The Sticking Points That Kept Russia and Ukraine Apart

Russia and Ukraine failed to agree on a range of critical issues when they held peace talks in the spring of 2022. Documents from those talks obtained by The New York Times shed new light on what those issues were — and what are likely to be the main sticking points in any future negotiations to end Europe’s biggest land war in generations.

President Vladimir V. Putin had referred to the 2022 talks as a foundation for any future deal, but shifted to a harder line on Friday, demanding Ukraine cede territory that is not even under Russian control. Ukrainian and Western officials have long suspected that Russia would not be willing to settle for anything less than the full subjugation of Ukraine.

1. Ukrainian neutrality:
Will it join NATO?

Ukraine’s efforts to join the Western military alliance were at the core of Mr. Putin’s justifications for invading the country in February 2022.

Russia’s Position

Russia demanded that Ukraine never join NATO or other alliances; host foreign military bases or weapons; or conduct military exercises with other countries without its consent. In the 2022 talks, Russia pledged not to stand in the way of Ukraine’s possible membership in the European Union.

Ukraine’s Position

Ukraine offered to become a “permanently neutral state” and to “terminate international treaties and agreements that are incompatible with permanent neutrality.” But in the two years since, Ukraine’s leaders have become more vocal about seeking to join the Western military alliance as Russia’s war has continued.

2. Security guarantees:
What happens if Ukraine is attacked again?

Pledges from other countries to protect Ukraine if Russia mounts another invasion are bound to be at the center of any durable peace, some experts say.

Ukraine’s Position

Ukraine proposed a security mechanism that would be triggered “in the event of an armed attack on Ukraine.” The “guarantor” countries that signed on to the treaty would hold “urgent and immediate consultations” for no more than three days. Then, they would take “individual or joint action as may be necessary” to protect Ukraine, including establishing a no-fly zone, providing weapons and using military force.

Russia’s Position

Russia agreed to much of Ukraine’s security guarantees proposal but with key exceptions. It balked at the idea of other countries establishing a no-fly zone or providing Ukraine with weapons. Most important, Russia sought to insert a clause that would require all guarantor countries — including Russia itself — to agree on military intervention. The idea stands as perhaps the most intractable sticking point in the draft, rendering the security guarantees moot by allowing Russia to veto any international response if it invaded Ukraine again.

There was also a question: What countries would actually be willing to guarantee Ukraine’s security? The United States, the U.K., France, China and Russia itself were all listed in the draft of the treaty as guarantors. Russia also wanted to include Belarus, while Ukraine wanted to add Turkey; it’s unclear whether the countries had given their assent. If Ukraine eventually joins NATO, the Western alliance will have to deal with similarly thorny issues about how to respond if Ukraine is attacked again.

3. Territory:
How much of Ukraine would remain under Russian occupation?

For Ukraine, a peace deal would be likely to come at the expense of accepting Russian control over some part of its territory.

Ukraine’s Position

In the 2022 talks, Ukraine refused to recognize Russian control over any of the country, including Crimea, which Russia illegally annexed in 2014. But Ukraine did offer a deal in which the two countries would agree to “resolve issues related to Crimea” through 10 or 15 years of diplomacy, and would pledge to avoid doing so by “military means.”

Ukraine appeared ready to accept some swath of the country’s east also remaining under Russian occupation, with the precise contours to be hashed out in a meeting between President Volodymyr Zelensky and Mr. Putin that never came.

Mr. Zelensky’s position has since hardened. He says Ukraine is fighting to liberate all internationally recognized territory, including Crimea, under Russian control.

Russia’s Position

Russia’s stance has also fluctuated. At the outset of the 2022 negotiations, Russia demanded that Ukraine give up its entire eastern Donbas region and recognize Russian sovereignty over Crimea. By April, Russia had accepted a model in which Crimea and some other parts of Ukraine would remain under Russian occupation that Ukraine would not recognize as being legal.

Now, however, Russia’s territorial demands appear more extreme. In September 2022, Mr. Putin declared four Ukrainian regions, in addition to Crimea, to be part of Russia, even though Ukraine still controlled much of that territory. On Friday, Mr. Putin went further than in the past, declaring that any ceasefire would be contingent on Ukraine ceding all four regions to Russia, none of which Russia fully controls.

4. How would a cease-fire work?

The logistics of how to put a truce into effect are likely to pose one of the most difficult challenges of any negotiations.

Russia’s Position

An annex to the April 2022 draft added by Russia’s negotiators spelled out how Moscow saw a cease-fire taking hold. They said it would begin when the treaty was “provisionally applied” — defined as the day it was signed by Ukraine and most of the guarantor countries, including Russia. Both sides would not “carry out actions that could lead to the expansion of the territory controlled by them or cause a resumption of hostilities.”

Under Russia’s proposed terms, Moscow’s troops would have more flexibility in withdrawing from the battlefield. While Ukraine would be required to withdraw immediately, Russia’s withdrawal would be the subject of separate “consultations.”

International organizations could also be involved. Russia proposed that the United Nations monitor the cease-fire and that the Red Cross participate in the exchange of prisoners of war, interned civilians and the remains of the dead.

Ukraine’s Position

The April 2022 draft shows that Ukraine rejected Russia’s proposal but does not show a Ukrainian counteroffer. Instead, Ukrainian officials pointed out that Russia could stop fighting at any time. A note inserted by Ukrainian officials into the March 2022 treaty draft says: “The Russian side has ignored Ukraine’s numerous requests for a ceasefire.”

5. Ukrainian national identity

When Mr. Putin announced his invasion on Feb. 24, 2022, he described one of his goals as the “denazification” of Ukraine. The term was widely interpreted as referring to the Kremlin’s goal of toppling Mr. Zelensky’s government and replacing it with a puppet regime.

Russia’s Position

But Russia’s definition of “denazification” shifted quickly after its initial invasion failed. Negotiators for Moscow wanted Russian to be declared an official language and laws promoting Ukrainian language and identity to be repealed. They inserted two annexes into the draft treaty listing the articles of the legal code and Ukrainian Constitution that they wanted repealed, referring to some of them as laws on “nazification and heroization of Nazism.”

Ukraine’s Position

Ukraine balked at including any of Russia’s demands in a deal to end the war, arguing that they were “not related to the subject matter of the treaty.”

6. Limits on Ukraine’s military

Mr. Putin also called for Ukraine’s “demilitarization” when he announced his invasion, like “denazification” an ill-defined term.

Russia’s Position

Russia sought caps on the size of Ukraine’s military, including its total strength (up to 100,000 people), and the quantity of different types of weapons it would have — 147 mortars and 10 combat helicopters, for example. It also wanted the firing range of Ukraine’s missiles to be restricted to just 25 miles.

Ukraine’s Position

In the 2022 talks, Ukraine was willing to accept caps on the size of its military, but much higher ones. It sought an army of up to 250,000 people, 1,080 mortars and 60 combat helicopters. And it offered to restrict the range of its missiles to 174 miles. But that was before Ukraine began to receive significant amounts of arms, equipment and training from the West. Ukrainian officials point out that Ukraine’s military is now one of the most powerful in Europe, and it is unlikely that they would accept limits on the country’s ability to defend itself.

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