A long road ahead for a diplomatic end to the crisis in Ukraine

The confusion about the intentions of the Russian military has not been helped by the latest western intelligence reports

Russian Presidential Aide Vladimir Medinsky, left, and the head of the Ukrainian Servant of the People faction Davyd Arakhamia pose for media during talks between Russian and Ukrainian delegations in Dolmabahce Palace, Istanbul, on March 29. Ukrainian Foreign Ministry Press Service via AP

With the Ukraine conflict having entered its second month, it is little wonder that any glimmer of a peace deal receives an enthusiastic response.

This was certainly the case following this week’s round of talks in Istanbul between teams of Russian and Ukrainian negotiators, who appeared to suggest that progress was being made in efforts to end the fighting.

Following weeks of intensive shuttle diplomacy involving Russian, Ukrainian and Turkish officials, the talks seemed to make headway after Ukrainian negotiators offered a detailed peace proposal to their Russian counterparts, in which they said they were prepared to exchange military neutrality in return for security guarantees.

At the heart of the conflict between Moscow and Kyiv is the problematic issue of the Ukrainian government’s often-expressed desire to forge closer ties with Europe. In particular, the government of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy wants to join the Nato alliance, a move that is bitterly opposed by Moscow which, rightly or wrongly, regards Ukraine as falling within its traditional sphere of influence.

As part of its offer to end the fighting, Ukraine now appears to be suggesting that it is prepared to accept the principle of neutrality, whereby, in return for agreeing not to sign up to Nato, it receives guarantees as to its future independence and sovereignty.

The Ukrainian suggestion, which has been openly discussed in Kyiv in recent weeks, certainly appeared to prompt a positive response from the Russian side, which responded by announcing that it would “drastically reduce” military activity near the Ukrainian cities of Kyiv and Chernihiv in order to “increase mutual trust and create the necessary conditions for further negotiations”.

But while the outcome of the Istanbul talks prompted a rare moment of optimism among world leaders that there might be an opportunity to establish a ceasefire, deep skepticism about Moscow’s ultimate intentions means that Russia’s offer to de-escalate its actions against the Ukrainian capital will be ultimately judged by its actions on the ground, rather than the pledges it has offered at the negotiating table.

Certainly, from Mr Zelenskyy’s perspective, the Russians still have a lot of work to do to convince the Ukrainian government that they are serious about reducing their military activity.

Speaking shortly after the Istanbul talks concluded, in a video address to the nation, Mr Zelenskyy was dismissive of Moscow’s offer to de-escalate the fighting. “We don’t believe any one, not a single beautiful phrase,” he said of the Russian offer.

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From Zelenskyy’s perspective, the Russians have a lot of work to do to convince the Ukrainian government that they are serious about reducing their military activity

On the contrary, he suggested the Russian military, which has suffered badly at the hands of the western-backed Ukrainians, is simply taking advantage of the peace talks to regroup its forces, with the aim of strengthening its assault on the eastern Donbas region of the country. "We will not give anything away. We will fight for every metre of our territory," Mr Zelenskyy said.

The Ukrainian leader’s rejection of the Russian offer, moreover, appeared to be justified by the actions of the Russian military deployed close to the Ukrainian capital, which has continued its shelling of targets around Kyiv in spite of Moscow’s pledge to de-escalate, although US military officials did suggest that the Russians were beginning to pull out of the defunct Chernobyl site, north of the capital.

A Ukrainian service member plays with a dog, as Russia's attack on Ukraine continues, in the town of Irpin, outside Kyiv, on March 28. Reuters

The confusion surrounding the intentions of the Russian military has not been helped by the latest western intelligence reports, which suggest that Russian President Vladimir Putin is unaware of the true nature of the difficulties the Russian military is experiencing, following his decision to invade Ukraine on February 24.

According to declassified US intelligence reports, there is mounting evidence that Mr Putin feels he has been “misled” by his military leaders, who have failed to inform him about the numerous setbacks his campaign in Ukraine has been suffering. As an example, a US official claimed that the Russian leader “didn’t even know his military was using and losing conscripts”, believing that the bulk of the Russian military was comprised of full-time service personnel. Washington believes that the Kremlin is suffering from “a clear breakdown in the flow of accurate information".

Concerns about Mr Putin’s ability to control what he has described as Russia’s “special military operation” in Ukraine have also been expressed by Sir Jeremy Fleming, the head of Britain’s GCHQ communications spy network. In a speech in Australia, Sir Jeremy claimed that Mr Putin’s advisers were “afraid to tell him the truth”. As a result, Mr Putin had “overestimated the abilities of his military to secure a rapid victory”.

The suggestion that all is not going well for Mr Putin so far as his Ukraine adventure is concerned appears to be confirmed by reports that the Russian leader has launched a purge of several senior military and intelligence personnel.

Early in March, Oleksiy Danilov, chairman of Russia’s National Security Council, quoted intelligence sources saying that Mr Putin had sacked at least eight generals over losses in the invasion. In addition, the Russian media has reported the dismissal of Gen Roman Gavrilov, the deputy head of the National Guard, which is supposed to bear responsibility for maintaining security in Russia, but has suffered heavy losses fighting in Ukraine. According to the Bellingcat investigative website, Gen Gavrilov was dismissed for leaking military intelligence that “led to loss of life”.

With reports also surfacing that Mr Putin has dismissed several prominent intelligence officials, including Col Gen Sergei Beseda, head of the foreign intelligence branch of the FSB, there is mounting evidence that Mr Putin is striving hard to maintain his control over the military operation in Ukraine.

Assessing just how much influence Mr Putin exercises over the Ukraine mission is crucial because when it comes to diplomatic efforts to end the crisis, working out whether Mr Putin has any serious interest in a diplomatic solution to the conflict is central to their ultimate outcome.

Published: March 31, 2022, 2:00 PM
Con Coughlin

Con Coughlin

Con Coughlin is a defence and foreign affairs columnist for The National