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Boris, Zelensky and the myth of the thwarted peace deal

Ukrainians are resisting Russian tyranny, not acting as puppets for the West.

Tim Black

Tim Black
Columnist

Topics Politics World

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Fresh from that insomnia-curing interview with Russian president Vladimir Putin, American journalist Tucker Carlson has been busily airing his usual talking points ahead of today’s two-year anniversary of the invasion of Ukraine. One in particular has stood out. He has claimed that when former UK prime minister Boris Johnson visited Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky in April 2022, he ‘single-handedly’ thwarted a peace deal between Russia and Ukraine, at the ‘behest of the US government’.

Since it was first made nearly two years ago, this claim has become one of the most persistent myths about the war in Ukraine. According to sections of the ‘anti-war’ left and assorted right-wing politicos, this conflict would have long been over by now, if it weren’t for Boris’s war-mongering intervention.

So where does this myth come from? It is true that negotiations between Ukrainian and Russian officials to bring the conflict to an end began in Belarus on 28 February – that is, just days after the Russian invasion on 24 February. These talks continued intermittently over the following weeks. On 29 March, Ukrainian and Russian officials met for what was seen as a pivotal meeting in Istanbul. There, they discussed the framework for a compromise agreement, in which Russia would retreat to its pre-invasion positions. In return, Ukraine would abandon its territorial claim over the Donbas and Crimea, and would commit to not joining NATO.

Putin has consistently claimed that an agreement had effectively been reached in Istanbul. Ukrainian officials, including foreign minister Dmytro Kuleba, have always vehemently denied this. Either way, by April, the negotiations had collapsed. The deal was off.

For a motley alliance of left- and right-wing opponents of Ukraine’s resistance, there is one simple reason for this failure to bring the conflict to an end. It’s that the US and its allies didn’t want peace. They wanted to continue using Ukraine to wage a proxy war against Putin. So they dispatched Johnson to Kyiv for an ‘unannounced’ visit on 9 April. Here he is said to have forced Ukraine to abandon the peace talks and carry on fighting Russia on the West’s behalf.

The evidence for this claim rests on an article published in the Ukrainian online newspaper, Ukrainska Pravda, in May 2022. It quoted an anonymous source close to Zelensky who said:

‘Johnson brought to Kyiv two simple messages: Putin is a war criminal, he needs to be pressured, not negotiated with. Second, even if [Ukraine is] ready to sign agreements about [security] guarantees, [the UK is] not. We can sign them with you, but not with [Putin], he’s [not going to stick to it].’

There’s little doubt that Johnson said something along these lines during that impromptu trip to Kyiv. Indeed, another report quotes Johnson as saying something similar to Zelensky: ‘It is not for me to tell you what your war objectives can be, but as far as I’m concerned, Putin must fail and Ukraine must be entitled to regain full sovereignty and independence.’

But to believe that this intervention was responsible for derailing a potential peace is a feat of magical thinking. It overestimates the persuasive powers of Britain’s blustering ex-PM, not to mention the geopolitical influence of the UK. More importantly, it completely erases the agency of Zelensky’s government and the Ukrainians themselves. It is as if neither Zelensky, nor his government, nor the embattled citizens they represent have any will of their own at all. They are reduced to the mere instruments of Western designs, to be used to achieve objectives decided in Washington and London.

This effacement of Ukrainian agency has been pointed out by countless Ukrainian politicians and journalists ever since the claim first emerged – including by Roman Romaniuk, who wrote the original Ukrainska Pravda piece that inadvertently gave rise to this myth.

As he and others have since pointed out, by the end of March, Zelensky’s team were already minded to reject the agreement that was taking shape in Istanbul. There were three interlinking factors at play. Firstly, at this point, Ukrainian forces were enjoying dramatic success on the battlefield, pushing Russian forces back from around Kyiv. Finding themselves very much on the front foot, they were hardly in the mood to make concessions to a panicking Kremlin.

Secondly, Zelensky had been made aware, as early as mid-March, that Russian forces had likely committed atrocities in several settlements in the north. Indeed, as his negotiating team sat down to talk with their Russian counterparts in Istanbul on 29 March, Ukrainian troops were already entering the northern town of Bucha. What they found there shocked them to their core. Dozens of decomposing bodies, some half-eaten by stray dogs, littered the streets. As they ventured further into the town, they discovered yet more corpses – lying in ditches, on pavements and half disposed of in makeshift graves. In total, nearly 500 people had been slaughtered in the most gruesome, sadistic fashion imaginable. Reeling from the discovery of Russian atrocities in their villages and towns, Ukrainians would have found the idea of making peace with Putin totally unpalatable.

This brings us to the third and most important reason why Zelensky stopped the peace talks. The Ukrainian people themselves did not want to strike a deal with the Russian aggressors. As Romaniuk himself has since explained, Zelensky and his negotiators were always most concerned with the fact that ‘Ukrainian society might not accept such a deal’. And they were right to be. Polling at the time showed that over 80 per cent of Ukrainians did not want to ‘give up on any of [Ukraine’s] territory even if it leads to the continuation of the war and threatens its independence’.

Little has changed since then. Despite the privations and suffering that Ukrainians have experienced, their resolve endures. Polling shows that an overwhelming majority of Ukrainians still want to continue the resistance.

The Ukrainians pulled out of those peace talks nearly two years ago for precisely the same reason they are still resisting Russian aggression today. Not because they are doing the bidding of the West, but because they are fighting for their national survival. That was always their principal motivation – to defend their way of life against an invasive, oppressive force. Of course Ukrainians want peace. Why wouldn’t they? But as one Ukrainian socialist has pointed out on Novara Media, ‘it isn’t just any peace Ukrainians want – and they certainly don’t want that which comes with occupation’.

Too many anti-war types, especially on the left, can’t see this, though. Their arguments were partly forged during the West’s reckless, destructive military interventions of the late 1990s and 2000s, and they tend to be stuck in that era, too. As a result they overinflate the power, influence and role of the West in the war in Ukraine. They struggle to see Ukraine’s resistance against Putin’s neo-imperial actions as anything but a proxy war, driven by Western animus against Russia.

This flies in the face of reality. From the moment Russia invaded, Western powers were clearly nervous backers of Ukraine. They’ve pledged their rhetorical allegiance to Ukraine while consistently holding back on practical military support. Right now, the US Congress is dragging its feet over President Biden’s $60 billion aid package to Ukraine. And in January, the EU publicly admitted that it would fall far short of its target of sending one million artillery shells to Ukraine by March this year, saying that only about half of that amount would be delivered instead. If this is supposed to be a proxy war fought on behalf of Western interests, it’s a very half-hearted one.

The assumption that it is the West shaping and directing the war has led too many, from Tucker Carlson to inveterate anti-war leftists, to a truly grotesque conclusion. That the West can easily stop the war. That it can force Ukraine to surrender and accept a peace deal, as Boris Johnson supposedly should have done in April 2022. And just like that, swathes of Ukraine will fall under the dominion of another nation. Whole communities, whole ways of life, would be sacrificed with the swipe of a Western diplomat’s pen.

Two years on from Russia’s invasion, Ukrainians are still not prepared to accept such a bleak fate. They know that peace on Putin’s terms would mean giving in to tyranny. This is the real reason they have carried on resisting so courageously.

Tim Black is a spiked columnist.

Picture by: Getty.

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Topics Politics World

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