Bad Advice: Ukraine Then and Now

David Arakhamiya’s recent interview enhances our understanding of the diplomatic course of the war in Ukraine in two crucial ways. Despite the political West’s insistence that Vladimir Putin had more expansive goals for invading Ukraine, Arakhamiya says that Moscow would have traded peace for a Ukrainian promise not to join NATO. He also twice states that the West intervened and discouraged that trade and a diplomatic settlement to the war.

Arakhamiya is the head of Zelensky’s Servant of the People party. He led the Ukrainian negotiating team in both the Belarus and Istanbul talks. He says that Russia was “prepared to end the war if we agreed to,—as Finland once did,—neutrality, and committed that we would not join NATO.” He importantly adds that the NATO promise was the “key point” for Russia and that “Everything else was simply rhetoric and political ‘seasoning’.”

Arakhamiya is the third well placed official to make the claim that Russia’s primary reason for invading Ukraine was to stop NATO expansion east to its borders and, particularly, Ukraine’s NATO aspirations. While acting as mediator in the March 2022 talks between Russia and Ukraine, then-Israeli prime minister Naftali Bennett reports that Russian President Vladimir Putin asked him to pass the message to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, “Tell me you’re not joining NATO, I won’t invade.”

And on September 7, 2023, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said that in 2021, Putin “sent a draft treaty that they wanted NATO to sign, to promise no more NATO enlargement. That was what he sent us. And was a pre-condition for not invade Ukraine.” He then says that when “we didn’t sign that…he went to war to prevent NATO, more NATO, close to his borders.”

“President Putin,” Stoltenberg concludes, “invaded a European country to prevent more NATO.”

Arakhamiya gives a number of reasons for the failure of the negotiations, including a neutrality promise requiring a constitutional amendment and not trusting Russia minus security guarantees. But he crucially adds two considerations. The first is that, “We were advised by Western allies not to agree to ephemeral security guarantees.” The tentative agreement that was reportedly reached during the Istanbul talks included Ukraine promising not to join NATO in exchange for security guarantees from a number of countries. The West advised against that settlement.

“Moreover,” Arakhamiya says, “when we returned from Istanbul, Boris Johnson came to Kyiv and said that we would not sign anything with them at all, and let’s just fight.” That intervention by then-UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson was first reported by Ukrainska Pravda in December 2022, but it has never, until now, been confirmed by Ukraine or the West.

The tragedy of Arakhamiya’s revelation is that it appears that the war in Ukraine could have ended in its first few weeks. Ukraine would have promised not to join NATO, and Russia would have withdrawn to its prewar boundaries. Ukraine could have kept all of Kherson and Zaporizhzhia. They could have kept much of the Donbas and perhaps, with Minsk guarantees of autonomy, all of it. Only Crimea would have been lost to them.

Now, nearly two years later, Ukraine has failed to win on the battlefield what they could have won that day at the negotiating table. Hundreds of thousands of lives and tens of thousands of limbs later, Ukraine’s soldiers have not achieved what Ukraine’s diplomats had. But the United States and the United Kingdom told them to say no.

Now the war has reached a “stalemate,” in the analysis of Ukraine’s commander-in-chief General Valery Zaluzhny, that, in the long run, favors Russia. At the zenith of Western military aid, Ukraine’s counteroffensive failed. The attrition of Ukrainian lives and ammunition during that counteroffensive has created a vulnerability that has allowed Russia to methodically advance and even threaten the town of Avdiivka, whose fall could collapse the front and open the door to the Donbass for Russian forces, allowing Russia to solidify the borders of its newly annexed territories.

Future battles will likely be fought by Ukraine with less Western weapons and ammunition. But even if that were not so, a close aide to Zelensky told Time magazine that even if the United States gave Ukraine all the weapons it needed, they “don’t have the men to use them.” You can replace bullets; you cannot replace lives. Zaluzhny implied the same.

Ukraine’s “negotiating position,” Arakhamiya said, “is very bad.” It is much worse than it was when Russia offered peace for a promise of neutrality. As the present battlefield points more and more to a future negotiating table, Russia is likely to insist on the same NATO terms as Ukraine could have had in the first weeks of the war at the much greater cost of life and land.

Boris Johnson and the United States may have given Zelensky very bad advice.

Ted Snider is a regular columnist on US foreign policy and history at and The Libertarian Institute. He is also a frequent contributor to Responsible Statecraft and The American Conservative as well as other outlets.  To support his work or for media or virtual presentation requests, contact him at