The war in Ukraine began with Ukraine ready to negotiate a peace agreement with Russia while the US was not. Could the war end the same way?
Initially, the Russian invasion brought Ukraine to the table very fast, and the short war might have ended. But the US State Department refused to set the table, saying that talks while the war is ongoing "is not real diplomacy. Those are not the conditions for real diplomacy." A month later, the State Department was still rejecting a negotiated end to the war, even if the negotiated settlement met Ukraine’s goals, because "this is a war that is in many ways bigger than Russia, it’s bigger than Ukraine."
Next came then-Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett’s attempt to mediate negotiations. According to Bennett, the talks had "a good chance of reaching a ceasefire" before the US once again "blocked it."
The final chance was the April 2022 talks in Istanbul. These were the most fruitful talks of all and yielded a "tentatively agreed" upon settlement. But, one more time, the US and its allies were not ready. Then-UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson rushed to Kiev to keep the war going, telling Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky that Putin "should be pressured, not negotiated with," adding that "even if Ukraine is ready to sign some agreements on guarantees with Putin, [we] are not." Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu and Numan Kurtulmus, the deputy chairman of Erdogan’s ruling party, have both said that "Zelensky was going to sign," but "the United States…want[s] this war to continue."
Since then, the war has escalated and the attempts at talks have receded. Neither side has talked and, at one point, Zelensky went so far as to invoke a decree banning negotiating with Putin. National Security Council spokesperson John Kirby has said that "we don’t support calls for a ceasefire right now." And, most recently, Secretary of State Antony Blinken has rejected calls for a ceasefire.
The next opening for talks permitted by the US seemed to be after the table was set by the Ukrainian counteroffensive. US President Joe Biden and Secretary of State Antony Blinken have long insisted that the goal is to put Ukraine in the best position "on the battlefield [to] be in the strongest possible position at the negotiating table." To arrive at that position, the goal was a counteroffensive that would threaten Crimea, or sever the land bridge to Crimea, but not capture Crimea, both because of a lack of capability and because of the threat of Russian escalation. That threat to Crimea would panic Russia and put Ukraine in the strongest possible position.
The first mention of negotiations since the first days of the war came a year after the last mention. In April 2023, Andriy Sybiha, the deputy head of Zelensky’s office, said that "If we will succeed in achieving our strategic goals on the battlefield and when we will be on the administrative border with Crimea, we are ready to open [a] diplomatic page to discuss the issue."
But what if the counteroffensive does not go as hoped? What if Ukraine’s military does not make it to the border of Crimea? Then a perhaps depleted and emaciated Ukrainian army would be waiting for a massive Russian counterattack that could leave them in a worse position on the battlefield and a weaker position at the negotiating table.
Despite a timidly rosier picture of "small" progress by Ukrainian forces, the early days of the counteroffensive do not appear to be going as well for Ukraine as hoped. Reliable analysts of the war have reported that Russia has so far held their line without being pushed back to their fortifications with tragic loss of thousands of Ukrainian lives, critical radar, much heavy equipment and dozens of tanks, including, perhaps, half the Leopard tanks provided to Ukraine so far. Even CNN has reported that "Ukrainian forces have suffered losses in heavy equipment and soldiers as they met greater than expected resistance from Russian forces in their first attempt to breach Russian lines." According to CNN, "One US official described the losses – which include US supplied MRAP armored personnel vehicles as "significant."
Could there be an unspoken realization that a counteroffensive setback could trigger negotiations as well as a counteroffensive success?
On June 10, Stephen Bryen of Asia Times reported that Ukrainian Defense Minister Oleksiy Reznikov unexpectedly announced that "Ukraine is ready for negotiations and a peace agreement if Russia changes the previously declared goals of the special military operation."
The statement that Ukraine could negotiate if they succeed in the counteroffensive came from Zelensky’s office; the claim that Ukraine could negotiate when they may not be succeeding did not: it came from the defense ministry. It may be difficult for Zelensky to make that statement. It could face political opposition from his NATO backers and existential opposition from far right nationalists at home.
Seymour Hersh has reported that a group of countries led by Poland and including Germany, Hungary and other Eastern European countries, have recognized that it may no longer be possible for Zelensky to suggest nor agree to negotiations. According to sources in the US intelligence community, that has led them to suggest that, if necessary, Zelensky may even need to resign to open the way to negotiations. Though well short of resigning, which Zelensky is "not budging" on, voicing the readiness to negotiate through Reznikov and the ministry of defense and not through Zelensky or the president’s office may be some sort of compromise solution.
The impact of Reznikov’s statement will depend on two things. The first is whether he has the authority to speak for Ukraine. The second is what he includes in "the previously declared goals of the special military operation" that need to be changed." Russia has already made it clear that that cannot include giving up Crimea or any of the regions it has annexed. Though the borders of the newly annexed Zaporizhe and Kherson regions may be open to negotiation. It also could not include guarantees that Ukraine would not join NATO.
But there may be goals it could include. Bennett says Putin made "huge concessions" during their negotiations, including a promise not to kill Zelensky and renouncing Russia’s demand for the "disarmament of Ukraine."
Since Ukraine and the US have not yet reached the point that they are prepared to publicly concede territory to Russia, though they may have conceded that privately, professor emeritus of history at University College Cork Geoffrey Roberts, an authority on Russian diplomatic and military history, told me that the point has probably not yet been reached at which negotiations are possible.
Roberts suggested to me the possibility that Reznikov’s statement is part of a Ukrainian propaganda campaign designed to convince NATO countries who are wavering on making membership commitments to Ukraine at the upcoming NATO summit that Ukraine is willing to negotiate an end to the war.
If it is sincere, Reznikov’s statement could be the first hint of hope, however small and unlikely, for the beginning of a diplomatic solution to the war; if it is propaganda aimed to support the chance of NATO membership for Ukraine, then it could just prolong the war.
Ted Snider is a regular columnist on US foreign policy and history at Antiwar.com and The Libertarian Institute. He is also a frequent contributor to Responsible Statecraft and The American Conservative as well as other outlets.