The true depth of our obligation to Kyiv is only now becoming clear

Dominic Lawson

November 19, 2023

The Sunday Times


As winter falls on the front line in Ukraine — a line that has moved barely ten miles since Kyiv launched its counteroffensive five months ago — there is tangible pressure on the invaded nation to negotiate some sort of deal with President Putin. Earlier this month it was reported that the Italian prime minister, Giorgia Meloni, had been recorded telling a Russian prank caller masquerading as an African leader that there was “a lot of tiredness” over the war in Ukraine: “We are nearing the moment when everyone understands that we need a way out.”

Days later the American news channel NBC reported that “US and European officials have begun quietly talking to the Ukrainian government about what possible peace negotiations with Russia might entail to end the war.” It cited “one current senior US official and one former senior US official familiar with the discussions”, who said that “the conversations have included very broad outlines of what Ukraine might need to give up to reach a deal.”

There is a fundamental problem with such an initiative — aside from the fact that the overwhelming majority of the Ukrainian population seem unwilling to concede vast tracts of their nation to a regime that has butchered and tortured its way to a bloody impasse. No, the real practical problem with this approach is that the man responsible — for whom the International Criminal Court has issued an arrest warrant for war crimes — has no interest in peace negotiations.

President Putin, from all that we can glean, believes he is winning his war — and, looking ahead to the possibility that his chum Donald Trump might replace Joe Biden in the White House, has anyway not the slightest incentive to settle now.

On what terms would he ever do so? I discussed this last week with Sir Roderic Lyne, a former British ambassador to Moscow, who understands the Russian mentality as much as anyone in this country and remains engaged in the matter. He told me: “Putin will never be interested in a deal with Ukraine, as we would understand it, since he simply doesn’t accept the basic idea of Ukraine as an independent sovereign state.”

We don’t need to take his word for that. Putin’s will do: in his long essay “On the Historical Unity of Russians and Ukrainians,” published the year before he sent his forces to capture Kyiv, the Russian president made clear that he regards the whole idea of a separate Ukrainian nation or people as a grotesque misconception, promoted by Russia’s enemies for their own foul purposes. This is the main reason he described the end of the Soviet Union as the “greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the century”: it precipitated the creation of an independent Ukraine, after that nation’s people — in every one of its regions, including Crimea — voted for secession.

Subsequently the governments of Russia, the US and the UK signed the 1994 Budapest Memorandum, under which they agreed to “respect the Independence and Sovereignty and the existing borders of Ukraine” and to “refrain from the threat or use of force.” This was in part why I wanted to talk to Lyne: he had been foreign policy and defence adviser to John Major when that PM signed the Budapest Memorandum on the UK’s behalf.

Lyne described this to me as “a security guarantee” for Ukraine; but it proved useless when in 2014 Putin annexed Crimea — no doubt one reason Putin didn’t think the US or the UK would devote the resources they have done to try to honour that accord when he launched a full-scale invasion eight years later.

Why did we need to offer such an assurance in 1994? Because the US had, as part of the process, bullied Ukraine into transferring all the formerly Soviet nuclear weapons on its territory to Russia. Kyiv understood only too well that retaining even a small part of that stockpile would have been its best security against future Russian revanchism.

At the time the US insisted that Ukrainian unilateral nuclear disarmament — which is what this amounted to — should be seen as part of Washington’s mission to reduce nuclear proliferation globally. But last month the US magazine National Interest unearthed documents from the archives which made clear that another motive was to “soothe Russian insecurities about achieving ‘parity’ in its nuclear stockpile vis-à-vis the United States.” Those archives also show how US officials described the Ukrainian government as “whiners” for expressing anxieties about losing their deterrent — even though the same officials noted Moscow’s belligerent, irredentist tendencies during the negotiations.

In a surprisingly under-reported interview in April, the former president Bill Clinton expressed his personal contrition over what had happened: “They [Ukraine] were afraid to give them up because they thought that’s the only thing that protected them from an expansionist Russia. I feel a personal stake because I got them to agree to give up their nuclear weapons. And none of them believes that Russia would have pulled this stunt if Ukraine still had their weapons.”

What is certainly clear is that the main reason for the hesitancy Washington has frequently shown in supplying the weaponry Kyiv has asked for is that it worries about the prospect of Putin using his own nuclear weapons. The US, in other words, created the imbalance of deterrent power that bedevils its own desire to see Ukraine win.

In public it — and Nato — adheres to the position that it would not facilitate any peace negotiations unless Ukraine wanted such a process to begin. But last week the Ukrainian foreign minister, Dmytro Kuleba, argued that even if Moscow were to take part in such discussions, its signature would be worthless, citing seven examples of Russia’s dishonouring previous agreements (including the Budapest one). He prefaced it with the words: “To those who have missed the previous 30 years, here is a short list of the results of negotiations with Russia that it never respected …”

So when David Cameron, visiting Kyiv in his first days as foreign secretary, declared that “the UK and our partners will support Ukraine and its people for as long as it takes for them to

achieve victory,” we must hope this was not just rhetoric obscuring our own depleted munitions cupboard and a much more equivocal position developing within Washington’s foreign policy establishment and the chancelleries of Europe.

Meloni spoke of their “tiredness” with the conflict. That is nothing to the exhaustion the people of Ukraine must be feeling. But we have no right to deduce what they should want. Having made them give up the weapons that might have deterred Moscow from invading, all we can do is make amends now by giving them what they need, for as long as they need it.