they held peace talks in the spring of 2022. Documents from those talks obtained by The New York Times shed new light on what those issues were — and what are likely to be the main sticking points in any future negotiations to end Europe’s biggest land war in generations.

President Vladimir Putin of Russia has repeatedly referred to the 2022 talks as a foundation for any future deal, though many Ukrainian and Western officials doubt that Russia would be willing to settle for anything less than the full subjugation of Ukraine.

Ukraine Neutrality

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Ukraine’s efforts to join NATO were at the core of Putin’s justifications for invading the country in February 2022.

Russia demanded that Ukraine never join NATO or other alliances; host foreign military bases or weapons; or conduct military exercises with other countries without its consent. In the 2022 talks, Russia pledged not to stand in the way of Ukraine’s possible membership in the European Union.

Ukraine offered to become a “permanently neutral state” and to “terminate international treaties and agreements that are incompatible with permanent neutrality.” But in the two years since, Ukraine’s leaders have become more vocal about seeking to join the Western military alliance as Russia’s war has continued.

Security Against Another Attack

Pledges from other countries to protect Ukraine if Russia mounted another invasion are bound to be at the center of any durable peace, some experts say.

Ukraine proposed a security mechanism that would be triggered “in the event of an armed attack on Ukraine.” The “guarantor” countries that signed on to the treaty would hold “urgent and immediate consultations” for no more than three days. Then, they would take “individual or joint action as may be necessary” to protect Ukraine, including establishing a no-fly zone, providing weapons and using military force.

Russia agreed to much of Ukraine’s proposal but with key exceptions. It balked at the idea of other countries establishing a no-fly zone or providing Ukraine with weapons. Most important, Russia sought to insert a clause that would require all guarantor countries — including Russia itself — to agree on military intervention. The idea stands as perhaps the most intractable sticking point in the draft, rendering the security guarantees moot by allowing Russia to veto any international response.

Remaining Russian Occupation

For Ukraine, a peace deal would be likely to come at the expense of accepting Russian control over some part of its territory.

Ukraine refused to recognize Russian control over any of the country, including Crimea, which Russia illegally annexed in 2014. But Ukraine did offer a deal in which the two countries would agree to “resolve issues related to Crimea” through 10 or 15 years of diplomacy, and would pledge to avoid doing so by “military means.”

Ukraine appeared ready to accept some swath of the country’s east also remaining under Russian occupation. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s position has since hardened. He says Ukraine is fighting to liberate all internationally recognized territory, including Crimea, under Russian control.

Russia’s stance has also fluctuated. At the outset of the 2022 negotiations, Russia demanded that Ukraine give up its entire eastern Donbas region and recognize Russian sovereignty over Crimea. By that April, Russia had accepted a model in which Crimea and a swath of Ukraine would remain under Russian occupation that Ukraine would not recognize as being legal.

Now, however, Russia’s territorial demands appear more extreme. In September 2022, Putin declared four Ukrainian regions, in addition to Crimea, to be part of Russia, even though Ukraine still controlled most of that territory. Russian officials have said that any negotiations should be based on “the realities on the ground,” suggesting that Moscow would insist on keeping the territory its troops have captured.

How Would a Cease-Fire Work?

The logistics of how to put a truce into effect are likely to pose one of the most difficult challenges of any negotiations.

Russia said, in an annex to the April 2022 draft, that a cease-fire would begin when the treaty was “provisionally applied” — defined as the day it was signed by Ukraine, Russia and most of the guarantor countries. Both sides would not “carry out actions that could lead to the expansion of the territory controlled by them or cause a resumption of hostilities.”

Under Russia’s proposed terms, Moscow’s troops would have more flexibility in withdrawing from the battlefield. While Ukraine would be required to withdraw immediately, Russia’s withdrawal would be the subject of separate “consultations.”

Ukraine rejected that proposal, but the April 2022 draft does not show a counteroffer. Instead, Ukrainian officials pointed out that Russia could stop fighting at any time. A note inserted by Ukrainian officials into the March 2022 treaty draft says: “The Russian side has ignored Ukraine’s numerous requests for a ceasefire.”

Limits on Ukraine’s Military

Putin also called for Ukraine’s “demilitarization” when he announced his invasion Feb. 24, 2022.

Russia sought caps on the size of Ukraine’s military, including its total strength (up to 100,000 people), and the quantity of types of weapons it would have — 147 mortars and 10 combat helicopters, for example. It also wanted the firing range of Ukraine’s missiles to be restricted to just 25 miles.

Ukraine was willing to accept caps on the size of its military, but a much higher one. It sought an army of up to 250,000 people, 1,080 mortars and 60 combat helicopters. And it offered to restrict the range of its missiles to 174 miles. But that was before Ukraine began to receive arms, equipment and training from the West. Ukrainian officials point out that Ukraine’s military is now one of the most powerful in Europe, and it is unlikely that they would accept limits on the country’s ability to defend itself.

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