No, the West did not sabotage an early peace deal in Ukraine
Op/Analysis: Debunking pro-Kremlin narratives disseminated by a University of Ottawa academic and Grayzone News
For over a year now, pro-Russian voices have circulated the conspiracy theory that Ukraine was close to signing a peace deal in the spring of 2022, only to be thwarted by the West. Although this narrative has repeatedly been debunked as disinformation, it stubbornly persists in some circles.
The central premise of the theory is that, only a few weeks into the war, Ukraine was ready to sign a deal with Russia amid peace talks in Istanbul until Western powers, led by former British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, ordered Kyiv to scrap the deal.
It is thus argued that blame for the war beyond that point lies with the West, and that Ukraine’s allies are nothing more than warmongers.
While this theory is primarily supported by the Russian government, it has become a popular talking point among anti-Ukrainian voices on the far left and far right.
For example, Aaron Maté and Ben Norton, two influential quasi-journalists associated with the Grayzone News (a far-left media outlet known for pushing pro-Kremlin conspiracy theories), have both written articles about it.
In Canada, though, the theory is mainly championed by Ivan Katchanovski, an academic at the University of Ottawa.
Although Katchanovski is an obscure figure for most Canadians, he enjoys a cult following among certain pro-Russian circles, owing to his fixation on discredited conspiracy theories regarding the Ukrainian far-right, and is arguably one of the main intellectual engines of pro-Kremlin disinformation in North America.
Last February, Katchanovski posted a video on X (formerly Twitter) containing excerpts from an interview with Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett, wherein Bennett seemed to confirm that the West had ordered Ukraine to reject a peace deal in Istanbul. The video went viral, garnering over 19 million views, but was later flagged for being selectively edited to misrepresent Bennett’s position.
Two weeks ago, Katchanovski once again breathed new life into the story by publishing yet another series of posts on X.
This time, he linked to a 90 second video of a high-ranking Ukrainian official who claimed that: i) Russian President Vladimir Putin realized that his invasion was a mistake and wanted to end hostilities, and ii) while a framework to end the war had been hammered out in Istanbul, it ultimately fell apart for mysterious reasons.
According to Katchanovski, the “Istanbul Communiqué” would have provided peace in exchange for Ukraine declaring itself a neutral country. While Ukraine would have been barred from joining any military alliances, or hosting any foreign soldiers or military bases, the negotiators agreed that it should receive security guarantees from several international countries (which specific ones were to give these guarantees was left undetermined).
Katchanovski claimed that, while the Ukrainians were ready to sign a peace deal, Western allies blocked them from doing so and that Johnson said that the U.K. would provide no security guarantees if the communiqué were signed.
While Katchanovski’s posts garnered almost 2 million views, they were yet again misleading.
And while some of his distortions were immediately apparent, others only came to light a few days later, when the Wall Street Journal published an excerpt from an upcoming book by Yaroslav Trofimov (the newspaper’s chief foreign correspondent), wherein the Istanbul peace negotiation process was described in unprecedented detail.
Of the many misrepresentations made by the Ottawa professor Katchanovski and other pro-Russian commentators, perhaps the most fundamental was the claim that a peace deal was close to being signed. This was not actually true.
While Russian and Ukrainian negotiators were able to agree to some basic principles, the exact details were to be decided upon later, in an in-person meeting between Russian President Vladimir Putin and Ukrainian President Volodomyr Zelenskyy (which ultimately did not happen).
In any difficult negotiation, especially with high political stakes, agreeing upon broad principles is far easier than hammering out details.
While Ukrainian officials have stated that negotiators almost settled on a general framework, positioning that as a borderline peace deal is as dishonest as claiming that you’ve built a house after simply setting its foundations.
“We listened to them, and we realized that these are not people sent for talks but for our capitulation,” a senior Ukrainian negotiator recalled, the Wall Street Journal reported.
There are good reasons to doubt that Zelensky and Putin would have settled on a compromise – mostly because the Russians were demanding that Ukraine limit its ability to defend itself by capping its armed forces at 85,000 troops, 342 tanks and 519 artillery pieces (accounting to roughly a 60-70 per cent reduction of Ukraine’s prewar military power).
The Ukrainians were obviously not interested in signing away their capacity to defend themselves, given that they had just been invaded by Russia weeks beforehand and feared that Putin would use a temporary freeze to reorganize his military and launch another, better-prepared invasion in the future.
The Istanbul Communiqué would have also committed Western allies to protecting Ukraine as if it were a NATO country – but no one had actually agreed to provide these kinds of security guarantees, and, in light of the demand that Ukraine essentially abolish its own military, it was unclear whether anyone would.
Such an alliance would inevitably require foreign countries to send their own troops to defend Ukraine in case of future war – and promises like that are unpopular and easily broken.
Finally, the discovery of the Bucha massacre, wherein 450 Ukrainian civilians were found murdered in the Kyiv region, obliterated any public support for a negotiated peace. According to a May 2022 survey, 82 per cent of Ukrainians agreed that “under no circumstance should Ukraine give up on any of its territory even if it leads to the continuation of the war and threatens its independence.”
So of course Johnson said that Western allies were not ready to provide the guarantees outlined in the Istanbul framework – this was not coercion, it was simply an admission that the guarantees envisioned by the agreement were not feasible.
And of course he advised Zelenskyy to keep fighting – this was not warmongering, but rather an acceptance of the fact that, in light of Russian atrocities in Bucha, there was no other choice.
The Istanbul framework was never going to work – and yet, over a year later, pro-Russian voices are still trying to twist the narrative to suit their interests, and some people are, unfortunately, gullible enough to believe them.
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