Encouraging War in Ukraine, New York Times Misses the Point

On the eve of a Ukraine Peace Summit in Geneva that did not talk about peace and did not include Russia, Russian President Vladimir Putin set out Russia’s peace proposal to end the war.

Putin’s peace proposal contains little that is new and is largely consistent with what he has been saying since the beginning of the war. His speech is significant, though, because it is, perhaps, the first time Putin has so clearly and publicly laid out Russia’s conditions for peace.

Russia’s peace proposal sets out that Ukraine must guarantee that it will be a non-nuclear, non-aligned neutral nation that will not join NATO. It must completely withdraw from the administrative boundaries of the Donetsk and Lugansk People’s Republics, Kherson and Zaporozhye regions that existed before the war. They must agree to limits on the size of their armed forces, and they must ensure the rights of the Russian speaking citizens of Ukraine. “Immediately,” Putin says, “literally at that moment, an order will be given to cease fire and begin negotiations.”

Though the declaration is consistent with earlier statements of Russia’s demands, it is noteworthy for one thing it says and one thing it does not. Putin says that “the future existence of Ukraine depends” on “starting dialogue with Russia” an on “non-aligned status.” Without such an agreement, “the realities on the ground… will continue to change not in favor of the Kiev regime. And the conditions for starting negotiations will be different.” If these terms are not agreed to now, the war will go on, the reality on the ground will change, and the terms, reflecting those new realities, will grow harder for Ukraine to accept.

Ukraine immediately rejected the Russian conditions for peace.

The declaration is also noteworthy for one thing it does not say. It does not demand regime change and promises “to begin to restore relations of trust and good neighborliness between Russia and Ukraine.”

Putin has reiterated recently that the intention of the Russian invasion of Ukraine was never regime change and was always intended to be limited in operation. He says that “there was no political decision to storm” Kiev when they advanced toward the city at the beginning of the war. “The troops were there to motivate the Ukrainian side to engage in negotiations.” Though the opposite is often axiomatically posited by the West, Putin’s claim is consistent with Russia’s statements of purpose since the lead up to the war and with the number of troops Russia sent toward Kiev.

In support of the possibility and promise of the peace proposal he is setting out, Putin reminds that “these parameters were generally agreed upon during the Istanbul negotiations in 2022… Everything was agreed upon.” This statement is the most recent in a flurry of statements in which Russia has suggested starting new talks where the last talks ended with the Istanbul Communiqué and the draft agreement that was signed by both sides.

Up until quite recently, politicians and pundits in the West were quite willing to dismiss even the existence of the Istanbul Communiqué and the signed draft agreement. Some officials even insisted that if Putin really had a draft agreement, then he would have published it.

Well, The New York Times just did. Suddenly, The Times can produce the original document, immediately following Putin’s insistence that a new peace proposal can be reasonably built upon it, in order to ridicule the details of Putin’s claim and insist that the Istanbul talks “fizzled” instead of proving that the grounds for peace could be agreed upon.

What is especially revealing about the timing of The Times piece, reinforcing the appearance that it was meant to undercut Putin’s proposal instead of entering the draft agreement into evidence to support the possibility of negotiations, is that The Times seems to have been in possession of the documents for months: “In addition to reviewing the documents, The Times spent months interviewing more than a dozen Ukrainian, Russian and Western current and former officials and others close to the talks; they include three members of Ukraine’s negotiating team.”

The Times focuses its analysis “on the points of disagreement.” It says that “the two sides clashed over issues” and that “the talks failed.” There were important points of disagreement on details of points that had been agreed to that still needed to be resolved: details of territory, caps on the Ukrainian Armed Forces and security guarantees. But, though The Times focusses its commentary on “how far apart they remained,” the draft agreement is remarkable for how detailed it was and for how close the two sides were so early in the war.

The Times admits that the negotiations “explored peace terms in remarkable detail.” It even quotes – and then seems to forget – Oleksandr Chalyi, a member of the Ukrainian negotiating team, saying, “We managed to find a very real compromise. We were very close in the middle of April, in the end of April, to finalize our war with some peaceful settlement.”

Though The Times sites Oleksiy Arestovych, who was also a member of Ukraine’s negotiating team, in a different context, they do not site that he has said that the talks in Istanbul were successful and could have worked. He says that the Istanbul agreement was 90% prepared.”

The Times reports that “Ukraine summarized the proposed deal in a two-page document it called the Istanbul Communiqué” and that “Mr. Zelensky and Mr. Putin would meet in person to finalize a peace treaty and strike a deal on how much Ukrainian territory Russia would continue to occupy.” Arestovych has also said that Zelensky “directly meeting with Putin… Was to be the next step of negotiations.” Remarkably, the final point of the Istanbul Communiqué states that “The parties consider it possible to hold a meeting on… 2022 between the presidents of Ukraine and Russia with the aim of signing an agreement and/or making political decisions regarding the remaining unresolved issues.” “We opened the champagne bottle,” Arestovych said.

There were unresolved differences. But the fate of Ukraine might have been very different had the United States, Britain and their Western partners encouraged the promising talks instead of discouraging them. It has become strategy in the West to dismisses the claim that the U.S. and U.K blocked the negotiations without offering any supporting evidence. “Mr. Putin contends,” The Times says casually, “the West pressured Ukraine to reject a peace deal” before balancing that contention with Ukraine’s denial.

There are several important sources of the claim that the United States and Britain blocked the talks, including several who played a role or were present, including former Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennet, Former German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder, Turkish officials and Davyd Arakhamiia, who led the Ukrainian negotiating team, as well as reporting on the intervention of British Prime Minister Boris Johnson.

The Times actually adds two more pieces of evidence that have been previously unreported. They report that “American officials were alarmed at the terms” and patronizingly asked the Ukrainians, who had agreed to the terms, whether they “understand this is unilateral disarmament.”

Then, for the first time widening the blocking of diplomacy beyond the United States and Britain, The Times reports that “Poland… feared that Germany or France might try to persuade the Ukrainians to accept Russia’s terms.” Determined to block the promising diplomacy, Polish President Andrzej Duda held up the negotiated text in front of NATO leaders and asked, “Which of you would sign it?”

Remarkably, The Times uses Putin’s interest and “involvement” in the talks, what they call “micromanaging,” to raise the question of whether he was truly interested in diplomacy. “’We didn’t know if Putin was serious,’ said the former senior U.S. official. ‘We couldn’t tell, on either side of the fence, whether these people who were talking were empowered.”

The Times says that “One Ukrainian negotiator said he believed the negotiations were a bluff on Mr. Putin’s part” before adding that “two others described them as serious.” It is odd that Putin’s close attention and interest should be offered as evidence that he was not serious about talks. Oleksandr Chalyi says that Putin “demonstrated a genuine effort to find a realistic compromise and achieve peace.”

The New York Times seems to have published the text and analysis of the Istanbul Communiqué and the draft agreement in order to undermine Putin’s suggestion of future negotiations based on these past ones. It seems, instead, to offer further evidence that, though peace was not yet accomplished, had the West encouraged the negotiations, a remarkable start had been made at the beginning of the war. It also seems to add further evidence that Putin was serious about diplomacy and that the West was serious about blocking it.

Ted Snider is a regular columnist on U.S. 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. To support his work or for media or virtual presentation requests, contact him at tedsnider@bell.net.