2022 Yearender: Are Ukraine peace talks on the cards?

Azza Radwan Sedky
Wednesday 21 Dec 2022

Could peace negotiations to end the war in Ukraine be on the verge of commencing?


Since the start of the Ukraine war in February, and for almost ten months since, the word “peace” has hardly ever been uttered. In fact, quite the contrary has been the case, and a deep-rooted vision that encompasses escalation and violent intensification has prevailed. 

But the winds are seemingly changing. US President Joe Biden has recently said that he would be willing to sit down with Russian President Vladimir Putin “to see what he has in mind.” 

French President Emmanuel Macron has also said he will speak to the Russian president “in the coming days”. German Chancellor Olaf Scholz conducted an hour-long telephone call with the Russian leader. These are all signs of a promising turn in events, but are these inclinations genuine or are they just empty talk? Will peaceful negotiations begin soon? 

Well, it’s complicated, and although these leaders have hinted at negotiations, this certainly doesn’t mean that high-level peace talks will resume soon if at all, for the messages are becoming entangled and more jaded. The conditions for establishing a worthwhile dialogue are not evident. 

Let’s see if the prospect of negotiations is bona fide. Earlier, Kyiv and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky made it clear that negotiations with Russia were not possible “as long as Putin remains in power”. In fact, in October Zelensky signed a decree specifying Ukraine would only talk with a Putin successor, a rather far-fetched assumption on his part. 

Still, Zelensky’s earlier view has not been emphasised of late. Today, he still insists on the return of all occupied land and the prosecution of war crimes, but he neglects to mention his refusal to talk to Putin.

Besides, Kyiv says peace talks are possible, but “only if Russia stops attacking Ukrainian territory and withdraws its troops from Ukrainian soil.” Though more promising than the former stand, this is not a sign of an immediate willingness to negotiate a way out of the crisis. 

More troublingly, Kyiv has always insisted that Russia must relinquish all its territory, not only in areas seized in the current invasion but also territory in the Donbas and Crimea held by Russia since 2014. 

Thus, Zelensky will be in deep trouble if he negotiates peace terms that reward Russia with concessions, all the more so since Ukraine has driven the Russian forces back in several areas. In fact, just recently Ukrainian drone attacks hit two military bases deep inside Russia in a sign of more escalation, not peaceful negotiations. 

The Russian perspective is altogether dissimilar. Russia demands binding guarantees that Ukraine will not become a member of NATO, and according to Putin Ukraine will be “demilitarised” and “denazified”. 

On 17 November, Kremlin Spokesperson Dmitry Peskov said that “our goals are well known. These goals may be achieved either via the special military operation or via negotiations.” Asked if a meeting between Putin and Biden was possible, Lavrov responded that “we don’t shun contacts,” but added that “we haven’t yet heard any serious ideas.”

The US is wavering in a similar fashion. During a joint press conference with Macron on the latter’s recent visit to Washington, Biden said that he was willing to talk to Putin. “I’m prepared to speak with Mr Putin if in fact there is an interest in him deciding he’s looking for a way to end the war,” he said. 

Peskov immediately rejected these terms, however, asking “what did President Biden say in fact? He said that negotiations are possible only after Putin leaves Ukraine,” adding that Moscow is “certainly not ready to accept those conditions”.

This was followed by a White House confirmation regarding the improbability of such a meeting. It said that “President Joe Biden does not intend to speak to his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin, about ending the Ukraine war as conditions for such discussions currently do not exist.” 

Of all the European nations, France comes across as the most flexible on the issue. In an interview with the French TV station TF1 during his visit to the US, Macron expressed the hope that negotiations over ending the war were “still possible”.

 “Europe needs to prepare its future security architecture,” he said. “This means that one of the essential points we must address – as President Putin has always said – is the fear that NATO comes right up to its doors and the deployment of weapons that could threaten Russia.”

He was immediately blasted by Kyiv and many European leaders. 

Despite the mixed signals in the statements from all sides, there is more hope today than ever before that negotiations may be about to begin. According to the Washington Post, the US is privately encouraging Ukraine to signal an openness to negotiate with Russia. 

Late in October, the US and Russian defence chiefs spoke by telephone for the first time since May. US Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin then emphasised “the importance of maintaining lines of communication amid the ongoing war against Ukraine,” according to the US Department of Defence website. 

Then, early in November, Biden’s National Security Adviser Jack Sullivan held talks with top aides in Putin’s cabinet in order to reduce the risk of a broader conflict in Ukraine. 

Bill Burns, the CIA director, also went to Ankara in Turkey to meet his Russian counterpart to discuss the war and the possibility of de-escalation. An astonished spokesperson in Moscow confirmed the meeting by saying that “such negotiations really took place. It happened at the initiative of the American side.”  

Though all the parties, on the face of it, seem more ready to negotiate a peaceful resolution to the war, they are all, disappointingly, as adamant as ever in their desire to come out as the winner, leaving no room for strategic negotiations that would resolve the issue in a way that all the parties would find acceptable. 

Meanwhile, Ukraine remains the loser.

* The writer is former professor of communication based in Vancouver, Canada.

*A version of this article appears in print in the 22 December, 2022 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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