As Russian and Ukrainian negotiators make tentative progress on a potential peace deal, officials in Kyiv are homing in on a key pledge that the country will emerge from its invasion with a commitment from foreign countries to protect it in the future.
Mykhailo Podolyak, a senior adviser to Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky, said the discussions involve Ukraine receiving “security guarantees from a number of countries,” which would include Turkey and major nuclear powers.
In return, Russia wants Kyiv to declare neutrality and pledge not to host any foreign military bases — though it would be allowed to keep a strong army of its own.
But the proposal for security guarantees, which would be at the heart of any peace deal, has blindsided western officials, who question how it would work and whether it can be agreed between Moscow and Kyiv without commitments from the guarantors first.
“What is the rationale behind it? What are we talking about? What are the elements, what is the point where they could agree? It is unclear to me,” said one senior European diplomat.
“The arrival point is impossible. I mean it is possible but I do not understand why [the Russians] have made all this war mess up until now if this is what they want,” they added.
One person familiar with the negotiations said that Ukraine was asking for a collective security guarantee comparable to Article 5 of Nato’s founding treaty, which states that an armed attack on any one of the alliance’s members shall be considered an attack on them all.
Kyiv wants the five permanent members of the UN security council — the US, UK, France, China and Ukraine’s aggressor Russia — to act as guarantors along with Germany and Turkey.
That would commit those seven nations to sending troops to defend it in the event of a future attack.
The person conceded that the proposal would be a huge undertaking by guarantor states. If it had been in place before last month’s invasion, it would have mandated the US, UK and allies to go to war with Russia to defend Kyiv.
“By giving that kind of guarantee to Ukraine, you are agreeing to go into conflict with an aggressor,” they said, adding that the security guarantee would in itself act as a restraint. “Article 5 has proved itself as a time-tested deterrent. That’s why Russia is not messing with the Baltics.”
The suggestion of security guarantees also echoes the 1994 Budapest Memorandum, in which the US, UK and Russia gave Kyiv commitments in exchange for its relinquishing control of its stockpile of nuclear weapons. Twenty years later Russia invaded the country to annex Crimea.
“We have already learnt what Russian security guarantees are worth,” said Radek Sikorski, former defence minister of Poland.
The guarantees have “been a subject of conversation with international partners,” said one western official. “But until their terms have been set it’s very difficult to say yes or no either way” as to how they would work and which countries would provide them, the official added.
Asked whether the UK could act as a military guarantor under any potential peace deal, British defence minister Ben Wallace said on Wednesday it was necessary to discuss “the details” of any agreement rather than its rhetoric.
“I point to . . .[Sergei] Lavrov when he went to Turkey and he said ‘what am I doing here I have nothing to talk about’; this is the same Lavrov who I think is now saying ‘there is some progress’,” Wallace said, referring to Russia’s foreign minister.
Ukrainian officials have ruled out a suggestion, made by Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov of a different model, based on Austria’s constitutionally enshrined neutrality.
Austria gained its independence in 1955, after a decade of occupation by Russia and Western allied powers after the second world war. But its independence came at a high price: the country is prohibited from hosting foreign troops and entering military alliances.
Ukraine sees military pledges as the critical part of any deal.
“It’s hard to imagine how a model like [Austria] would be politically acceptable in Ukraine, particularly for the military and security establishment, given how the defence complex is such a large part of the Ukrainian economy,” said Marcus How, head of analysis at VE Insight, an Austrian and central European political risk consultancy. “I think it would go down like a cup of cold vomit.”
“I think these talks are a smokescreen; a red herring; though I don’t know to what end,” How added.
That fear was echoed by multiple western military intelligence officials, who said the Russians conceive of negotiations not as a way of ending a state of conflict, but as part of it.
“Since Soviet times the Russian idea of warfare is that conflict is a spectrum and there is no difference really between war and peace. Talks are just a way of dialling up and down the tempo to suit Russia’s needs,” said one.
“We need to be mindful that the Russians have demonstrated the ability to do both talking and fighting at the same time,” said a second official. “There are really no signs that Putin has backed off any of the demands he made in the declaration of war.”
Gustav Gressel, a Berlin-based analyst of Russian foreign and defence policy at the European Council on Foreign Relations said he believed the talks to be a Russian tactical ploy.
“I am always very sceptical about Russians negotiating,” he said. “We saw it repeatedly in Syria. The West or the Turks go in with these high hopes that the Russians are ready to change their position and de-escalate and it always turns out not to be the case.”
Russia’s motives are usually about sowing discord among opposition negotiators and buying time, said Gressel. “It’s never long before they break things off and then just reassert their maximalist demands.”