A Russian marine takes his position during the Union Courage-2022 Russia-Belarus military drills at the Obuz-Lesnovsky training ground in Belarus. Photo: Screengrab / Russian Defense Ministry Press Service

Vladimir Putin opened the invasion of Ukraine with a punitive, brutal and illegal campaign, announcing Russia would force Ukraine to surrender, subject its leaders to trials as Nazis committing genocide and claiming Russia had been forced to protect its own security.  

It hasn’t gone all that well so far. What Russia appears to have thought would be a quick trot into Kiev won’t be. Early reports indicated that Ukrainian troops blew up a Russian military base in Millerovo, and as many as 800 Russian soldiers may have been killed in various battles. 

Five Russian military helicopters were shot down and dozens of tanks destroyed. Ukrainians acknowledged 198 deaths and hundreds of injuries on Friday. Numbers are always suspect amid the fog of war, but the point holds.

That’s all on Putin. Regardless of what Russia calls “provocations,” the violation of Ukraine’s sovereign borders is an act of war for which Russia will have to be held accountable.

If there is any good news, it may be that China’s President Xi Jinping has told the Russians they should negotiate with Ukraine. TASS reported that Putin told Xi Moscow is ready for high-level talks with Kiev – but insisting the talks be about Ukrainian demilitarization.

On the same day, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky asked Israel to mediate – and hold the talks in Jerusalem, according to one source. Israel’s Ambassador to Moscow Alexander Ben Zvi was summoned. Israel’s Foreign Ministry stressed that “the conversation was not a reprimand or dress-down” while acknowledging that there are disagreements between the two countries.

(There have also been reports that Moscow has proposed talks to be held in Belarus while Kiev has proposed to meet in Poland.)

If China or Israel agreed to a mediating role, the question is, “What would a mediator’s goal be?” It would not be to settle the issues, so talks only between Moscow and Kiev would be insufficient. The mediator has to find grounds for a ceasefire and set the stage for discussions among Russia, Ukraine, the US and NATO.

The West has to be prepared for serious negotiations, having pushed Ukraine into this mess over the years and across numerous American administrations (Bush, Obama, Trump, and Biden). The Ukrainians were told salvation lay in aligning with NATO and the West and rejecting Russia. 

Despite constant Russian objection, NATO countries armed and trained Ukraine. As late as September 2021, Ukrainian forces held military drills with NATO forces and US troops. Who did they think they were going to fight? The Ukrainians thought NATO had their back; they were wrong.    

What would that negotiation look like?

  • First, the conversation must be predicated on the understanding that NATO will be engaging in a rebuilding of its forces. The Russians have spent the past decade building their forces facing Europe while NATO has precipitously declined. Yes, that’s NATO’s fault – and America’s fault – but rectifying the mistake is a predicate to a peaceful Europe. We’ve seen what happens when the West has no means of deterring or responding to aggression in Europe.
  • Second, as NATO rebuilds, it should find ways to give Russia, to the extent possible, the security guarantees they have been asking for. Putin’s list of demands in January contained nothing new or revolutionary.
  • Third, a deal must endeavor to keep nuclear weapons on both sides away from the borderlands of eastern Europe and Ukraine. This was one of Putin’s demands prior to the invasion and nuclear arms control should always be on the table. Washington should be prepared to discuss a reworked Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF).
  • Fourth, it will require NATO to formally withdraw offers of NATO membership to Ukraine. That one hurts because every country should have a sovereign right to choose its allies and alliances, but, in fact, realpolitik argues otherwise. It is not a signal to Sweden. 
  • Fifth, in line with security guarantees, Russia must renounce any territorial or other ambitions outside of Russian territory and pull back its conventional forces in a way they do not threaten peace in Europe. In exchange, NATO will reduce its deployments in eastern Europe according to an agreed force reduction matching the Russian withdrawal.
  • Sixth, the US needs to tell the Russians that it will ensure that the Donbas region has local autonomy as promised in the Minsk Protocols. This is where Ukraine has to be pressed – it was the failure of Ukraine to negotiate under the terms of Minsk that set the stage for war.
  • Finally, the West should offer a supervised election in Crimea on the question of Crimea’s separation from Ukraine. If the vote favors Russia, all the parties will accept Crimea’s annexation by Russia. Again, Ukraine will have to be pressed.

These steps are far from inclusive and yes, to be clear, they involve changing the West’s ultra-hardline to something else. Before the war, they were not acceptable to NATO, to Washington or to Ukraine.  But it is also clear that not accounting for what Russia perceives as its core security interests was a mistake that helped lead to war. 

Russia appears ready to negotiate. Prolonging the war serves no one’s interests.