As a year dominated by Russia’s war on Ukraine draws to a close, Vladimir Putin has made a point of suggesting he is open to peace talks despite evidence to the contrary, with comments that have been roundly dismissed by Kyiv and the West as a ruse at a time when the prospect of negotiations in the near future appears extremely remote.
Days after saying he wanted an end to his war, the Russian President on Sunday repeated his claim that he was ready to “negotiate with everyone involved in this process about acceptable solutions,” the state news agency TASS reported.
His remark came amid Russia’s tireless bombardment of Ukraine’s energy grid with rockets and missiles, which has sought to wipe out the country’s power as it enters its cold winter months, and follows a ten-month invasion in which Putin has repeatedly attempted to denigrate Ukraine’s sovereignty.
His comments were rejected by Ukraine and the US and are unlikely to be seen as more than a sideshow by the West.
That doesn’t mean Ukraine is not open to peace talks. Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba told the Associated Press on Monday that Kyiv wants UN-brokered discussions to start by February, but only after Russia faces a war crimes tribunal.
But the simple calculus remains unchanged; a conflict that many experts thought would be over within days or weeks has instead become a grueling war that Ukraine may be able to win, so any deal that diminishes the country’s borders or represents some form of victory for Putin would be unacceptable to Kyiv.
What is Russia saying?
Putin’s comments on Christmas Day did not, in fact, mark a departure from most of his rhetoric throughout the war.
Even when seemingly indicating a willingness to negotiate, the Russian leader refused on Sunday to mention Ukraine itself as a relevant party and continued to couch his offer in the false pretext that it is Moscow that is defending itself with what he euphemistically calls a “special military operation.”
“Putin’s discussions of negotiations have focused on putative discussions with the West rather than with Ukraine, and reflect his continual accusations that Ukraine is merely a Western pawn with no real agency,” the Institute for the Study of War (ISW) think tank wrote in its daily assessment of the war on Monday.
“This statement was not a departure from that rhetorical line,” the ISW added.
As has often been the case throughout the conflict, the vaguely conciliatory tone from Putin was quickly contradicted by a heavy-handed message from one of his key officials.
Sergey Lavrov, Putin’s foreign minister, said Monday that Ukraine must fulfill Russia’s demands for the “demilitarization and denazification” of Ukrainian-controlled territories, repeating Moscow’s well-worn and false accusation of Nazism against Ukraine, which it has used in an attempt to justify its invasion.
Lavrov also called for “the elimination of threats to Russian security from there, including our new territories” – a reference to four occupied regions of Ukraine which Russia claimed to annex illegally following sham referendums – or else the Russian military would take action, according to TASS.
“There is just one thing left to do: to fulfill them before it’s too late. Otherwise the Russian army will take matters into its own hands,” Lavrov said. “With regard to the duration of the conflict, the ball is now in the court of Washington and its regime,” he added, again referring to Ukraine as a puppet of the US.
Kyiv officials have been entirely unmoved by Putin’s mention of negotiations.
“Putin needs to come back to reality,” Mykhailo Podolyak, an adviser to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, tweeted Sunday. “Russia single-handedly attacked Ukraine and is killing citizens. Russia doesn’t want negotiations, but tries to avoid responsibility. This is obvious, so we are moving to the Tribunal.”
And the US is in agreement. White House spokesman John Kirby told reporters last week that Putin has “shown absolutely zero indication that he’s willing to negotiate” an end to the war, according to Reuters. “Quite the contrary … Everything he is doing on the ground and in the air bespeaks a man who wants to continue to visit violence upon the Ukrainian people,” Kirby said.
What does Russia really want?
The Kremlin is unlikely to see peace negotiations as a genuine path out of war in the near future – but it may bode well for Putin if Russia is able to get the West talking about that topic, experts say.
“Putin’s December 25 statement is a part of a deliberate information campaign aimed at misleading the West to push Ukraine into making preliminary concessions,” the ISW said, adding that Moscow has stepped up those efforts in December.
Alexander Rodnyansky, an economic adviser to President Zelensky, told CNN Tuesday that Putin’s comments were likely an effort to buy time in the conflict.
“The blitzkrieg has gone terribly wrong for them and they know that, so they need more time to regroup and rebuild their troops,” Rodnyansky said, adding that it was also Kremlin’s strategy to dissuade the world from sending more military aid to Ukraine. “We must not fall into that trap.”
Through the first ten months of war, NATO has stayed largely united in supporting Ukraine’s resistance, with Western nations dispatching billions of dollars worth of weapons and other aid to Kyiv.
Putting a dent in that support remains a key aim for Putin, whose position would be strengthened if foreign leaders leaned on Zelensky to consider a deal with Russia.
Any hypothetical momentum towards a deal could result in a reduction of Western military aid to Kyiv. And it would present a possible face-saving exit route for Putin, whose reputation would be severely diminished at home if he returned from a costly war without meaningful territorial gains.
What is Ukraine saying?
Since the end of the summer, the ground war in eastern and southern Ukraine has been defined by a series of decisive counter-attacks that have pushed back Russian forces and crystallized Western optimism that Kyiv can win the war.
So it makes little sense for Ukraine or the West to even entertain the possibility of a deal that carves up its land or rewards Putin for his invasion.
But Zelensky and his officials have said throughout that they will continue to sound out the possibility of negotiations, without raising any hopes that they would achieve a truce.
“Every war ends in a diplomatic way,” Kuleba told the AP on Monday. “Every war ends as a result of the actions taken on the battlefield and at the negotiating table.”
The Foreign Minister said the UN would be the most natural broker for those talks. “The United Nations could be the best venue for holding this summit, because this is not about making a favor to a certain country,” he said. “This is really about bringing everyone on board.”
Zelensky presented Ukraine’s 10-point peace formula to world leaders at the Group of 20 summit in Bali, Indonesia, in November.
The steps includes a path to nuclear safety, food security, a special tribunal for alleged Russian war crimes, and a final peace treaty with Moscow. He also urged G20 leaders to use all their power to “make Russia abandon nuclear threats” and implement a price cap on energy imported from Moscow.
During his speech to Congress last week, Zelensky said US President Joe Biden endorsed that plan.
But a major climbdown would be required from the Kremlin for Putin to accept those terms. And Zelensky has not entertained the possibility of giving up any Ukrainian land, nor dropping his efforts to join NATO and the European Union, and while Western support remains strong there is little pressure for him to do so.
Why negotiations remain unlikely
Given the success of Ukraine’s military in recent months, the ongoing solidarity in NATO’s stance, and the unequivocal nature of Kyiv’s desire to regain and maintain control of its pre-2014 borders, there is little sign that negotiations can bring about an end to the war in its current phase.
A decisive swing on the battlefield in the New Year could force a change in the calculus, but both sides are dug into what will many observers believe could become a long and grinding conflict.
And Zelensky’s visit to the US – his first overseas trip in ten months – shows his intention to keep his allies focused on the conflict and united in their support.
“For me, as president, a just peace is no compromises as to the sovereignty, freedom and territorial integrity of our country, the payback for all the damages inflicted by Russian aggression,” Zelensky said during his joint press conference with Biden at the White House.
And Biden told reporters that he and Zelensky “share the exact same vision” for peace.
Biden said the United States and its allies will focus on continuing “to help Ukraine succeed on the battlefield.”
“It can succeed in the battlefield with our help, and the help of our European allies and others, so that if and when President Zelensky is ready to talk to the Russians, he will be able to succeed as well, because he will have won on the battlefield.”
CNN’s Josh Pennington, Hira Humayun, Xiaofei Xu