Did the UK torpedo peace talks on Ukraine?
by Ian Sinclair
12 November 2022
Since 1976 the award-winning US media watchdog Project Censored has printed an annual list of the most under-reported news stories in the US media – the “news that didn’t make the news”.
Should someone start publishing a similar book about the UK media, the top under-reported story of 2022 will almost certainly be the news the UK government worked to prevent a negotiated settlement to the Ukraine war in March-April 2022.
Here’s what we know.
Following Russia’s aggressive and illegal invasion of Ukraine on 24 February, in March Ukrainian and Russian negotiators met in Istanbul for talks. On 17 March a Sky News headline summarised: “‘15-point’ peace deal being ‘seriously discussed’ as Putin says he’s ‘ready to talk’”.
The deal included “a ceasefire and a Russian withdrawal, with Kyiv having to accept neutrality and curbs on its armed forces,” the report noted. “Citing three sources involved in the negotiations, the FT [Financial Times] said Ukraine would have to give up its bid to join NATO – something Mr Zelenskyy has already hinted at.”
“It would also have to promise not to allow foreign military bases or weaponry into the country in exchange for protection from allies such as the US, UK and Turkey.”
Quoted in a 20 March Al-Jazeera report, Turkish foreign minister Mevlut Cavusoglu stated “We see that the parties are close to an agreement”.
This is also the conclusion of Fiona Hill, a Russia specialist in the Bush and Obama Administrations, and Angela Stent, an ex-Intelligence Officer for Russia and Eurasia at the US National Intelligence Council. Writing in the September/October issue of the establishment Foreign Affairs magazine after having spoken to “multiple former senior US officials”, they note “Russian and Ukrainian negotiators appeared to have tentatively agreed on the outlines of a negotiated interim settlement” in April 2022. “Russia would withdraw to its position on February 23, where 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.”
However, in May the Ukrainian online newspaper Ukrainska Pravda, citing “sources close to [Ukrainian President Volodymyr] Zelenskyy,” reported UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson “appeared in the capital [Kyiv] almost without warning” on 9 April, bringing “two simple messages.”
“The first is that [Russian President Vladimir] 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.”
According to the Ukrainska Pravda – described by Encyclopædia Britannica as “one of Ukraine’s most-respected news sites” – “Johnson’s position was that the collective West, which back in February had suggested Zelenskyy should surrender and flee, now felt that Putin was not really as powerful as they had previously imagined, and that here was a chance to ‘press him.’”
Three days after Johnson returned to the UK Putin said the talks “had turned into a dead end”. In September Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov asserted that “the Americans and the British… forbade Ukraine to conduct further dialogue with Russia” and “since then, the Ukrainian authorities have been shying away from negotiation process.”
Of course, hopefully it goes without saying we should be highly sceptical of public statement from Putin and Lavrov, especially about their willingness to seriously pursue a negotiated settlement. And it should also be noted that the Ukrainska Pravda also reported that Russian atrocities in Bucha and other locations in Ukraine affected the course of the peace talks.
But as the Morning Star is a British newspaper, and as I am a British citizen, let’s get back to the actions of the UK and the US. Johnson publicly confirmed his opposition to talks during a trip to India later in April, telling reporters that negotiating with Putin was like dealing with “a crocodile when it’s got your leg in its jaws,” according to Reuters.
Why did the UK government try to torpedo the peace talks? The answer likely lies in the references above to the “collective West” and the opportunity to “press” Putin. As Leon Panetta, the director of the CIA under President Barack Obama, explained in March: the conflict is “a proxy war with Russia whether we say so or not.”
This fits with comments made by US Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin at a press conference in Poland in late April. Asked whether the US aims had shifted since February, he replied the US supported Ukraine in retaining its sovereignty and defending its territory, before adding a second, previously unstated, goal: “We want to see Russia weakened to the degree that it can’t do the kinds of things that it has done in invading Ukraine.”
Hal Brands, the Henry Kissinger Distinguished Professor at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies, concurs with this “proxy war” framing, writing in May that “For NATO, the payoff has been damaging some of the most important parts of the Russian military – its ground and mechanized forces, its airborne units, its special operations forces – so badly that it may take them years to recover.”
However, while the West has continued to ramp up their military support for Ukraine, there are increasing calls for the US – and UK – to change their position and make a serious diplomatic push for peace negotiations.
Commenting on Russia’s repeated threats to use nuclear weapons, in October Admiral Mike Mullen, chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff under presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama, told ABC News “We’re about at the top of the language scale, if you will. And I think we need to back off that a little bit and do everything we possibly can to try to get to the table to resolve this thing… the sooner the better, as far as I’m concerned.”
Speaking to Newsweek magazine about President Biden’s comment that he was “trying to figure out what is Putin’s offramp”, a “senior intelligence officer” said “We have the power to influence how that offramp might work. I’m not comfortable criticizing a president, as if I’m some partisan animal, but we are just not doing enough.”
A “senior military source” quoted by Financial Times columnist Gideon Rachman last month made the same point: “Military action is ineffective on its own. It’s only truly effective when it’s combined with economic and diplomatic efforts. And we’re not seeing enough diplomacy.”
Tellingly, I didn’t find out about Johnson attempting to block peace negotiations from the UK’s famously stroppy and disputatious Fourth Estate but from small, progressive publications and writers – namely Milan Rai at Peace News and Branko Marcetic from Jacobin magazine.
With the war dangerously escalating and President Biden warning the world is the closest it’s been to nuclear “Armageddon” since the Cuban missile crisis, concerned citizens simply cannot afford to rely on the mainstream media to gain an accurate understanding of the world.
Follow Ian on Twitter @IanJSinclair.