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  • Writer's picturePaul Hansbury


A (nearly) universal truth about wars is that no one really knows how or when they will end. The people who start them usually do so because they expect to win, perhaps very swiftly, but things seldom go as planned. As the famous adage has it: 'No battle plan survives first contact with the enemy.'

A row broke out recently about an alleged peace deal struck in March 2022 between Russia and Ukraine. Reports claimed that the UK prime minister at the time, Boris Johnson, torpedoed a deal that was otherwise concluded in Istanbul. Johnson rejected the claims as 'total nonsense' and 'Russian propaganda', which they may well be, but it's worth reflecting on what the episode tells us about politics, war and the media.

No deal

Let's state one thing clearly up front. No one signed an agreement and therefore there was no deal. That, for any Gradgrind reading this, is a fact. The arguments and discussions during negotiations therefore don't matter all that much in this dispute and are not worth wasting too much attention on.

The input of anyone external to the negotiators, such as Johnson, may make good grist to the rumour mill, but the Ukrainians were the ones able, if they so wanted, to agree terms with Russia. And, as often happens in negotiations, one side may lead the other into thinking an agreement is made, only to try to insert a critical clause at the very last moment, hoping that their negotiating partner feels invested in a successful outcome and will agree to the proposed revision.

Nonetheless, various people involved in negotiations have said that a deal was ready. Oleksii Arestovych, a former adviser to Volodomyr Zelenskyy who led the Ukrainian delegation in the negotiations, clearly suggested that Johnson doomed a deal. Another in the delegation, David Arakhamia, said similarly. Russian president Vladimir Putin and foreign minister Sergey Lavrov have both said that an agreement had been reached and blamed western interventions for preventing it. The Russian foreign ministry spokesperson said: 'Johnson prohibited Kyiv from signing a peace agreement with Russia.' (Note that she was responding to Arakhamia's remarks.)

The host, Türkiye's foreign minister, has also implied that a deal was almost signed. None of these is a disinterested party, since they were all involved in the process, but all occupied different positions. On the basis of their combined comments, one might think the claims about Johnson are true.

A couple of problems to deal with

One reason not to give too much credence to the claims Johnson played a decisive role is to think about the broader context. Many outsiders will consider that Russia's demands were wholly unreasonable; for many Ukrainians they would have provoked a strong visceral rejection. Since the Ukrainian negotiation team was, presumably, acting in good faith and tasked with making a deal they may have agreed to certain concessions. But the reports seem clear that they were not authorised to sign off on an agreement.

There had already been unsuccessful talks in Belarus, near the Ukrainian border, at the end of February. In those talks, according to Yaroslav Trofimov, the author of a new book on the war, the Russian negotiators wanted a puppet regime installed in Kyiv as part of any deal. Ukraine would give up on its NATO ambitions and commit to demilitarised neutrality, and the Donbas would have a high degree of autonomy. Moscow may have relented on installing a puppet regime in Kyiv, but it stuck to the other points in the Istanbul negotiations. In the context of March 2022, when Ukraine could not be confident about the reliability of long-term military support, it is at least plausible that Ukrainian negotiators might have felt compelled to accept these humiliating terms. But they did not yet have Zelenskyy's approval.

A stronger contextual reason still is that the Russian troop withdrawal from Kyiv exposed the brutality of its invasion. According to Putin, Russian troops pulled back from Kyiv as a gesture of goodwill and to ease the path of a final agreement on the Istanbul terms. But as Ukrainian troops moved to secure the territory Russian forces withdrew from, they entered the town of Bucha.

In Trofimov's words, 'What the Ukrainians discovered there rendered any Istanbul understandings moot.' The corpses of citizens, shot with their hands tied behind their backs, littered the streets. There was evidence that Russian soldiers had tortured Ukrainians during the massacre.

The Ukrainian delegation in Istanbul needed Zelenskyy's approval, and the discovery of Bucha had Zelenskyy railing: 'This is genocide. The elimination of the whole nation, and the people.' He was not speaking like someone in the mood to capitulate to Russia. The horrors of Bucha stymied prospects for concluding terms with Russia.

It was only now, two weeks after the terms had been provisionally agreed in Istanbul, that Johnson visited Kyiv. In between the talks and Johnson's 'intervention', much had been discovered to colour perceptions of Russia. It may be that Johnson reassured the Ukrainian negotiators of NATO states' commitments to prolonged support and that there was no need to accept Russia's terms. But it seems of little relevance, really.

The real deal

This debate has come to the fore at a tricky time. Both US and EU aid packages to Ukraine have stalled. While Ukraine continues to have notable successes, such as its recent attack on a Russian surveillance plane, there is a strong feeling that the war is deadlocked. Perhaps, in that context, it is inevitable that people will talk more volubly about a new round of peace negotiations.

If there were a new round of negotiations, Russia is likely to seek to hold on to the territories it currently occupies. Nothing Russian officials have said recently suggests a serious intention to resume talks, since they (mistakenly, in my opinion) think things have turned in their favour. They are less likely still to agree to a ceasefire because they remain bitter about the breakdown of the earlier talks. 'We're ready for negotiations, but we will not consider any proposals for a ceasefire' crowed Lavrov in September at the UN General Assembly, 'we've considered it once, but you deceived us.' This week he told the UN Security Council that western support for Ukraine was the 'key impediment' to peace and that calls for a withdrawal of troops from occupied territories was 'a road to nowhere'.

The various parties have a vested interest in presenting the past favourably for their claims. The media seizes on conflicting accounts, sniffing a news story. Stories about the negotiations in Istanbul and Johnson's putative role have been circulating since the talks broke down, their recent rise up the news agenda is not because new information has come to light.

The disagreement resurfaced because there are growing calls for new negotiations and people separate into their hidebound camps. 'Of course there must be peace talks to end the suffering,' says one camp, insisting that wars usually end in such talks. 'There cannot be peace talks until Russia is defeated,' says the other camp. With western military and financial support to Ukraine wavering, this camp has to argue more forcibly. The debate about negotiations inevitably grows more heated as each camp feels the need to prevail. It makes for good news copy, too.

However the war ends, whether through military victory for one side, an armistice or a negotiated settlement, the implications stretch far and wide. Johnson's own recollections of his April 2022 visit to Kyiv are obviously self-serving: 'It is not for me to tell you [Ukraine] what your war objectives can be, but as far as I'm concerned Putin must fail and Ukraine must be entitled to retain full sovereignty and independence.' Still: the idea that Boris Johnson 'decided' the outcome of negotiations last spring is almost certainly misleading.

If Johnson had a role it is probably in persuading Zelenskyy that there would be an ongoing support in the form of weapons supply and ammunition to prosecute the war. I dislike the former British prime minister, but the allegations against him here seem tenuous.

Peace dove statue in Lome, Togo. Image credit: by Jeff Attaway of Abuja, Nigeria, used under Creative Commons Licence 2.0. Tinted by me.

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