Listening to Lavrov

On November 18, 2021, Putin held a meeting with Russian diplomats. Facing renewed vows that Ukraine would enter NATO and continued concerns that NATO’s “military potential and infrastructure [would be] in the vicinity of Russian borders,” Putin turned to his minister of foreign affairs, Sergey Lavrov, and said, “it is imperative to push for serious, long-term guarantees that safeguard Russia’s security . . ..”

One month later, Russia presented the US and NATO with a proposal on those mutual security guarantees. A month after that, the US rejected Russia’s central demand that NATO keep its promise and not expand into Ukraine.

The US had rejected what NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg would later call Putin’s “pre-condition for not invad[ing] Ukraine.” Lavrov remarked that “our Western colleagues are not prepared to take up our major proposals, primarily those on NATO’s eastward non-expansion.” But what seemed to really surprise the veteran diplomat was not that the US insisted on its “open-door policy” on Ukraine joining NATO, but that it closed the door on diplomacy: “Neither the United States, nor the North Atlantic Alliance proposed an alternative to this key provision.”

Lavrov has been Russia’s foreign minister, under Putin and Medvedev, since 2004. He is very respected and, retired US ambassador Chas Freeman told me, has a reputation amongst diplomats as being “very competent and professional.” Lavrov’s statements are important insights into Russian policy. Freeman says, Lavrov is “meticulously loyal and completely trustworthy in the eyes of his president.”

In recent weeks, Lavrov has made a number of statements that glance at what could have been in Ukraine and hint at what might provide a path out. Those statement refer to three of Ukraine’s key goals: peace, territorial integrity and sovereignty.

Istanbul: Could Have Had Peace

In the first months of the war, before most of the death, devastation and escalation, there were several opportunities for a possible peace. The most promising were the Turkish mediated talks that were held in Istanbul in March and early April 2022.

Those talks resulted in a tentative agreement. Recently, Putin has revealed just how tantalizingly close those talks came, revealing for the first time that the agreement had been initialled by both sides. On September 23, at a press conference following the UN General Assembly High-Level week, Lavrov confirmed that crucial point: “we did hold talks in March and April 2022. We agreed on certain things; everything was already initialled.”

Lavrov also confirmed the second crucial point. There could have been peace if not for the roadblock of the political West. Putin has claimed that Ukraine abandoned the talks at the insistence of the US and UK. Well placed Turkish officials, including Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu and deputy chairman of Erdogan’s ruling party Numan Kurtulmus, have verified Putin’s account, saying the US put an end to the agreement because they “want[ed] the war to continue.” At his press conference, Lavrov backed Putin, using the same language as the Turkish officials. Lavrov says that two days after the agreement was initialled, the talks abruptly ended “because, I think, someone in London or Washington did not want this war to end.” Days later, during a September 28  interview, Lavrov was less speculative. He said that “in April 2022 . . . Ukraine proposed ceasing hostilities and settling the crisis based on providing reciprocal, reliable security guarantees.” He then clearly said, “But this proposal was recalled at the insistence of Washington and London.”

By April 2022, there is the tantalizing possibility that the war could have ended. At his September 23 press conference, Lavrov confirmed that the agreement had been initialled and, both then and five days later, suggested that the agreement was sabotaged because Washington and London did not want the war to end.

Minsk: Could Have Had Territorial Integrity

The Istanbul agreement was not the first agreement to be made and then not implemented. A key reason cited by Russia for launching the invasion of Ukraine is the prevention of NATO expansion into Ukraine; into “the immediate vicinity of areas of strategic importance to our security,” in Lavrov’s words; and right up to Russia’s borders. But another reason cited by Russia is the protection of the language, culture, rights, property and lives of the ethnic Russians in the Donbas region of eastern Ukraine after the coup of 2014.

The protection of those rights could have been achieved, Lavrov said in his press conference at the UN General Assembly, “a year later with the signing of the Minsk Agreements.” Those agreements, if implemented, would have guaranteed Ukraine the territorial integrity – with the exception of Crimea – that they now, understandably, seek. “Had they implemented the Minsk agreements,” Lavrov said, “Ukraine’s territorial integrity would have been guaranteed, because this is what the agreements were all about.” The Minsk agreements promised to satisfy Kiev by keeping the Donbas in Ukraine and satisfy the Donbas by keeping it there with autonomy. “Territorial integrity would have been restored through the granting of special status to Donbass,” Lavrov told the press.

Ukraine’s territorial integrity could have been guaranteed through the Minsk agreements. But they were never implemented. The agreements were brokered by Germany and France, agreed to by Ukraine and Russia, and accepted by the US and UN. But the US failed Ukraine by not providing it the support it needed, and Germany and France disappointed by not applying the necessary pressure on Kiev. But revelations in 2022 proved it to be much worse than that.

Germany and France didn’t disappoint by not pressuring Ukraine to implement the agreement. They never intended Ukraine to implement the agreement. That the agreement was a deceptive soporific designed to lull Russia into a ceasefire with the promise of a peaceful settlement while actually buying Ukraine the time it needed to build up an armed forces capable of achieving a military solution has now been confirmed by everyone of Putin’s partners in the negotiations, including then Ukrainian President Pyotr Poroshenko, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President François Hollande.

In his September 28 interview, Lavrov referenced the deception and placed the blame on Europe and Ukraine for the failure of the Minsk agreement: “They have confessed after all that no one – Germany, France, let alone Ukraine – intended to implement the Minsk agreements. In 2022, this was stated in plain language by former German Chancellor Angela Merkel, Former French President Francois Hollande, and former Ukrainian President Petr Poroshenko. They said the agreements were needed to gain time to replenish the Ukrainian regime’s military arsenals against the Russian Federation.” But for that Western deception, “Ukraine’s territorial integrity would have been guaranteed.” Instead, “President Vladimir Putin’s co-authors with regard to the Minsk agreements openly admitted that they had deceived him . . . and this is why they are to blame for destroying Ukraine’s territorial integrity, which they are so solicitous about today.”

Constitutional Commitments: Could Have Had Sovereignty

At his September 23 press conference, Lavrov was asked if Russia recognizes the sovereignty of Ukraine. Lavrov answered that Russia “recognized the sovereignty of Ukraine back in 1991, on the basis of the Declaration of Independence, which Ukraine adopted when it withdrew from the Soviet Union.” He then clearly pointed out that “one of the main points for [Russia] in the declaration was that Ukraine would be a non-bloc, non-alliance country; it would not join any military alliances.”

The Russian recognition of Ukrainian sovereignty was contingent, in part, on Ukrainian neutrality.  That neutrality was enshrined in Article IX  of the 1990 Declaration of State Sovereignty of Ukraine, “External and Internal Security,” that says that Ukraine “solemnly declares its intention of becoming a permanently neutral state that does not participate in military blocs. . ..” That promise was later enshrined in Ukraine’s constitution, which committed Ukraine to neutrality and prohibited it from joining any military alliance: that included NATO. However, the neutrality upon which Russian recognition of Ukrainian sovereignty had been, in part, contingent was removed in 2019 when Ukraine amended the constitution, with neither vote nor referendum, to include a mandate for all future governments to seek as a goal membership in NATO.

After reminding the reporter that that rescinded promise was “one of the main points for Russia,” Lavrov then went on to add the key line that “In that version, on those conditions, we support Ukraine’s territorial integrity.”

Lavrov seemed to be explaining both that Ukraine’s commitment to walking through the open NATO door was part of what dissolved the commitment to Ukrainian sovereignty and motivated Russia to cross its borders and that a return to the commitment not to walk through that door would achieve, in exchange, a return to Russian “support [for] Ukraine’s territorial integrity.”

In his two recent talks to the press in September, Lavrov hinted at what could have been in Ukraine. Peace was possible before the war started if Ukraine had promised not to join NATO as their Declaration of State Sovereignty and their constitution before the 2019 amendment committed it to and if Ukraine had implemented the Minsk agreements. Peace was possible after the war started if Washington and London had not pulled Ukraine back from the initialed Istanbul agreement. Lavrov’s recent comments hint not only at Russia’s perspective on the causes of the war but at Russia’s perspective on the way out.

Ted Snider is a regular columnist on US foreign policy and history at Antiwar.com and The Libertarian Institute. He is also a frequent contributor to Responsible Statecraft and The American Conservative as well as other outlets.

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