Russia may have just given Ukraine terms for ending war

A top Kremlin official on Saturday suggested Russia could agree to an end to the war in Ukraine if a key condition is met.

During a press conference at the United Nations General Assembly, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov indicated Russia would recognize Ukraine’s borders prior to Moscow’s invasion if Kyiv pledges to not join a military alliance.

Since Russian President Vladimir Putin began the war on February 24, 2022, he and Kremlin officials have cited various justifications for the conflict. But one of the most frequently stated reasons is Putin’s opposition to the expansion of NATO on his country’s borders, and he is said to be especially against Ukraine becoming a member of the military bloc.

Lavrov told reporters that in 1991, Moscow “recognized the sovereignty of Ukraine on the basis of the Declaration of Independence, which it adopted upon leaving the USSR.”

Split image of Putin and Zelensky
Russian President Vladimir Putin (left) delivers a speech during the State Council’s Presidium on September 21, 2023, in Veliky Novgorod, Russia. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky during a press conference on September 6, 2023, in Kyiv, Ukraine. A Kremlin official suggested Russia may be open to ending the war in Ukraine if Kyiv agrees to not join a military alliance.
Photos by Yan Dobronosov/Global Images Ukraine/Getty Images

“One of the main points for us was that Ukraine would be a non-aligned country and would not enter into any military alliances,” Lavrov said. “Under those conditions, we support the territorial integrity of this state.”

George Mason University Schar School of Policy and Government professor Mark N. Katz told Newsweek that “Ukraine’s 1990 Declaration of State Sovereignty does indeed proclaim Ukraine to be a ‘permanently neutral state that does not participate in military blocs.’

“Lavrov’s statement, then, does imply that Moscow would recognize Ukraine’s 1990 borders if Ukraine foreswore membership in NATO.”

Newsweek reached out to the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs via email for comment.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky has been pushing since the start of the war for his country to be made part of NATO, and his efforts have gained the support of key NATO officials. But even if Zelensky agreed to relinquish the bid for NATO membership in order to end the war, Ukraine would likely still find a sticking point on the issue of Crimea.

Putin invaded and annexed Crimea in 2014, and Zelensky has vowed to reclaim the peninsula as part of his nation. Following the breakup of the Soviet Union, Crimea was declared Ukraine’s, which has led some to speculate that Lavrov may have hinted that Russia could be willing to give up the region.

Katz said that while Crimea was a province of Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic in 1990, he has a feeling that “Lavrov’s statement might not be definitive, and that there may be further ‘clarification’ about it that is not so generous toward Ukraine.

“Still, if Moscow just wants to end the war, it may be able to portray forestalling Ukraine from joining NATO as a victory even if it means renouncing Russian claims to occupied Ukrainian territory.

“But I’m not sure Putin can do this as it would raise the question of whether the enormous casualties experienced by Russian forces in this conflict were worth such an agreement—assuming that Ukraine and NATO governments would agree to it.”

David Silbey, an associate professor of history at Cornell and director of teaching and learning at Cornell in Washington, told Newsweek that he found Lavrov’s statement and how it relates to Crimea “ambiguous, which is interesting in and of itself.

“It would have been easy for Lavrov to make the distinction clear, but he didn’t, and he wouldn’t do something like this without having clearance from Putin. They both have to know that this would immediately raise questions about Crimea.”

Even if Russia isn’t willing to return Crimea to Ukraine, Lavrov’s comments could be interpreted to mean Putin might relinquish his claim to the Donetsk, Kherson, Luhansk and Zaporizhzhia oblasts. A year ago, Putin announced that the four Ukrainian regions were annexed to Russia in a move that the international community called illegitimate.

“In terms of the four territories, I think, yes, it does suggest that the Russians are willing to give them back,” Silbey said.

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