Another round of negotiations between Russia and Ukraine in Turkey has brought little progress towards a ceasefire, let alone a peace agreement. Based on statements by both Moscow and Kyiv, it appears that there is some consensus on the issues that need to be negotiated, but little on what the sides might consider acceptable solutions.
The current Ukrainian position is centred around two main issues: neutrality and territorial integrity. The former will require an amendment to the Ukrainian constitution that changes the current commitment to “the irreversibility of the … Euro-Atlantic course of Ukraine” and instead provides for the country’s permanent neutral status.
While the Ukrainian president, Volodymyr Zelensky, has already committed to a referendum on any agreement with Russia, this will not remove the need for a two-thirds majority in the Ukrainian parliament – the Verkhovna Rada – and a favourable opinion of the constitutional court on whether the amendments are “are oriented toward the liquidation of the independence or violation of the territorial indivisibility of Ukraine”. Both of these are required for constitutional amendments. Moreover, no constitutional amendments are allowed “in conditions of martial law or a state of emergency”.
On the one hand, the referendum and the super-majority in the Rada will ensure that any approved deal will have the necessary support in Ukraine. On the other it limits the “bargaining space” that Zelensky has in his negotiations.
Neutrality will also require security guarantees. Again, this is something that both Russia and Ukraine agree on. But the two sides differ in how they view this. What Russia wants guaranteed is Ukrainian neutrality – what Ukraine wants guaranteed is its territorial integrity. These are not the same, and they will require different guarantors and guarantee mechanisms.
Why the idea of a ‘neutral’ Ukraine is a non-starter in peace talks
What the Ukrainian side has in mind is an international treaty under which the guarantor countries “are legally obliged to provide military assistance to our country, in particular in the form of armaments and the closure of the skies” in case of any aggression against Ukraine.
Potential guarantor countries – apart from the five permanent members of the UN Security Council – would include Turkey, Germany, Canada, Italy, Poland and Israel. As a consequence of this, there would then also need to be two separate, or overlapping, negotiation formats, one between Russia and Ukraine on the substance of neutrality status and one involving them and likely guarantor countries.
The second issue on the agenda concerns the country’s territorial integrity. Here, Zelensky previously ruled out compromises on the status of Crimea and Donbas – as well as any territories acquired by Russia since the invasion. At least concerning Crimea, there now seems to be some more flexibility on the Ukrainian side.
Kyiv appears willing to decouple negotiations on the peninsula’s future status from those on neutrality and address them separately in a bilateral format with Russia over the course of the next 15 years. But even this would require some minimum consensus with the Kremlin. The two sides would need to agree on the conditions under which these negotiations are delayed, what kind of interim status would apply, and what a final settlement would look like.
Ukraine’s neutrality, demilitarisation, and recognition of Russian territorial gains are still on the table, while “denazification” (or, more literally, regime change) is off the table. According to Putin’s press secretary, Dmitry Peskov, the sides are currently discussing “an Austrian or Swedish version of a demilitarised state in Ukraine”.
The Swedish and Austrian neutrality regimes are in essence voluntary, lack security guarantees for the two countries, and allow them to decide what is permissible under their commitments to neutrality. This has allowed both of them to join the EU in 1995 and participate in the Union’s Common Foreign and Security Policy. Given the gulf between these arrangements – and thus Ukraine’s vision of its own future armed neutrality – and what Russia envisages in terms of a demilitarised neutrality, it is not clear what room for compromise there might be.
Will a deal be possible and how soon?
A lot will depend on the extent to which Russia and Ukraine are willing to make concessions on or across the main issue areas and the extent to which they and the presumptive security guarantors are willing and able to deliver on any deal that might ultimately shape up.
The Russian announcement that it would be scaling back its military operation around Kyiv and “shift” to the south and east has been met with heavy scepticism by Ukraine and its western partners.
But the announcement also looks like a tentative Russian timeline before negotiations will get serious. Once Russia has established a land bridge to Crimea and satisfied further territorial ambitions east of the River Dnipro in central Ukraine, there might be progress towards a ceasefire and eventually a peace agreement. Yet, the likely cost of intensified operations in this area to both sides will additionally complicate their negotiations.
Putin’s signing of a decree ordering the mobilisation of almost 150,000 new conscripts as part of the annual spring military draft is an ominous sign. It appears that the Russian president is far from finished with his disastrous war in Ukraine.
Stefan Wolff receives funding from the United States Institute of Peace. He is a past recipient of grants from the Economic and Social Research Council of the UK, the British Academy, the NATO Science for Peace Programme, the EU Framework Programmes 6 and 7 and Horizon 2020, as well as the EU's Jean Monnet Programme. He is a Senior Research Fellow of the Foreign Policy Centre in London and Co-Coordinator of the OSCE Network of Think Tanks and Academic Institutions.