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Intermediaries seek diplomatic opening, despite gloom about Putin’s aims in Ukraine

Some officials trying to broker an agreement to end the war believe positions are shifting ever so slightly in Moscow and Kyiv, but major differences and doubts remain

This combination of photos shows, from left, Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky and Russian President Vladimir Putin. (Jack Guez/AFP/Getty Images; Sergei Supinsky/AFP/Getty Images; Sergei Guneyev/Sputnik)
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Some officials trying to advance talks between Russia and Ukraine to end the war are seeing positions shift ever so slightly in Moscow and Kyiv, but a huge gap remains to be bridged to stop the bloodshed in a conflict about to enter its third week.

Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett went to Moscow last weekend to meet with Russian President Vladimir Putin and since then has spoken to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky four times and to Putin twice more, an Israeli official familiar with the talks said.

The early-stage negotiations haven’t resulted in any breakthroughs, but the open channels of communication — which come alongside similar efforts by European officials — are viewed as positive, as world leaders pressure Putin to pull back and end his invasion of Ukraine.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov is due to meet Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba in Turkey on Thursday, the sort of direct high-level engagement with the Ukrainian government that Moscow has been eschewing for months. Zelensky’s calls to hold direct negotiations with Putin have been spurned.

German Chancellor Olaf Scholz and French President Emmanuel Macron have also spoken with Putin and Zelensky in recent days, attempting to serve as intermediaries to end the war. But European officials say they remain dubious about Putin’s seriousness to engage in any settlement at this stage.

“Everything helps,” said German government spokesman Steffen Hebestreit. “It is good to engage in talk with both sides.”

Hebestreit noted that talks in recent days have gone beyond negotiations about humanitarian corridors to evacuate civilians from besieged cities to touch on other issues.

A new iron curtain descends on Russia amid its invasion of Ukraine

Macron spoke to Putin by phone for nearly two hours on Sunday, but French officials did not come away thinking the Kremlin was moderating its demands. During the conversation, Putin “was not softening his position at all,” said a French official familiar with the conversation who, like others, spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive diplomacy. “In fact he was hardening.”

On the battlefield, there also has been little sign of de-escalation.

The Ukrainian government said Wednesday that Russian forces struck a maternity hospital in the city of Mariupol, in what Zelensky described as an atrocity in a statement on Twitter. Russian forces have seized cities in Ukraine’s south and continued their campaign to close in on Ukraine’s two biggest cities.

Still, the nearly two weeks of war have shown that Putin may have miscalculated, failing to appreciate the level of resistance that Russian forces would face in Ukraine and likely realizing now that his effort to subdue the country will require far more troops than his military amassed. Russia may also have been taken aback by the severity of U.S. and European sanctions.

In a video on Feb. 24, Putin announced what he called a “special military operation” against Ukraine, presenting his invasion as an offensive designed to protect people in the Russian-backed separatist regions in Ukraine’s east, which have been at war with Ukrainian forces since 2014.

Putin promised to “denazify” and “demilitarize” Ukraine and “bring to trial those who perpetrated numerous bloody crimes against civilians.”

Though he said Russia didn’t intend to occupy Ukraine, Putin strongly suggested he would seek to redraw Ukrainian borders, partition the country or install a Kremlin-friendly government.

He said Ukrainians were not asked how they wanted to “build their lives” when the country’s boundaries were established at the outset of the Soviet Union and redrawn after World War II. All people “must be able to enjoy this right to make a free choice,” Putin said, later speaking of a Russia and Ukraine that would turn the page to become a “single whole — despite the existence of state borders.”

Some officials and analysts viewed more recent statements by Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov as a climb down from the initial maximalist aims Putin set out in his Feb. 24 speech.

Peskov, speaking after a third round of talks between Ukrainian and Russian delegations in Belarus, said on Monday that Russia is prepared to stop its military operations in Ukraine “at any moment” if Kyiv fulfills Moscow’s demands.

Ukraine must change its constitution — which currently enshrines its NATO ambitions in law — and formally disavow any aim to join “any sort of bloc,” Peskov said. He said Ukraine must also recognize separatist republics in Donetsk and Luhansk as independent and acknowledge Crimea, which Moscow annexed from Ukraine in 2014, as Russian territory.

The Kremlin spokesman said Russian forces were “completing” Ukraine’s “demilitarization,” in an apparent reference to strikes by the Russian armed forces against Ukrainian military targets.

U.S. and allies quietly prepare for a Ukrainian government-in-exile and a long insurgency

On Wednesday, Russian foreign ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova said Russia was not aiming to overthrow Ukraine’s government or occupy Ukraine, even though Russian forces have been hoisting Russian flags in parts of Ukraine they have taken.

“You’ll notice that in recent days, the Russians have eased up on their rhetoric about needing to see the denazification of Ukraine, which could signal an opening to negotiate with the Zelensky government,” said Jeremy Shapiro, research director at the European Council on Foreign Relations.

One Western official also noted a shift in the Kremlin’s communications in the past three days to focus more on the separatist regions and Crimea than on all of Ukraine.

French officials, however, believe that as Putin faces resistance in Ukraine, “he will double down rather than minimize his attacks,” and they say in conversations with Macron, the Russian president has not appeared open to withdrawing his demands that Ukraine “demilitarize or denazify,” a phrase interpreted as a demand that Zelensky leave power.

The United States also doubts that Putin has backed off his maximalist demands, and U.S. officials say they are not even engaging Moscow directly about diplomatic off-ramps because they don’t believe the Kremlin is serious about negotiating in good faith.

Other European officials are also skeptical of negotiations. One senior European official said an agreement with Putin risks allowing him to repeat similar aggression at a more dangerous level. “I’m very, very skeptical about a negotiated solution that gives him something for that reason,” the official said. “Because unless he is seen to lose, we will be in a worse position in few years’ time.”

Top Ukrainian officials also appear to have shifted their positions from where they were before the war started two weeks ago.

Zelensky, in an interview with ABC News on Tuesday, said he was no longer pressing for NATO membership for Ukraine. Zelensky noted he had “cooled down regarding this question a long time ago,” because the alliance is not prepared to accept Ukraine. He said he didn’t want to lead a country “begging” for something on its knees, and reiterated his call for direct talks with Putin.

“What needs to be done is for President Putin to start talking, instead of living in an information bubble without oxygen,” Zelensky said.

The Ukrainian president also said that a diplomatic solution could be reached regarding the Russian-backed separatist republics and Crimea.

In comments on Wednesday, Zelensky’s deputy chief of staff, Ihor Zhovkva, told Bloomberg News that Ukraine is ready for a diplomatic solution and is prepared to discuss formal neutrality for the country, as the Kremlin has demanded, but he noted Ukraine will not trade “a single inch” of its territory.

“If there are even the smallest glimmers of opportunity in the diplomatic sphere then we should be talking about them and encouraging them,” said Andrea Kendall-Taylor, a senior fellow and Russia specialist at the Center for a New American Security.

But she said there may not be “a negotiated settlement until there is a perceived stalemate on the battlefield.”

Michael Birnbaum and Karen DeYoung contributed to this report.