At the G20 summit in Bali in November, Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky announced a new ten-point plan to end hostilities. He demands nothing less than the withdrawal of Russian troops from all of Ukraine, including Crimea and other areas of the country occupied by the Russians since 2014. And the latest polls show 85% of Ukrainians support his uncompromising stand.
But Russia’s position is as unyielding. Vladimir Putin is adamant that any political settlement will be based on “the realities that are taking shape on the ground”. Moscow wants to force Ukraine to recognise Russia’s occupation of nearly 20% of its territory.
Far from any peace talks, Ukrainian generals are worried about a new Russian offensive. But this doesn’t mean the two sides are not talking.
There have been back-channel talks on a whole range of issues, brokered by mediators from Turkey, the UAE and Saudi Arabia. Oligarchs such as Roman Abramovich have been playing an unofficial role. Abu Dhabi and Ankara are the Helsinki and Vienna of this new cold war – cities where Russian, Ukrainian and western diplomats, businesspeople and spies can easily meet away from media scrutiny.
The toughest negotiation has been over nuclear security. Rafael Grossi, director general of the International Atomic Energy Agency, has been mediating talks to establish a “protection zone” around the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant. Russia occupied the plant early in the war and has attempted to annexe the whole region after a sham referendum in September. Ukraine rejects these claims – as does most of the Ukrainian workforce at the plant.
But they are now on the frontline of the war. In November, Grossi called an outbreak of shelling around the plant “madness”. Russia claims that Ukraine has been firing recklessly on the plant and mounting raids to try to recapture it. Ukraine claims that Russia uses the plant as cover to fire on Ukrainian forces.