Two weeks ago the New York Times and Washington Post broke front page news that Andrei Artemenko, a previously little known member of Ukraine’s parliament, had hand-delivered a sealed envelope containing a Russia-Ukraine “peace plan” to President Trump’s private lawyer Michael D. Cohen at a meeting in a posh Manhattan hotel brokered by Felix Sater, a rogue Russian-American businessman and former felon with hazy ties to the Trump business empire. Artemenko was a member of the populist Radical Party and formerly, a financier of the nationalist Right Sector.
Many reporters and commentators understandably assumed the plan’s terms were designed to appeal to President Trump who had fantasized about a “grand bargain” with Putin, as well as to members of the president’s inner circle back in New York, some of whose business ties to Russian operators and oligarchs are well established. To add to the intrigue surrounding the so-called “peace plan”—which apparently landed on the desk of the newly minted National Security Advisor General Flynn in Washington—is Artemenko’s claim that he possessed bank transfer records that would confirm the long lingering rumors that Ukraine’s billionaire President Poroshenko is involved in corruption—evidence that would strengthen Putin’s hand, as well as those in the Trump administration who might be inclined to go soft on the Kremlin.
Essentially, Artemenko’s plan proposed that Russia withdraw from eastern Ukraine and agree to pay for reconstruction of the devastated areas. In return, Russia would be granted a Hong Kong style 50-year or longer lease of Crimea (proceeds would help pay for reconstruction); a federalization plan that would grant special autonomy to the breakaway regions from which Russian troops would be withdrawn; combatants would be granted amnesty; a 72-hour safe corridor would be opened to allow citizens’ to freely choose to reside in Russia or Ukraine; and, of course, sanctions would be lifted. Except for the lease idea dealing with Crimea, none of these provisions are especially original and have been recycled from time to time, mostly by outsiders looking for a tidy resolution to the war.
However, inside Ukraine the framework’s basic points are well outside what is politically acceptable because they are widely viewed as handsomely rewarding Russia’s invasion while papering over its breach of international law and norms. Indeed, many Ukrainians consider the plan’s terms so punitive to Ukraine that they theorize the plan could have only come from the Kremlin or its pro-Russian political proxies. And, while no one in Ukraine believes President Poroshenko is particularly pure, clearly Artemenko’s claim that he holds tangible evidence of official corruption would serve only to further weaken Ukraine’s hand in any negotiation with Russia, and perhaps give the Trump administration an excuse to sweep the whole mess all under the rug in pursuit of that grand bargain which, at the time (but perhaps not so much any longer) was considered a distinct possibility.
Not surprisingly the reaction by President Poroshenko’s administration was swift and pointed. In the immediate aftermath of the Times and Post accounts of Artemenko’s diplomatic freelancing, Ukraine’s Prosecutor General announced that he would charge Artemenko with high treason. He was roundly denounced across Ukraine’s political spectrum for his Chamberlain-esque appeasement in response to Russian aggression. And, he’s now politically isolated, a man without a party, having been ejected from the Radical Party by its mercurial leader Oleh Lyashko.
For his part, Artemenko argues he was not proposing a formal diplomatic resolution, but rather a framework with initial bargaining positions. Furthermore, in our meeting in his office next to the parliament in Kyiv, he maintained that if hostilities are to be brought to an end, compromise will be necessary and will inevitably include “lose/lose situations”. The problem, of course, is that the vast majority of his countrymen failed to see how Russia would lose under the proposed framework. Although the Trump Administration’s position on Putin, Ukraine, and sanctions remains a moving target—and most Washington DC observers sympathetic to Ukraine would probably say the target is now moving in the right direction—at the time the plan was designed and presented to Cohen, Kyiv would have understandably perceived its leverage with the new White House team to be dangerously uncertain. For that reason, according to Artemenko, and multiple other accounts, the Ukrainian government began to quietly engage in more substantive and secret negotiations since the November election.
Indeed, Artemenko claims that he was not freelancing.
Artemenko insisted to me that the entire episode surrounding the secret “peace plan”–including its design and delivery—was actually a scheme of which President Poroshenko, his Radical Party leader Lyashko, and other senior government officials were well aware. Artemenko claimed that the purpose of the ploy—and presumably the leaking of it which remains a mystery—was to float the framework to both gauge Ukrainian public opinion and to move it in a direction which, yes, would in the end accept Russia’s aggression but also end the fighting that has paralyzed the government and the country. And, given Trump’s election victory and the perceived weakened hand it dealt Kiev, perhaps official Ukraine did calculate that the plan Armenenko delivered might put them on a negotiating path that would offer the best deal they could get. At the end of the day, Artemenko claims that he was the sacrificial lamb—taking the fall for what was actually a set of diplomatic overtures sanctioned at the highest levels. Perhaps.
For its part, the Kremlin has declared the plan to be ludicrous and continues to maintain that the annexed Crimean peninsula is wholly part of Russian Federation territory, and non-negotiable in any future deal. Yet, the fact that a Russian Crimea is now being publicly discussed as part of a “peace plan”, when a year ago it would have been unthinkable, might well have been the goal of Artemenko’s political intervention.