Subtle changes raise hopes of ceasefire in Ukraine

ISTANBUL — When President Vladimir V. Putin launched his invasion two weeks ago, he said one of the main goals was the “denazification” ...


ISTANBUL — When President Vladimir V. Putin launched his invasion two weeks ago, he said one of the main goals was the “denazification” of Ukraine. He called the Ukrainian government “a gang of drug addicts and neo-Nazis”, making it clear that his goal was to overthrow it.

But in recent days the language has changed, with the Kremlin signaling that Mr Putin is no longer determined to change the regime in Kyiv. It’s a subtle change, and it may be a head-turner; but it prompts officials who rushed to mediate to believe that Mr. Putin may be seeking a negotiated way out of a war that has become a much bloodier chore than he had anticipated.

On Thursday, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei V. Lavrov is expected to meet his Ukrainian counterpart, Dmytro Kuleba, in Turkey, as part of the highest-level talks between the two countries since the start of the war on February 24. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, whose top diplomat has held a total of 10 calls with Mr Lavrov and Mr Kuleba since the start of the war, said on Wednesday the meeting could “open the door to a ceasefire”. constant fire”.

Ahead of the meeting, both sides softened their public stances, though they remained distant. Russia has narrowed its demands to focus on Ukrainian “neutrality” and the status of its Russian-occupied regions, and said on Wednesday that Russia was not seeking to “overthrow” the Ukrainian government. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky hinted on Tuesday that he was open to reviewing Ukraine’s constitutional aspiration to join NATO, and even to compromise on the status of Ukrainian territory now controlled by Russia.

“The changes are noticeable” Ivan Timofeev, the director of programs at the government-funded Russian Council for International Affairs spoke about the evolution of Russia’s negotiating position. “This position has become more realistic.”

The current position of the Kremlin, according to comments this week by his spokesperson, Dmitry S. Peskov, is that Ukraine must recognize Russian sovereignty over Crimea and the independence of the Russian-backed separatist “people’s republics” in the east of the country and enshrine a status of neutrality in its constitution. This is still a far cry from what Mr Zelensky has said he would be willing to accept – and it could also puncture Mr Putin’s strongman image at home, exposing him to criticism that he has waged a huge war for limited gain.

“As for NATO, I calmed down on this issue a long time ago, after we understood that NATO was not ready to accept Ukraine,” Zelensky said in an interview. given to ABC News on Tuesday.

Ukraine was also willing to discuss how the breakaway territories “will live”, Zelensky added. “What is important to me is how the inhabitants of these territories who want to be part of Ukraine will live. The question is more difficult than simply recognizing them.

As Russia steps up its bombardment of Ukrainian cities in recent days, there are few signs on the ground that the Kremlin is ready to back down. For Mr Putin, analysts say, the fate of Ukraine is fundamental to how he sees his legacy: that of a leader who brought together what he claims to be historically Russian lands that were divided by the collapse of the Soviet Union. At the start of the conflict, he repeatedly called on the Ukrainian military to lay down their arms and negotiate, apparently expecting the Ukrainians to rally to Russia’s side.

But Ukraine’s fierce resistance and the West’s unity in imposing crushing sanctions revealed that Mr Putin had miscalculated badly. Now, says Mr Timofeev, the Kremlin must choose “between the lesser of two evils”: either accept a compromise that could keep a pro-Western government in Kiev, or keep fighting, risking huge losses both in the Russian army than among the Ukrainians. .

“He has a clear plan right now to brutalize Ukraine. But to what end? US Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken said Wednesday. “What is his endgame? »

The best option, Mr. Blinken said, was to keep extreme pressure on Russia and hope that Mr. Putin “will decide to finally try to reduce the losses he has inflicted and inflicted to the Russian people”.

The United States has avoided high-level engagement with the Kremlin since the start of the war, after an intense diplomatic push by Mr. Blinken and President Biden in the months before the invasion. Instead, amid the fighting, some US allies have stepped up their own efforts to end the war — particularly Israel and Turkey, both of which have close ties to Russia as well as Ukraine.

Prime Minister Naftali Bennett flew to Moscow last Saturday on an urgent mission to see Mr Putin, making the trip even though it was the Jewish Sabbath. He spoke to Mr. Putin by telephone on Tuesday, their fifth conversation since the start of the war.

Israeli officials believe Mr. Bennett is in a unique position to communicate messages between the two sides because Israel is one of the few countries with a relatively functional relationship with Kyiv and Moscow. Israel coordinates with Russia on its military activity in Syria and wants to protect Jewish minorities in Russia and Ukraine.

In a separate effort, Turkey is also trying to facilitate talks between the two sides. Mevlut Cavusoglu, the Turkish Foreign Minister, has spoken to Mr. Lavrov, his Russian counterpart, four times and to Mr. Kuleba, his Ukrainian counterpart, six times since the outbreak of the war.

Turkey is a NATO ally, has supplied Ukraine with deadly effective armed drones, and maintains close cultural ties with the Crimean Tatar minority in Russian-occupied Crimea. But Mr Erdogan also forged a strong personal bond with Mr Putin and, unlike other NATO leaders, refrained from imposing sanctions on Russia following the invasion.

“Turkey’s key position, which is able to talk to both sides, is appreciated around the world,” Erdogan said on Wednesday, ahead of talks between Mr. Lavrov and Mr. Kuleba. “I hope this meeting will open the door to a permanent ceasefire.”

A ceasefire would bring relief to the Ukrainian public, but it would not necessarily mean the end of the war. Instead, analysts warned, both sides could use it to bolster their forces before fighting escalates again.

“For Ukraine, they would use it to get some civilians to safety but would also continue to get resupply from the West,” said Ozgur Unluhisarcikli, director in Ankara, Turkey, of the German Marshall Fund of the United States. “I fear that both sides will use such a ceasefire to strengthen their offensives.”

Russian and Ukrainian officials have already held three rounds of talks in Belarus since the start of the war, clashing over issues such as limited ceasefires and civilian evacuations that could help pave the way for a settlement. wider. Mr Peskov described Thursday’s meeting of foreign ministers, which will take place in the Turkish resort town of Antalya, as “a very important continuation of the negotiation process”.

“The Russian position has been formulated and conveyed to the Ukrainian negotiators,” Peskov said. “We want to have new sets of contacts as soon as possible.”

On Monday, White House press secretary Jen Psaki said the Biden administration supports diplomacy with Mr. Putin by other foreign leaders, including Mr. Bennett, as long as those leaders also engage with the Ukrainian government. She added that the United States was also reaching out to Mr. Putin’s interlocutors “before and after all these conversations”.

Mr Biden spoke on Friday on Ukraine with French President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Olaf Scholz, as well as with British Prime Minister Boris Johnson. The White House said Mr. Macron and Mr. Scholz discussed their recent conversations with the Russian leader.

As for a direct call between Mr Biden and Mr Putin, Ms Psaki said “now is not the time”, given the Russian leader’s “brutal and horrific” invasion.

“But that doesn’t mean he never will,” she added. “We assess that over time.”

Samuel Charap, a former US State Department official and Russia analyst at the Rand Corporation, said the US had failed to prioritize diplomacy over economic and military pressure against Mr Putin.

“I guess it’s because so far they think it’s a stalemate and there’s no way to convince the Russians to change their immediate war aims,” ​​Mr Charap said. , warning that this approach could limit the possibilities of a diplomatic endgame. “For Putin, the President of the United States is the only interlocutor that matters.”

He added that direct communication channels have inherent value even if a deal seems unlikely, as they can set the stage for further negotiations, avoid misinterpretations and potentially help assuage Mr Putin’s most paranoid beliefs. , in particular that the West is trying to organize its overthrow. .

“Putin’s policies and opinions could change, and the only way to find out is to talk to him,” Mr Charap said.

Anton Troianovski reported from Istanbul, Patrick Kingsley from Chisinau, Moldova, and Michael Crowley from Washington. Safak Timur and Ivan Nechepurenko contributed reporting from Istanbul, and Carlotta Gall from Lviv, Ukraine.

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Newsrust - US Top News: Subtle changes raise hopes of ceasefire in Ukraine
Subtle changes raise hopes of ceasefire in Ukraine
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