On June 13, 2023, taking questions from war correspondents at the Kremlin, Putin confirmed what had already been reported: that Russia and Ukraine had “reached an agreement in Istanbul.” Peace was possible. The tentative agreement would see Russia withdraw to its prewar position in exchange for a Ukrainian promise to give up its NATO aspirations.
But at the June press conference, Putin revealed for the first time just how close Russia and Ukraine had come to peace in the early days of the war. The tentative agreement had been initialed by both sides. “I don’t remember his name and may be mistaken, but I think Mr Arakhamia headed Ukraine’s negotiating team in Istanbul. He even initialed this document.” Russia, too, signed the document: “during the talks in Istanbul, we initialed this document. We argued for a long time, butted heads there and so on, but the document was very thick and it was initialed by Medinsky on our side and by the head of their negotiating team.”
Days late, on June 17, in a meeting with a delegation of leaders of African countries, Putin went further, dramatically holding up the document and revealing it to the world for the first time. “We did not discuss with the Ukrainian side that this treaty would be classified, but we have never presented it, nor commented on it. This draft agreement was initialed by the head of the Kiev negotiation team. He put his signature there. Here it is.”
But the initialled agreement went no further. “We actually did this,” Putin told war correspondents at the Kremlin, “but they simply threw it away later and that’s it.” Talking to the African delegation, Putin said, “After we pulled our troops away from Kiev – as we had promised to do – the Kiev authorities … tossed [their commitments] into the dustbin of history. They abandoned everything.” But Putin did not primarily blame Ukraine. He implicitly blamed the US, saying that when Ukraine’s interests “are not in sync” with U.S. interests, “ultimately it is about the United States’s interests. We know that they hold the key to solving issues.”
Putin’s claim that a tentative agreement could have stopped the war on terms that satisfied both Ukraine and Russia in the days before the massive Ukrainian loss of limb, life and land if not for US obstruction has now been verified by four independent sources.
The first is Russian. On September 23, 2023, at a press conference following the UN General Assembly High-Level week, Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov confirmed Putin’s account of both the birth and the death of the tentative agreement.
On the first point, Lavrov said, “we did hold talks in March and April 2022. We agreed on certain things; everything was already initialled.”
On the second point, Lavrov said that two days after the agreement was initialled, the talks abruptly ended “because, I think, someone in London or Washington did not want this war to end.” Days later, during a September 28 interview, Lavrov was less speculative. He said that “in April 2022 . . . Ukraine proposed ceasing hostilities and settling the crisis based on providing reciprocal, reliable security guarantees.” He then clearly said, “But this proposal was recalled at the insistence of Washington and London.”
Importantly, the second source is Turkish, the host of the Istanbul talks. Two well placed Turkish officials back the Russian account of the end of the agreement. Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu says that, because of the talks, “Turkey did not think that the Russia-Ukraine war would continue much longer.” But, he said, “There are countries within NATO who want the war to continue.” “Following the NATO foreign ministers’ meeting,” he explained, “it was the impression that…there are those within the NATO member states that want the war to continue, let the war continue and Russia get weaker.”
Cavusoglu is not alone. Numan Kurtulmus, the deputy chairman of Erdogan’s ruling party, told CNN TURK that “We know that our President is talking to the leaders of both countries. In certain matters, progress was made, reaching the final point, then suddenly we see that the war is accelerating… Someone is trying not to end the war. The United States sees the prolongation of the war as its interest… There are those who want this war to continue… Putin-Zelensky was going to sign, but someone didn’t want to.”
The third source is then Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett. Bennett was involved in an earlier set of talks, but reports the same conclusion. “There was,” Bennett says, “a good chance of reaching a ceasefire.” But the West, Bennett says, “blocked it.”
The fourth source is new. In a recent interview with Germany’s Berliner Zeitung, former German chancellor Gerhard Schröder confirms both parts of Putin’s account. For the first time, Schröder has given a detailed account of his role in the Istanbul talks, though, as Nicolai Petro has pointed out to me, he has hinted at it in the past. Schröder says that, at the request of Ukraine, he played a central mediating role in the talks. Along with Rustem Umyerov, Schröder would “convey a message to Putin.”
Umyerov is the current defense minister of Ukraine. At the time in March 2022, he was playing a key negotiating role. Schröder says he “had two conversations with Umyerov, then a one-on-one conversation with Putin and then with Putin’s envoy.”
According to Schröder, Ukraine “does not want NATO membership,” would accept “compromise” security guarantees, said that they would “reintroduce Russian in Donbass,” and “were ready to talk about Crimea.”
“But in the end nothing happened,” Schröder said. “My impression: Nothing could happen because everything else was decided in Washington.” Like the Russian and the Turkish sources, Schröder reports that “the Ukrainians did not agree to peace because they were not allowed to. They first had to ask the Americans about everything they discussed.”
Schröder adds one more significant detail. It is often reported that the massacre in Bucha played a pivotal souring role in the negotiations, contributing to their termination. Schröder challenges that account: “Nothing was known about Butscha during the talks with Umjerov on March 7th and 13th. I think the Americans didn’t want the compromise between Ukraine and Russia. The Americans believe they can keep the Russians down.”
Schröder’s newly published account of the Istanbul talks add to the evidence provided by Putin, Lavrov, Bennett and the Turkish officials that Ukraine and Russia might have arrived at a peace that satisfied both of their goals and avoided the horrid loss of life that has followed since had the US not intervened and put an end to the talks and the tentative agreement.
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.