Gerard Toal: Talks kindle hope of peace in Ukraine but suspicions remain

Many Ukrainians fear that Russia is using the talks to regroup and resupply its forces

This week saw a glimmer of hope amidst the dark backdrop of the relentlessly brutal Russian invasion of Ukraine. Russian and Ukrainian negotiators met face to face in Istanbul on Tuesday for the first time in more than two weeks. The signs that emerged were mixed. Initial reports suggested some progress toward compromise and a negotiated settlement.

Ukrainian officials indicated a willingness to formally make their country neutral. The Russian delegation dropped talk of the “denazification” of Ukraine. But a day later Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov indicated there was nothing “too promising” in the discussions.

The obstacles to progress are considerable. For a start, suspicions about the negotiating process run deep. Many Ukrainians fear that Russia is using the talks to regroup and resupply its forces. Spinning its failure to take Kyiv as a feint, the Russian military announced last Friday that it was refocusing "its core efforts on the main goal, the liberation of the Donbas".

The sudden death of an member of Ukraine’s earlier negotiating team and alleged poisoning of Roman Abramovich suggests that intense intrigue surrounds the process.


The record of Ukrainian valour and Russian brutality over the last five weeks makes compromise more difficult to contemplate

Negotiations are currently state to state, but many other parties have stakes in the outcome. Ukraine’s success in enlisting Nato and the European Union as supporting partners in its fight against Russian aggression gives it confidence. But this wartime bond brings interdependence and cross cutting pressures of various kinds.

The longer the war endures the more difficult “standing with Ukraine” becomes if this is experienced as rising energy costs, further inflation and refugee integration challenges. A different concern is whether Western powers will go along with whatever the Ukrainian government believes it needs to end the war. Will the EU accelerate Ukraine’s membership drive? Who will pay for reconstruction and return? Will the West lift economic sanctions against Russia if the fate of a peace settlement in Ukraine requires it? And will those who pushed lobbied for Ukraine to join Nato simply stop?

The course of the war itself is a potential obstacle to peace. As we all know, the performance of the Ukrainian military has greatly exceeded expectations. Their members have fought with courage, skill and tenacity, and inflected heavy losses on Russia’s military. Russia has not only failed to seize Kyiv, but it has managed to take only one major Ukrainian city. The Russian military has turned to standoff destruction of those it failed to take, a policy of indiscriminate and terrorizing “rubblization”.

Gone is any desire to win the "hearts and minds" of ordinary Ukrainians. Russia's strategy has normalised the deliberate targeting of residential areas and civilian infrastructure, and provoked the United Nations Human Rights Council on Wednesday to open a war crimes investigation against it.

The record of Ukrainian valour and Russian brutality over the last five weeks makes compromise more difficult to contemplate. Some believe the Ukrainians are winning and should not stop until Russia is firmly defeated.

The details of the most contentious issues themselves compound the challenge. Ukraine has suggested it is willing to consider neutrality on two conditions, that it receives security guarantees from Western states and that this passes in a nation-wide referendum. Both greatly complicate this issue.

What Ukraine wants is for states to sign up to a declaration that they will intervene militarily on its behalf should it be invaded again. In effect, Ukraine is calling for a stronger security guarantee than Nato membership. Article V of the Nato Treaty does not mandate that states respond militarily if a fellow Nato member is attacked but simply that it will assist those attacked by taking “such action as it deems necessary” to “restore and maintain the security of the North Atlantic area”.

Refocusing military efforts on 'liberating' the Donbas is part of Russia's justification for the war crimes it has committed against the Donetsk port city of Mariupol

US officials were surprised by this demand from Ukraine. It is not a realistic strategic idea. Similarly, putting the question of Ukraine’s neutrality to a referendum undermines the prospect of a stable settlement.

The most intractable issues in the negotiations are the territorial disputes over Crimea and the Donbas. Crimea would seem the easier question in as much as its absorption into Russia is now an established reality. However, Crimea is still recognized by the international community as part of the territory of Ukraine. The referendum there in March 2014 was illegal under international law and badly flawed as an exercise in democratic self-determination.

But violence was minimal in Crimea in 2014. An estimated 200,000 Ukrainians fled the peninsula because of the annexation but many more have subsequently moved there from Russia.

Political repression is a reality in Crimea as it is across Russia. In public opinion research with colleagues there in December 2014 and 2019, we found that a solid majority of respondents welcomed what they framed as the reunification of Crimea with Russia. This is the Crimea conundrum: an act that has no legitimacy internationally yet has strong legitimacy locally.

Crimea, however, remains an anger point for most Ukrainians, a marker of their victimisation at the hands of Russian imperialism. As Irish people know all too well, perceptions of territorial loss are powerful and last a long time.

The Donbas is a much messier issue than Crimea. Comprising the provinces of Luhansk and Donetsk, it held approximately six and a half million people before the outbreak of war, a war instigated by Russian proxy actors.

The horror, brutality and manifest criminality of the prosecution of the war have only radicalised matters further

Thereafter the Russian state funded and supported two “people’s republics” – the Luhansk People’s Republic and the Donetsk People’s Republic– on roughly a third of the territory of the Donbas. Putin’s decision to recognize these entities as independent states, and free them from a supposed threat of “genocide”, was integral to his decision to invade Ukraine.

Refocusing military efforts on “liberating” the Donbas is part of Russia’s justification for the war crimes it has committed against the Donetsk port city of Mariupol. It has also destroyed other towns in the Donbas as it “liberates” them. So far it has not fully taken any, though Mariupol’s fall may only be a matter of time.

Do the people of the Donbas want to be liberated? In research my colleagues and I organised in January 2022 on both sides of the line of control in the Donbas, there was little to no popular support for independence for the two people’s republics among those we surveyed. The political divide is between those who favour annexation by Russia and those who do not. All are war weary.

Recently the leaders of both Russian proxy states declared an intention to hold referenda on whether their entities should join Russia. If the Russian military seizes all of the territory of the Donbas and organises referenda there, the results will be preordained.

If a legitimate internationally-supervised referendum were ever organised by the United Nations, one that allowed the millions displaced from the area to also vote, it is doubtful that a majority would vote to join Russia. Even those previously sympathetic are now hostile. Shelling those you claim to be liberating does that.

Already forced to think about conceding Crimea, it is exceedingly difficult for many Ukrainians to also accept that they will lose the Donbas too. Yet that might be the reality they have to face, unjust as it is. In public opinion polling in December 2021, Ukrainians were asked what they would like and what they expected about the future of those parts of the Donbas not under Ukrainian control.

Three quarters wanted these areas returned to Ukrainian control but less than a majority expected that this would happen. More territory seized in the most brutal manner possible will only inflame the sense of injustice involved.

In sum, we can only hope that the Ukraine-Russia negotiations will end this infernal war soon. The issues were difficult and intractable before the war. But the horror, brutality and manifest criminality of the prosecution of the war have only radicalised matters further.

Russia’s invasion has demolished Ukrainian cities and European optimism. We must live with some hard realities and accept that distasteful compromises are required. But we should never forget or forgive Putin’s war.

Gerard Toal is Professor of Government and International Affairs at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University