On November 8, Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Andrey Rudenko blamed the lack of peace talks between the Kremlin and Ukraine on the unjustified unwillingness of Kyiv:
"Ukraine has adopted a law that prohibits it from conducting peace negotiations with Russia. This is their choice; we have always declared our readiness for such negotiations, which were interrupted through no fault of ours."
That narrative is misleading. Now, at a point in the war where the United States and some others are suggesting negotiations, it’s worth correcting the record.
In fact, Ukraine prohibited negotiations personally with President Vladimir Putin, and for a good reason.
This summer, Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelenskyy stated that talks with Putin would become impossible if Russia tried to annex four provinces partly occupied by Russian forces.
Putin went ahead, staging sham referendums in September in Luhansk, Donetsk, Kherson and Zaporizhzhia. Together these eastern and southern oblasts make up 15% of Ukraine’s land area.
Throughout the spring and summer, various Russian officials claimed the referendums would express the will of the people living in the occupied regions.
“We have repeatedly said that people themselves should choose their future,” Putin's press secretary Dmitry Peskov said in June. “And we also do not doubt that they will make the best decision."
But residents told journalists and rights groups they were forced to cast ballots at gunpoint.
“They ring the doorbell of apartments, knock down the doors of those who don’t open them and demand that people come out and put a mark that they agree to join the Russian Federation,” Galina Luhova, head of the Kherson City Military Administration, told The Washington Post.
In August, Zelenskyy declared that if Russia held pseudo-referendums in the occupied territories, there would be no negotiations. “The position of our state remains the same as before: We will not give up anything of ours,” he said.
On the CBS News show "Face the Nation" on September 25, Zelenskyy clarified that he meant no talks with Putin, saying, attempted annexation "would make it impossible, in any case, to continue any diplomatic negotiations with the president of the Russian Federation, and he knows it very well.”
Zelenskyy made a similar statement September 27, three days before the referendums, speaking at the U.N. Security Council. Afterward, he further specified that while talks with Putin were out, Ukraine could still negotiate with others.
“He (Putin) does not know what dignity and honesty are. Therefore, we are ready for a dialogue with Russia, but with a different Russian president," Zelenskyy said.
On September 30, Vladimir Putin signed documents on the annexation by Russia of four occupied regions of Ukraine. Since then, during the Ukrainian southern counteroffensive, Kyiv has recaptured more than 2,300 square miles, including 21% of the Kherson region.
Kherson, the provincial capital and largest city, was liberated. Before the Russian invasion, 238,000 people lived there. Russia has kept control of the three other illegally annexed provinces.
As he signed annexation papers September 30, Putin falsely blamed Ukraine for starting the war and said peace was only possible if Ukraine quit fighting for “our land.”
“We call on the Kiev regime to immediately cease fire and all hostilities; to end the war it unleashed back in 2014 and return to the negotiating table. We are ready for this, as we have said more than once. But the choice of the people in Donetsk, Lugansk, Zaporozhye and Kherson will not be discussed.
“The decision has been made, and Russia will not betray it. (Applause.) Kiev’s current authorities should respect this free expression of the people’s will; there is no other way. This is the only way to peace.
“We will defend our land with all the forces and resources we have, and we will do everything we can to ensure the safety of our people. This is the great liberating mission of our nation.”
In fact, after nearly nine months of war, Russia's conditions for talks have shifted dramatically.
In March, Russia demanded that Ukraine refuse NATO membership; cut the size of its army fivefold; give up long-range weapons; ban patriotic and nationalist parties; and renounce claims to the Russian occupied Crimea and the eastern Donbas region.
On November 8, the Russian Foreign Ministry said it no longer had any preconditions for starting negotiations, except for "for Ukraine to show goodwill."
According to Oleksiy Arestovych, an adviser to the Ukrainian president's chief of staff, "Russia's big problems at the front" explain Moscow's new stance. "Russia wants to force Ukraine into a peace plan to get a breather before another Ukrainian counteroffensive," Arestovych has said.
Zelenskyy maintains that he did not slam the door on negotiations. Ukraine is ready for talks, though only with those who acknowledge that Russia has become an occupier and are really ready for peace, Zelenskyy told CNN on November 10.
The Russian invasion in February nullified prior negotiating formats over the eight-year-long conflict the Kremlin started in eastern Ukraine (mainly the Normandy format and the Trilateral Contact Group talks). In the first weeks of the war, negotiations were attempted by various countries, particularly Israel, Italy and South Africa.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan later became a key mediator, helping the United Nations secure a deal to allow stockpiled Ukraine grain to be safely shipped from three Black Sea ports.
In the wake of Ukraine’s combat gains, the United States has been suggesting diplomacy.
On November 5, The Washington Post reported that President Joe Biden’s administration has privately urged Ukraine to negotiate even if Putin remains in power.
Then, Gen. Mark Milley, chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, said on November 9 that the war has been costly for both sides, with each suffering an estimated 100,000 casualties so far.
Milley compared the situation to the start of the first World War, when combatants abandoned diplomacy and devastating fighting went on for years, killing millions.
"So, when there's an opportunity to negotiate, when peace can be achieved ... seize the moment," Milley told the Economic Club of New York.
State Department spokesman Ned Price said on November 12 that the U.S. will not force Ukraine to negotiate with Russia. "[T]he timing and contents of any negotiation framework remain Ukraine's decision," he said.