Hints of a Ukraine-Russia Deal?

Zelensky appears to float suggestions of a compromise, but U.S. officials fear Putin could double down.

By , a senior correspondent at Foreign Policy.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky gestures as he speaks.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky gestures as he speaks.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky gestures as he speaks during a press conference in Kyiv, Ukraine, on March 3. SERGEI SUPINSKY/AFP via Getty Images

Putin’s War

With Russia’s bloody aggression in Ukraine apparently bogged down, there are hints this week that Russian President Vladimir Putin and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky may be tentatively opening themselves to compromises that might halt the 12-day-old war.

Even so, in testimony to the House intelligence committee on Tuesday, Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines told lawmakers that although Putin has been surprised by Ukrainian resistance and the global reaction to his invasion, he “is unlikely to be deterred by such setbacks and instead may escalate, essentially doubling down.”

In a TV interview released Tuesday, Zelensky was asked by David Muir of ABC News how he reacted to proposals from the Kremlin on Monday. “What is your message to Vladimir Putin right now?” Muir asked. Muir noted that to cease hostilities, Moscow was demanding that Ukraine change its constitution to reject any intention to enter NATO as well as recognize Crimea as part of Russia and the two breakaway regions of Donetsk and Luhansk as independent states.

With Russia’s bloody aggression in Ukraine apparently bogged down, there are hints this week that Russian President Vladimir Putin and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky may be tentatively opening themselves to compromises that might halt the 12-day-old war.

Even so, in testimony to the House intelligence committee on Tuesday, Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines told lawmakers that although Putin has been surprised by Ukrainian resistance and the global reaction to his invasion, he “is unlikely to be deterred by such setbacks and instead may escalate, essentially doubling down.”

In a TV interview released Tuesday, Zelensky was asked by David Muir of ABC News how he reacted to proposals from the Kremlin on Monday. “What is your message to Vladimir Putin right now?” Muir asked. Muir noted that to cease hostilities, Moscow was demanding that Ukraine change its constitution to reject any intention to enter NATO as well as recognize Crimea as part of Russia and the two breakaway regions of Donetsk and Luhansk as independent states.

Zelensky avoided answering the question directly but indicated he was willing to compromise on most of those points, saying he was “ready for a dialogue.” Regarding NATO, Zelensky said, “I have cooled down regarding this question a long time ago, after we understood that … NATO is not prepared to accept Ukraine. The alliance is afraid of controversial things and confrontation with Russia.”

On the question of separatist territories, the Ukrainian president also appeared somewhat conciliatory, at least on the issue of Donetsk and Luhansk. “I think that items regarding temporarily occupied territories and pseudo-republics not recognized by anyone but Russia, we can discuss and find a compromise on how these territories will live on,” Zelensky said. “What’s important to me is how the people in those territories who want to be part of Ukraine are going to live.”

In the Ukrainian government’s official release of the full interview, Zelensky also called for a “collective security agreement” that would include Russia, though he added, “We cannot recognize that Crimea is the territory of Russia” and “I think it will be difficult for Russia to recognize that this is the territory of Ukraine.”

On Monday, two weeks after Putin declared in a grandiose speech that Ukraine was “an inalienable part” of Russia’s “history, culture, and spiritual space,” Russian foreign ministry spokesperson Dmitry Peskov told reporters that Moscow was ready to stop its military campaign “in a moment.” The Kremlin’s demands, Peskov said, were that Ukraine also halt hostilities, acknowledge Crimea as Russian territory, accept Donetsk and Luhansk as independent states, and change its constitution to refuse entry into NATO or the European Union. Western-leaning Ukrainians have long sought to join the EU, and Putin’s move to annex Crimea in 2014 was triggered by huge protests that led to the ousting of Ukraine’s then-Russia-leaning president, Viktor Yanukovych, after he avoided signing an association pact with the EU. Only last week, Zelensky asked for fast-track EU membership to help thwart Russia’s invasion.

Putin has falsely suggested he is willing to compromise before, and Russia’s demands are not much different from the past. Even so, after a visit to Moscow on Saturday, Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett—the only Western leader to have met Putin since the invasion—also indicated that a deal might be possible, according to Israeli news reports. Quoting unnamed sources “privy to details about the meeting,” the Jerusalem Post reported that although Bennett did not go to Russia with specific proposals in hand, the negotiations were “much more serious than what the West has been saying.” It added that Kyiv has not shared the details so as to maintain pressure on Putin. Bennett called Zelensky after his talk with Putin, which Zelensky had requested. “Talked to [Naftali Bennett],” the Ukrainian president tweeted. “Thanked [him] for Israel’s mediation efforts. Discussed ways to end the war and violence.”

If Moscow is more open to negotiations, it would signal a change in tone from Putin’s Feb. 21 speech, which occurred three days before the invasion. Since then, the Kremlin has appeared stunned that its attacks on major regions—especially Ukraine’s capital, Kyiv—have been stymied by Ukrainian resistance; Russia has also been flummoxed by the ferocity and unity of the response by the United States and European Union. Both have imposed unprecedented sanctions, effectively cutting Russia off from the international financial system. On Tuesday, U.S. President Joe Biden also announced he was banning imports of Russian oil, gas, and coal to the United States to further deprive Putin “of the economic resources he uses to continue his needless war of choice,” a senior administration official said.

“Putin’s country is already on ropes,” said Richard Andres, a national security expert at the U.S. National War College. “Russia is disconnected almost completely from the world banking system. There are already going to be millions of Russians who won’t be able to get enough to eat or enough electricity.”

Marlene Laruelle, director of the Institute for European, Russian, and Eurasian Studies at George Washington University and an expert on Putin, said that although it is possible Putin is just playing for time so as to regain the military advantage, she believes the Russian leader might be ready to talk.

“I think they are realizing that there is no political solution to the war, and they cannot win in the long run,” she said, adding that Putin probably realizes he can no longer dismiss the charismatic Zelensky as a Western puppet since Zelensky has become an international hero while Putin has been villainized around the globe. “He probably realizes he will have to have direct talks with Zelensky. He has been arrogant, and very often, you lose the war because of your arrogance.”

On Tuesday, both Haines and CIA director Williams Burns said Putin has too much at stake personally to be seen as backing down now. But with Russian discontent in the streets and even within his government rising, the Russian leader might also have to worry about his staying power for the first time. “We assess Putin feels aggrieved the West does not give him proper deference and perceives this as a war he cannot afford to lose, but what he might be willing to accept as a victory may change over time given the significant costs he is incurring,” Haines said.

Michael Hirsh is a senior correspondent at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @michaelphirsh

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