Russian, Ukrainian Presidents Propose Talks in Minsk

But early indicators suggest Moscow seeks full surrender of Ukrainian government.

By , a national security and intelligence reporter at Foreign Policy.
Ukrainian soldiers walk past a sign reading "I Love Ukraine" in Independence Square in Kyiv.
Ukrainian soldiers walk past a sign reading "I Love Ukraine" in Independence Square in Kyiv.
Ukrainian soldiers walk past a sign reading "I Love Ukraine" in Independence Square in the Ukrainian capital of Kyiv on Feb. 25. Sergei Supinsky/AFP via Getty Images

As Russian troops entered the outskirts of the Ukrainian capital of Kyiv on Friday, Russian officials indicated that Moscow was willing to send a delegation to Belarus for talks with their Ukrainian counterparts. 

But early indicators suggest that Moscow still seeks the full surrender of the Ukrainian government. 

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky earlier urged Russian President Vladimir Putin to meet for talks and indicated that he would be willing to discuss Ukraine’s “neutral status,” which would mark a dramatic shift for a country that currently seeks membership in both NATO and the European Union. 

As Russian troops entered the outskirts of the Ukrainian capital of Kyiv on Friday, Russian officials indicated that Moscow was willing to send a delegation to Belarus for talks with their Ukrainian counterparts. 

But early indicators suggest that Moscow still seeks the full surrender of the Ukrainian government. 

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky earlier urged Russian President Vladimir Putin to meet for talks and indicated that he would be willing to discuss Ukraine’s “neutral status,” which would mark a dramatic shift for a country that currently seeks membership in both NATO and the European Union. 

Putin’s press secretary, Dmitry Peskov, said he considered “demilitarization and denazification” of Ukraine to be an “inseparable” component of the country’s neutrality.

Top Russian officials, including Putin, have repeatedly sought to justify the invasion as a bid to oust what they have falsely characterized as a fascist government. On Friday, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov described the Ukrainian government, which was democratically elected, as a puppet of both the West and neo-Nazis—claims for which there is no evidence. 

In a video message on Friday, Zelensky called for Europe to impose tougher sanctions on Russia, isolating the country by withdrawing ambassadors, imposing an oil embargo, and abolishing visas for Russian citizens. 

“This is not just Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. This is the beginning of the war in Europe,” he said. 

The Belarusian capital of Minsk played host to two rounds of peace talks in the early years of the war in eastern Ukraine. A deal struck in 2015, known as the Minsk agreement, sought to provide a road map for ending the conflict and reestablishing Ukrainian control over two separatist regions in the country’s east. 

The deal succeeded in bringing an end to the most intense phase of the fighting, but Moscow has continued to back its proxies in the Donbass region.

Putin’s decision on Monday to recognize the independence of the so-called Donetsk People’s Republic and Luhansk People’s Republic was widely seen as the death knell for the Minsk deal. 

At the time the deal was struck, Belarusian President Aleksandr Lukashenko won plaudits for offering to host the talks, which precipitated a thaw in relations between Minsk and the West. 

Belarus’s role has since changed drastically. Falsified presidential elections in 2020 prompted mass protests in Belarus, followed by a violent crackdown that left Lukashenko increasingly dependent on Moscow for his political survival. 

In recent weeks, Russia amassed what U.S. officials estimate are 30,000 troops in Belarus, which appear to have remained in the country following joint military exercises. 

Early on Thursday, as Russia’s invasion got underway, the Ukrainian border service reported coming under attack from Russian forces, supported by Belarusian troops.

Amy Mackinnon is a national security and intelligence reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @ak_mack

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