Diplomatic gambit: Putin tests waters for Ukraine talks with the US

In a diplomatic chess move, Vladimir Putin has initiated discreet communication with the US, exploring the potential for talks to end Russia’s prolonged war in Ukraine. Though Kremlin insiders suggest flexibility on key issues, including Ukraine’s neutral status and possible NATO membership, US officials remain skeptical, viewing it as a potential trial balloon. The nuanced dance of diplomacy seeks to exploit divisions among Ukraine’s allies, complicating President Zelenskiy’s pursuit of support for a peace formula. As speculation mounts, the delicate situation underscores the evolving dynamics in a protracted conflict entering its third year.

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By Bloomberg News

Vladimir Putin is testing the waters on whether the US is ready to engage in talks for ending Russia’s war in Ukraine.

He’s put out feelers to the US via indirect channels to signal he’s open to discussion, including potentially on future security arrangements for Ukraine, according to two people close to the Kremlin.

US officials say they’re not aware of the supposed overtures, which may amount to a trial balloon, and see no indication the Russian president is serious about looking for a way to end the fighting, which has settled into a deadly stalemate as the war heads into a third year. 

Hints of Russian openness to talks – even if disingenuous – could help sow division among Ukraine’s allies, isolating Kyiv and undermining President Volodymyr Zelenskiy’s efforts to win support for his own peace formula, which calls for full Russian withdrawal. 

The people close to the Kremlin, who asked not to be identified to discuss matters that aren’t public, said the signals were conveyed to senior US officials last month through an intermediary they declined to identify. Putin, they said, may be willing to consider dropping an insistence on neutral status for Ukraine and even ultimately abandon opposition to eventual NATO membership – the threat of which has been a central Russian justification for the invasion. 

But it would come at a cost that Kyiv has rejected outright – acceptance of Kremlin control over territory it has come to occupy in recent years in what now amounts to about 18% of Ukraine, including land seized after the start of its invasion two years ago.

“President Putin has stated numerous times that Russia was, is and will continue to be open for negotiations on Ukraine,” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said in response to a question from Bloomberg News. “We are determined to reach our goals. And would prefer to complete it by diplomatic means. If not, the military operation will be continued till we reach our goals.”

“We are unaware of the shifts in Russia’s position described,” US National Security Council spokeswoman Adrienne Watson said. “It will be up to Ukraine to decide whether, when and how to negotiate with Russia.”

While the US is “always open” to talks, “in this moment, I don’t see it,” Secretary of State Antony Blinken said at the World Economic Forum Jan. 17, when asked about prospects for a negotiated long-term cease-fire.

“There has to be a willingness on the part of Russia to engage, to negotiate in good faith, based on the basic principles that have been challenged by its aggression — territorial integrity, sovereignty, independence,” Blinken said.

Publicly, Putin has given no indication he’s willing to stop at the current front lines. Kyiv, backed by the US and other allies, says it aims to restore all of the land taken by Moscow’s forces and giving that up would be politically difficult for Zelenskiy. 

But with $110 billion in vital aid from the US and European Union tied up in the approval process, the outlook is uncertain for Ukraine’s ability to keep up the fight over the long term. Russia, by contrast, has shifted its economy to a war footing and lined up supplies of weapons and other support from Iran and North Korea.

Volodymyr Zelenskiy in Davos on Jan. 16. Photographer: Stefan Wermuth/Bloomberg

“It benefits them for everyone to think that there’s a back channel and it’s so secret no one can figure it out because it scares the hell out of the Ukrainians,” said Fiona Hill, a former top White House official responsible for Russia. 

“The Russians want us to create this idea that the channel is there and that everything depends on the US so no one or nothing else plays a role,” she added. “It’s a classic Russian play.”

The idea that there’s a secret back channel has also circulated in European capitals, though officials deny knowing anything about it.

“I heard these rumors and I don’t know what to make out of them – if it’s to win political gains, to be perceived as moderate,” Swedish National Security Advisor Henrik Landerholm said in an interview in Washington, where he was meeting his US counterpart, Jake Sullivan. “Putin would obviously be pretty happy if he could get an agreement based on the current territorial gains, which is of course out of the question for our Ukrainian friends.”

Fyodor Lukyanov, chairman of the pro-Kremlin Council on Foreign and Defense Policy in Moscow, said that any agreement that formalized Russian control over the occupied lands “would amount to the creation of a new security system in Europe, which indeed was Putin’s primary goal from the beginning. But there’s no signs now that anyone is ready for that.”

US officials have consistently said they’ve seen no indications Russia is ready for serious talks. But after Ukraine’s counteroffensive last year – backed by tens of billions of dollars in allied arms and support – failed to yield major gains, hopes of pushing Russian troops back are fading. 

For Putin, preventing Ukraine from joining NATO has been one of his most-often repeated justifications for the invasion and there’s been no public indication he’s changed his view. 

“We’re headed toward a stalemate, a frozen conflict in which Ukraine focuses more on defending and rebuilding what it has than on trying to retake the Donbas and Crimea,” said Charles Kupchan, senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, referring to Ukrainian lands taken by Moscow. “It is a de facto policy shift even if not a declared policy shift by the US and by Ukraine.”

8/ Positional engagements continued throughout the theater on January 24. https://t.co/sDapHWsG4J pic.twitter.com/4PeLklqms7

— Institute for the Study of War (@TheStudyofWar) January 25, 2024

Russia’s invasion has reinvigorated the NATO alliance, with Finland and Sweden ending decades of neutrality to join. Ukraine’s prospects for membership before the war were distant at best.

Putin may calculate Ukraine would face a long wait and be vulnerable to opposition from individual European leaders such as Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban and Slovakia’s new premier, Robert Fico, who has vowed to veto Kyiv’s application to NATO. In the US, former President Donald Trump, the Republican presidential frontrunner, has hinted at pulling out of the alliance and pledged a quick deal with Putin to end the war.

“I don’t believe that Putin is prepared to negotiate at this time, by which I mean I don’t think he is ready to make any concessions,” said Paul Saunders, president of the Center for the National Interest in Washington. “I’m sure he’d be happy to negotiate others’ concessions to Russia.”

The New York Times reported last month that intermediaries had relayed to US officials that Putin indicated an interest in a cease-fire that would freeze the war along the current front lines. 

Informal contacts involving US and Russian intermediaries have taken place in the past year in attempts to explore prospects for peace talks. These so-called Track 2 initiatives usually involve people with no official positions, allowing their governments to deny any role in discussions while being informed about what’s being said. It’s not clear if any significant efforts are under way at present, however.

Zelenskiy and Swiss President Viola Amherd announced plans earlier this month to hold a high-level peace conference in Switzerland, as Kyiv seeks support for its blueprint to restore Ukraine’s 1991 borders. Zelenskiy said Russia wouldn’t be invited. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov met with his Swiss counterpart Ignazio Cassis at the United Nations in New York on Tuesday. The Russian side criticized “Bern’s reckless support” of Ukraine, the Foreign Ministry in Moscow said later.

“The Russians from Putin on down have been saying publicly that they are ready to talk for months,” said Samuel Charap, a senior political scientist at the RAND Corp. “It may be a trap, a bluff, or a devious attempt at wedge-driving. Or it may be real. Until someone tests that proposition, we’ll never know for sure.”

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