The Grinding War in Ukraine Could Have Ended a Long Time Ago

An early peace deal could have ended the bloody war in Ukraine. But NATO opposition and revelations about the Russian massacre of civilians at Bucha, along with US media that all but ignored potential routes to peace, dashed those hopes.

A Ukrainian tank moves on a street while the first anniversary of the Russia-Ukraine war approaches in Bakhmut, Ukraine, on February 7, 2023. (Yevhen Titov / Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

This past weekend saw the publication of a bombshell interview with former Israeli prime minister Naftali Bennett, who over the course of a nearly five-hour interview dropped an unusual amount of detail about his efforts to mediate peace talks between Russia and Ukraine early in the war last year. The headline-grabbing news is Bennett’s claim that negotiations that were yielding fruit and that could have ended the now nearly year-long war after a little more than a month were ultimately blocked by the NATO governments underwriting Ukraine’s war effort.

According to Bennett, as early as the second Saturday of the war, or a little less than a week and a half into the war, both Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky and Russian president Vladimir Putin made major concessions: Putin, by giving up on the goals of the “demilitarization” of Ukraine and its “denazification” — meaning, as Bennett interpreted it, regime change — and Zelensky by giving up on pursuing NATO membership.

Calling both leaders “pragmatic,” Bennett says that over the course of negotiations, he “was under the impression that both sides very much want[ed] a ceasefire” and gave the odds of any deal holding at 50-50. Over a “marathon of drafts,” he claims, seventeen draft agreements were prepared. But “they blocked it, and I thought [they were] wrong,” Bennett says, referring to the Western powers backing Ukraine.

“I have one claim,” Bennett told the interviewer. “I claim there was a good chance of reaching a ceasefire.” When the interviewer asks if he means “had they not curbed it,” he replies with a nod.

Bennett’s claims here would be less compelling if they didn’t corroborate what has already emerged publicly in dribs and drabs. Back in May last year, Ukrainska Pravda (a broadly Western-aligned Ukrainian paper) reported based on several sources close to Zelensky that in April, then UK prime minister Boris Johnson appeared in Kyiv ”almost without warning” and told Zelensky the West would not recognize any peace deal he signed with Putin, because the Russian leader’s faltering invasion had shown he was weaker than they had thought. Zelensky should “press him” instead — meaning fight on and end the war through military victory. (Johnson later told French president Emmanuel Macron in a May call that he had argued against negotiations with Moscow during that trip).

In the spectrum of world leaders’ attitudes to the war, which Bennett divides between those who wanted to fight Putin so as not to “reward” an aggressor state and those who viewed a prolonged war as no good for anyone’s interests, the former prime minister says Johnson “adopted the aggressive line.” Macron and German chancellor Olaf Scholz “were more pragmatic,” he says, while US president Joe Biden “was both.” This description overlaps with Western reporting on divisions within NATO over the war at the time.

Meanwhile, Fiona Hill — a high-ranking national security official in both the George W. Bush and Donald Trump administrations and far from a dove on Russia — reported late last year that “multiple former senior US officials” had disclosed to her that “Russian and Ukrainian negotiators appeared to have tentatively agreed on the outlines of a negotiated interim settlement” by last April. That outline would have seen Russia withdraw to its pre–February 24 lines, controlling Crimea and parts of the Donbas, while Ukraine would have renounced NATO membership. This framework broadly matches the negotiating timeline and concessions laid out by Bennett in the interview.

These disclosures from Bennett’s interview have been completely ignored by the Western press, which has universally treated Bennett’s claim that Putin assured him he wouldn’t kill Zelensky during talks as the major takeaway, while entirely leaving out his claims about NATO governments’ blocking of peace talks. To date, the Guardian, Associated Press, Bloomberg, the Hill, the Independent, the Week, Al Jazeera, Politico, and Reuters have all run reports either covering the interview or mentioning it, but have left out this crucial tidbit — only saying that Bennett’s peacemaking efforts “did little to stop the bloodshed,” “ultimately failed to bring the conflict to a swift end,” or that they “did not appear to take off,” without relaying Bennett’s explanation for why that was the case.

In fact, the only major outlets that did report on this revelation were CGTN, the Chinese state-owned English-language broadcaster, and RT, its Russian counterpart, which has been banned in the European Union, the UK, North America, and Australia, as well as blocked by Google — all but ensuring Western publics won’t be exposed to Bennett’s claims, or that if they are, they won’t be taken seriously. This mirrors the treatment of the Pravda report last year, which was similarly ignored, something the University of Ottawa political scientist Ivan Katchanovski said at the time was typical when it came to revelations butting up against prevailing Western media coverage of post-Soviet countries.

“The omission of the bombshell story that the British prime minister basically broke the real possibility of peaceful resolution of the Russia-Ukraine conflict helped to prolong this war with devastating consequences for Ukraine,” Katchanovski told me then.

Adding credibility to Bennett’s claims is his reference to the discovery of the Bucha massacre in early April, in which Russia slaughtered over four hundred people, as a factor in scuttling talks. “Once that happened, I said, ‘It’s over,’” he recounts. Bennett pointed to the potential for such an atrocity to emerge and derail the political prospects for peace in Ukraine as proof of the importance of making haste on negotiations at the time. The Pravda report likewise pointed to Johnson’s visit as only one “obstacle” to peace, with the discovery of the Bucha killings the other.

Those costs have been steep. A few months after peace talks were scuttled, Zelensky admitted Ukraine was losing between sixty and a hundred soldiers every day on the battlefield, while German intelligence recently revealed their estimate that Ukrainian casualties are currently in the three figures daily, as the Zelensky government resorts to controversially drafting soldiers in public places and ramps up penalties for deserters. Western estimates are that Ukraine, which had roughly a third of Russia’s population before the war, has suffered more than 100,000 casualties, while its economy is in tatters, and a Russian bombing campaign that started in October has destroyed at least half of its energy infrastructure — something a RAND Corporation report recently declared came at a bigger economic cost to the country than the territory it’s lost to Russia. All indications are the “Marshall Plan” being cooked up by Ukraine’s Western backers, meanwhile, will be a suite of damaging neoliberal reforms.

For the Global South, the war’s prolonging has seen an explosion in hunger, poverty, and political instability, including in the war-torn country of Yemen, where the Ukraine war’s disruptions to food supply have worsened an already unimaginably severe hunger crisis. In Europe, meanwhile, the war’s cost-of-living ripple effects have led to a surge in child poverty, are tipped to lead to nearly 150,000 excess deaths this winter, and have catalyzed political instability that has helped put literal fascist parties into power in Italy and Sweden. These are all among the reasons why RAND, which gets the majority of its funding from the Pentagon, is now pushing what Bennett called the more “pragmatic” position that a prolonged war is damaging to everyone’s interests, including those of the United States.

Yet a prolonged war is exactly what’s happened, and the sorry state of Western reporting on the political machinations of all sides in the war is no small reason why. We will never know for sure whether Zelensky, had he received the political backing of his Western partners, could have ended the war peacefully after little more than a month. All we can say is there was a good chance that it could have happened — and that Western institutions’ failure to push their leaders in this direction all but guaranteed it wouldn’t.