Peace talks between Ukraine and Russia have been frozen since July, and there’s no indication they’re about to restart. However, evidence has emerged that talks in early April bore fruit – only to be scuttled by the Prime Minister Boris Johnson.
On 8th April (shortly after Russian forces withdrew from Kiev) Johnson made a “surprise visit” to Ukraine’s capital, where he met with President Zelensky. At the meeting, Johnson pledged his “unwavering support” to Ukraine and promised another $130 million worth of “sophisticated weaponry”.
Yet according to Ukrainska Pravda (a pro-Western newspaper in Ukraine) pledging support wasn’t the only reason for Johnson’s visit. “Sources close to Zelenskyy” told the newspaper that Johnson was an “obstacle” to peace talks because he’d brought “two simple messages”.
The first is that Putin is a war criminal, he should be pressured, not negotiated with. And the second is that even if Ukraine is ready to sign some agreements on guarantees with Putin, they are not. Johnson’s position was that the collective West … now felt that Putin was not really as powerful as they had previously imagined, and that here was a chance to “press him.”
This was reported back in May, and was hardly mentioned (if it all) in Western media – perhaps because of scepticism about its veracity.
According to multiple former senior U.S. officials we spoke with, in April 2022, Russian and Ukrainian negotiators appeared to have tentatively agreed on the outlines of a negotiated interim settlement: Russia would withdraw to its position on February 23, when it controlled part of the Donbas region and all of Crimea, and in exchange, Ukraine would promise not to seek NATO membership and instead receive security guarantees from a number of countries.
In the end, of course, no such agreement was reached. But the timing suggests it was Johnson’s visit that scuppered the talks.
As the writer Branko Marcetic notes, this interpretation is bolstered by a Washington Post article from the end of March, which described a “mixed” US reaction: “Secretary of State Antony Blinken expressed skepticism about the talks in Turkey, saying Moscow’s continued military offensive leaves little room for optimism.”
Did Johnson scuttle the talks because he and his American counterparts had concluded, after Ukraine’s initial success on the battlefield, that Putin could be beaten? It’s a real possibility.
However, we should remain sceptical for the time being. Both pro-Russian and pro-Ukrainian commentators have expressed doubt that the “tentative” agreement would have led anywhere. According to writer Anatoly Karlin, a Russian nationalist: “all negotiations fake until proven otherwise”.
In addition, Ukrainska Pravda mentions another “obstacle” to talks aside from Johnson’s visit: “the revelation of the atrocities” committed by Russian forces. So even if there was an agreement, Johnson’s visit may not have been the crucial factor that nullified it.
Nonetheless, the possibility that war could have been over by April if not for the actions of Britain’s Prime Minister is certainly alarming – particularly given the ongoing energy crisis. New revelations may yet emerge, so watch this space.
Stop Press: According to a longer article in Ukrainska Pravda, Johnson said, “if you are ready to sign any agreements on guarantees with him, then we are not. We can with you, but not with him, he will still abandon everyone”. This suggests Johnson was also concerned that Russia would not respect the agreement.