By Stephen Bryen
First appeared at the Center for Security Policy
If the tea leaves are rightly aligned, there is now progress in the negotiations between Russia and Ukraine. That is shown by the broader cease fire that mostly seems to be in place in the war torn country, and by Israeli prime Minister Naftali Bennett’s call on Tuesday to Russian President Vladimir Putin after again speaking to Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky.
On the face of it, Putin needs a way out. His military has taken very heavy losses and earned two black eyes for their poor performance and their rough attacks on Ukrainian civilians and civilian infrastructure. The Russian people are catching on to the extent of the debacle –even though Putin has shut down Western social media in a futile effort to keep out information about the war and the fate of Russia’s sons fighting there, the Ukrainians have set up telephone hotlines and used them effectively. On top of that, captured Russian soldiers and airmen are offered to call home and tell their families what has happened. While the Russians have stalled on sending Russian soldier’s bodies home for burial, the word is getting around and Putin is mostly the target.
Suffice it to say that Putin needs a deal, notwithstanding the economic impact of Western sanctions.
So does Zelensky, with around 1.5 million evacuated from Ukraine and hundreds, if not thousands of casualties. Moreover, the damage to Ukraine’s infrastructure presages very hard times for the Ukrainian people, even if fighting stops today and for good.
The Russian press carried a story on what Zelensky appears to say could be the format of a deal. The same story was picked up by the Chinese who attributed it to RT, the Russian news outlet that first carried the story. Interestingly, the story disappeared from RT (which is being banned all over the place, a not very smart move) maybe because the Russians don’t want to say more about the negotiations, as they intensify. (RT is a state owned press and propaganda outlet.)
What Zelensky said was (1) that Ukraine could give up on its quest to become a NATO member because NATO, in any case, did not welcome Ukraine quickly enough; (2) that Donetsk and Luhansk, the two “republics” that Russia recognized just before the war started, could become somewhat independent provided the role of Ukrainian citizens was protected; (3) that something could be worked out on Crimea that would be acceptable to the Russians. This was a bold move by Zelensky, although the details would need to be thrashed out. The news reports have not indicated the fate of the nuclear facilities in Ukraine. Russia has taken over the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant and also attacked and damaged a nuclear research institute. Russia says it does not want Ukraine to have nuclear weapons and in any settlement that issue needs resolution.
There is a meeting on Thursday between the Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu and Russia’s Foreign Minister, Sergey Lavrov. It isn’t clear how that meeting is linked up with European efforts by French President Macron and German Chancellor Scholtz and Israeli action as a mediator. But one would hope the Turks are talking to the Israelis and vice versa. Israel’s President Isaac Hertzog is due to visit Turkey this week, which may be one of the bridges. Hertzog will be meeting with Turkish Prime Minister Erdogan.
While the tea leaves may be starting to align, Zelensky has a problem. He must be protected strongly, and some of that protection must come from the United States, Europe, Turkey and Israel. There are some very strong die-hards in Ukraine (plus the ultra-dangerous Azov Brigade) who may try to undermine any deal, and Zelensky could be an internal target as much as a target from outside (e.g., Russian forces). It would be an unmitigable tragedy if something happens to Ukraine’s President. For that reason, Zelensky needs help.