There are signs that Russia and Ukraine might be on the path to negotiating an end to the strategic, military, political, and economic blunder Vladimir Putin begat with his ill-conceived invasion of Ukraine.
Early last week, the New York Times observed that there seemed to be movement in the negotiations.
When President Vladimir V. Putin launched his invasion two weeks ago, he said a primary goal was the “denazification” of Ukraine. He referred to the Ukrainian government as a “gang of drug addicts and neo-Nazis,” making it clear that his aim was to topple it.
But in recent days, the language has shifted, with the Kremlin signaling that Mr. Putin is no longer bent on regime change in Kyiv. It is a subtle shift, and it may be a head-fake; but it is prompting officials who have scrambled to mediate to believe that Mr. Putin may be seeking a negotiated way out of a war that has become a much bloodier slog than he expected.
On Thursday, Foreign Minister Sergey V. Lavrov of Russia is expected to meet his Ukrainian counterpart, Dmytro Kuleba, in Turkey, in the highest-level talks between the two countries since the war began on Feb. 24. President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey, 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 that the meeting could “crack the door open to a permanent cease-fire.”
Leading up to the meeting, both sides have softened their public positions, though they remain far apart. Russia has narrowed its demands to focus on Ukrainian “neutrality” and the status of its Russian-occupied regions, and declared on Wednesday that Russia was not seeking to “overthrow” Ukraine’s government. President Volodymyr Zelensky of Ukraine on Tuesday suggested he was open to revising Ukraine’s constitutionally enshrined aspiration to join NATO, and even to a compromise over the status of Ukrainian territory now controlled by Russia.
“The changes are noticeable,” Ivan Timofeev, the director of programs at the government-funded Russian International Affairs Council, said of the evolution in Russia’s negotiating position. “This position has become more realistic.”
The Kremlin’s position now, according to comments this week by its spokesman, Dmitri S. Peskov, is that Ukraine must recognize Russian sovereignty over Crimea and the independence of the Russian-backed, separatist “people’s republics” in the country’s east and enshrine a status of neutrality in its constitution. That is still far from what Mr. Zelensky has said he would be willing to accept — and it could also puncture Mr. Putin’s strongman image at home, opening him up to criticism that he waged an enormous war for limited gain.
Sunday, there was more happy talk from the participants. This is the Google Translate rendering of a story by the Russian domestic news agency RIA Novosti:
Compared with the beginning of the negotiation process, Moscow and Kyiv have made significant progress in achieving a result, said Leonid Slutsky, a member of the Russian delegation and head of the State Duma Committee on International Affairs.
According to him, the parties have made significant progress.
“According to my personal expectations, this progress can develop in the very next few days into a unified position of both delegations, into documents for signing,” the politician told RT.
How can you not love a Russian politician named “Slutsky?”
The Ukrainians also seem more upbeat about the tenor of the negotiations.
Ukraine’s lead negotiator says Russia is “looking far more properly” at the situation and thinks they may reach “concrete results” in the next few days.
He says Russia has stopped making “ultimatums”. https://t.co/f2KCcYTloe
— Patrick Reevell (@Reevellp) March 13, 2022
The problem for the negotiators, as I see it, is how to bring congruence between the facts on the ground and the set of demands that Putin has, himself, trumpeted to an international audience. Putin’s demands are 1) that the Zelensky government be removed, 2) the Ukrainian military be disbanded, 3) Russian ownership of Crimea be acknowledged by the Ukrainian government, and 4) the Ukrainian government ratifies the independence of Donetsk and Luhansk regions. The last three items were in Putin’s grasp before the invasion; right now, barring a total military and political collapse by the Ukrainian government, the first two demands just aren’t on the table. By Putin having made these demands in public on several occasions, it isn’t easy to see how he backs down from any of them and retains his image as the Russian strongman.
It is difficult to imagine how a compromise can be arranged that will entail the withdrawal of Russian forces from Ukraine to positions occupied on February 23 and the continued existence of the Ukrainian military and the Zelensky government with Putin’s public demands.
If the negotiations are serious at all, the Russians seem to be running a game of good-cop-bad-cop
U.S. intelligence officials say Putin is projecting anger, frustration at Russia’s military failures and a willingness to cause more violence and destruction in Ukraine. They say they worry he’ll escalate the conflict to try to break Ukraine's resistance. https://t.co/Dn85Gsc5jj
— AP Politics (@AP_Politics) March 14, 2022
A French presidency official said on Saturday that Russian President Vladimir Putin “did not show a willingness” to end the special operation in Ukraine during a call with President Emmanuel Macron and Chancellor Olaf Scholz in the weekend.https://t.co/zfnfGvi7l5
— M. K. Bhadrakumar (@BhadraPunchline) March 14, 2022
Anyone that defends national self-determination through democracy has to be clear in the refusal of scams like these. Referendums cannot happen under an active war like they did in Crimea, Donetsk, Luhansk and potentially now in Kherson (and next in Zaporizhzhia). https://t.co/xHfNZdKcji
— Filipe Henriques (@fhenriques) March 12, 2022
Leaking the “Vlad is mad” narrative and setting up a plebiscite for the purpose of carving off yet another AstroTurf “republic” from Ukrainian territory certainly increases the pressure on Ukraine to cut a deal. But, conversely, it could backfire and cause the Ukrainians to dig in even deeper. If the Russians create another fake republic in Kherson, a negotiated settlement short of military victory seems unlikely.
Zelensky says he’s proud of Kherson for protesting occupation. “The invaders in Kherson region are trying to repeat The notorious experience of the formation of pseudo republics. Blackmail local leaders, put pressure on deputies. They are trying to organize the so-called ‘KPR.’”
— Christopher Miller (@ChristopherJM) March 13, 2022
Intel reports indicate that Russia is pulling troops away from the border with Georgia and out of the Far East to shore up the war in Ukraine.
This fits in with an estimate of the Institute for the Study of War last night, which wondered if the Russians were even able to launch an assault on Kyiv in the coming period. pic.twitter.com/tZvjbZOtwY
— Phillips P. OBrien (@PhillipsPOBrien) March 14, 2022
My assessment is that we are just one military reverse away from the negotiations breaking down. If there is a collapse by the Ukrainian army anywhere, the Russians will increase their demands. If the Ukrainians make a significant win anywhere, Donetsk and Luhansk are going to be on the table.
The Russians are playing for time in the hope that “something” happens. The “something” may be military or it may be political. For instance, perhaps Putin intends for the FSB to be the fall guy by giving him bad information (Trouble in Paradise: Putin Arrests Senior FSB Officers Over Ukraine Fiasco). But other than Ukraine acceding to unconditional surrender, the Russians are going to determine the pace and the final terms of any negotiated end to this war.