Putin needs to be able to claim victory to the Russian public

Hard to assess Ukraine-Russia negotiations but it is a positive sign they are continuing

It is extremely difficult to assess what exactly is going on in the negotiations to end the appalling bloodshed in Ukraine. The conflicting perspectives of the protagonists, as well as disinformation and confidentiality, add to the difficulty. It is not even certain that Russia, in particular, is seriously interested in a negotiated outcome. Some leaks from the talks appear to be little more than a set of Russian demands.

However, although it is hard to be optimistic, it is a good sign that talks seem to be continuing. The best outcome would obviously be a diplomatic one.

As in any negotiation, both sides will need to be able to claim a successful outcome. As neither Ukraine nor the international community will allow Russia’s unprovoked flouting of international law or its flagrant atrocities to be seen to pay, the Putin regime – if there is to be any agreement – will have to be satisfied with claiming victory in front of its own public. That should not prove an insuperable problem given Putin’s further ramped up control of state media and repression of all dissent.

Some elements of a possible agreement can perhaps be discerned.

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For President Volodymyr Zelenskiy, a ceasefire and a commitment to the early withdrawal of Russian forces is a natural and necessary precondition.

The explicit basis of Putin's war was his insistence that Ukraine had no right to exist as an independent country

From Russia’s point of view, Zelenskiy’s apparent acceptance that Ukraine will not join Nato and will remain militarily neutral can certainly be sold as a positive in Moscow. At the same time, it is worth noting that no reasonable person can now doubt why Ukraine wished to join Nato, why Poland and the Baltic republics were so right to do so, or why a large majority in Sweden and Finland now aspire to Nato membership.

The Ukrainian president is rightly insisting that, if his country is to be militarily neutral, it must have very firm security guarantees. Reported Russian comments suggest acceptance in principle of that requirement. The detail would, however, be very tricky since guarantees from Russia itself, or any guarantees over which it would have a veto, would be worthless. Meaningful guarantees would have to involve Nato countries to ensure protection for Ukraine if its sovereignty and democracy were to come under attack again in the future.

An interesting public comment in the context of the negotiations was the lead Russian negotiator’s recent indication that Ukraine might be accorded a status akin to that of Sweden or Austria. Of course, this needs to be taken with a large pinch of salt from the Siberian salt mines. The explicit basis of Putin’s war was his insistence that Ukraine had no right to exist as an independent country.

Describing the Ukrainian government as “Nazis and drug addicts”, Putin’s core aims included extending Greater Russia, bringing Ukraine under his thumb and installing a pro-Russian puppet government along the lines of that of his soulmate in Belarus, President Alexander Lukashenko. If Russia does now truly accept that Ukraine could have a status similar to that of Sweden – and Zelenskiy could hardly accept anything less – that would mean acceptance of Ukraine’s existence, independence, democracy and, crucially, its western orientation, conceivably including, in the long run, membership of the European Union.

International public opinion will hardly accept that Russia can wreak havoc on a peaceful neighbour and then simply walk off into the sunset as if nothing had happened

There are many other matters to be determined in the negotiations. The status of those parts of Ukraine that Russia occupied both before and since its invasion will have to be addressed. Putin wants to annex permanently not only the Crimean Peninsula, and Luhansk and Donetsk, but probably significant additional further tracts of Ukrainian territory that he has occupied illegally in recent weeks. Ukraine is not militarily capable of ejecting Russia from those regions, but Russia is likewise incapable of forcing Ukraine to recognise its occupation. Any deal seems likely to reflect both some continued de facto Russian occupation as well as Ukraine’s continued insistence on the de jure, and internationally recognised, sovereignty of all its territory.

It has been suggested that Russia might ask for the lifting of sanctions in the context of any negotiated settlement. This seems highly unlikely to be agreed. International public opinion will hardly accept that Russia can wreak havoc on a peaceful neighbour and then simply walk off into the sunset as if nothing had happened; without even paying reparations. The continued illegal occupation of parts of Ukraine will also influence the long-term maintenance of sanctions. Sanctions will also play a part in seeking to guarantee Putin’s future behaviour in Ukraine. Any attempt to impose a puppet government in Kyiv, or otherwise to undermine Ukrainian democracy, would copper-fasten the sanctions long into the future.

Moreover, the effective kidnapping of Mariupol citizens by sending them to distant Russian cities, the grotesque threat to treat Ukrainian combatants as “traitors”, and the risk of an eventual assassination attempt against Zelenskiy mean it is far too early to consider lifting any sanctions.

For now, the shape of any agreement between Russia and Ukraine is necessarily speculative. However, what is clear is that President Zelenskiy himself, with the overwhelming support of his people, will decide what compromises his country is prepared to make. He knows that the people of Ukraine do not wish to live under the type of regime that has been on full display in Putin’s Russia in recent weeks. Even if our knowledge thus far of the negotiations is tentative, this core aspiration, if there is any agreement, will be vindicated.