New Delhi: With peace talks underway in Turkey and Russian advances stalled in Ukraine’s capital Kyiv as well as in southern areas like Mykolaiv, there appears to be a glimmer of hope in what has been referred to as Europe’s “darkest hours since World War II”.
The first three to four weeks of Russian invasion — met with immediate sanctions from the West — was marked by frightening visuals of Ukrainians fleeing their country, administrative and residential buildings crumbling to the ground, mothers sheltering infants from shrapnel blasts, air strikes on maternity hospitals and frantic evacuation efforts of foreign nationals.
It’s not to say that these circumstances have changed for the better or eased in any way (see Mariupol) but week five of the war has offered the world some hope that there is an end in sight.
On Tuesday, Ukrainian and Russian officials came to the negotiating table in Istanbul. Kyiv offered “military neutrality” — i.e., casting aside its hopes of joining NATO, a key demand of Moscow — and was even willing to negotiate Russian territorial claims, in exchange for a security guarantee from a select group of countries. But it’s unclear who could be included in this group. It could be a range of nations such as Israel and NATO members like the US, UK or Turkey. Some reports say even Russia could be included.
The message from Zelenskyy was this: Fine, we won’t join NATO but if we’re attacked again, we want security guarantees as strong as those enshrined in NATO’s Article 5 doctrine of collective defense.
The talks we saw this week appeared far more fruitful than when foreign ministers of Russia and Ukraine met in Turkey’s Antalya on 10 March to discuss a 24-hour ceasefire. “No progress” was the soundbite from that meeting.
Could the latest round mark the beginning of the end of a conflict that has kept the world on edge for over a month now? The fact that we’re able to ask that question is why the Istanbul talks — that give ‘hope’ amid war — is ThePrint Newsmaker of the Week.
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Peace talks and proposals
While Ukraine did say it is willing to forsake its ambitions to join NATO, it’s not exactly rolling over. Ukrainian negotiators also proposed a 15-year consultation over the fate of Crimea. This will no doubt be a sticking point as it basically communicates — “Hey, we didn’t forget what you did in 2014”. Also, Moscow not opposing Ukraine joining the European Union is another one of Kyiv’s proposals.
What could be a touchy topic between Ukraine and its Western allies, however, is the viability of the security guarantee Kyiv is so keen on. One thing we know for sure is that US President Joe Biden doesn’t want to invite even the prospect of World War 3 and perhaps neither do his counterparts in Europe.
Ian Bond, a former UK diplomat and head of foreign policy for the Center for European Reform, told The New York Times that so far none of the countries Ukraine wants to guarantee its security would agree to do so. “It would be like NATO membership with collective defense by another name — so highly unlikely,” Bond was quoted as saying.
Greece’s former deputy foreign minister Yiannis Valinakis also told Al Jazeera: “In terms of international legal norms, it is absolutely unacceptable that stronger powers violate international borders and dictate their terms to the weaker side.”
Then there’s also the question of whether the Kremlin will accept the idea of such a security guarantee.
At the talks in Istanbul, Russia stuck to its standard demands: demilitarisation, what Russia has referred to as “de-nazification”, and the protection of the Russian language in Ukraine. It must have also been somewhat satisfying for Moscow to hear the UK government’s recent announcement that it would lift all sanctions in the event of “a full ceasefire and withdrawal”.
A permanent ceasefire would only be decided once Zelenskyy and Putin are willing to meet, however, this could take time. Reports have said Putin felt positions on the “strategic issues” of Crimea and Donbas were not close enough for a meeting.
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Battlefield now ‘static’
When the war began, analysts were quick to make military comparisons between Russia’s 900,000-strong standing military versus Ukraine’s 200,000. It wouldn’t be a “fair fight”, some said. “Ukraine has will, but Russia has might,” said others.
But today, we see a stiffer-than-expected resistance from Ukrainian forces. Some Russian units suffered heavy losses and retreated to Belarus as well. The UK’s defence ministry went as far as to say Sunday that the “battlefield across northern Ukraine remains largely static” and that fighting appears to have ground to a stalemate.
After the talks in Istanbul, some analysts noticed that Russia’s promise to reduce fighting mostly covered areas where it has been “losing ground”. Let’s not forget how a 64 km-long Russian convoy was stalled last month after troops faced food shortages and low morale. Pretty embarrassing for the world’s second-most powerful military.
The headlines today have dramatically changed. Some media houses compared the Ukraine war to Finland’s impressive offences against the Soviet Union in 1939. The War That Showed Us How an Underdog Can Beat the Russian Army, read a Daily Beast headline.
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Skepticism over Russia’s promises
The talks in Istanbul were refreshing, given we’ve seen how Ukrainian and Russian ambassadors traded barbs at the UN in late February with the former reminding that war criminals go “straight to hell”.
Zachary Paikin, researcher at Belgium-based Center for European Policy Studies, also noted a change in tone from both Kyiv and Moscow during the recent talks. He told Al Jazeera it was “encouraging” to see “both sides tailor their language a little more carefully”.
But Russia’s promise to withdraw forces from Kyiv and the northern city of Chernihiv, has been met with skepticism. According to the Pentagon, this isn’t a ‘withdrawal’ but repositioning.
As the talks progress, it will be difficult to say whether Moscow sticks to what it says. In a previous Newsmaker of the Week, I wrote of Putin’s diplomatic bluff when he had promised to withdraw troops just a week before he greenlighted the invasion into Ukraine. More recently, Moscow had promised to create humanitarian corridors in Mariupol but that hasn’t been implemented and now the city is under siege.
For now, there is hope amid war. The end may not be near but at least it is in sight.
Views are personal.