Mar 17, 2022 - World

Ukrainians fear Russia diplomacy progress is a head fake

A video is shown playing during the speech by Ukraine's president to the U.S. Congress.

A video shown by President Volodymyr Zelensky depicts damage to his Ukrainian homeland. Photo: J. Scott Applewhite/Pool/Getty Images

The outlines of a potential deal to end the war in Ukraine are coming into focus, but sources on the Ukrainian side tell Axios they fear Moscow's newfound enthusiasm for diplomacy is a ruse.

Why it matters: Kyiv has gained unexpected leverage by withstanding the Russian advance for three weeks, though the humanitarian crisis is deepening daily as Russia shells major cities.

  • President Volodymyr Zelensky has hinted at an off-ramp by acknowledging that Ukraine will not be invited into NATO, but Ukrainian, U.S. and European officials doubt Russian President Vladimir Putin is prepared to take it.

Driving the news: After Zelensky said Ukraine wouldn’t be invited into NATO, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Wednesday that Ukraine's post-war "neutrality" could be based on the Austrian or Swedish models.

Both are non-NATO members in the EU and firmly anchored in the West.

  • The FT then reported Russia and Ukraine had discussed a "15-point" draft peace plan during Monday's negotiations, and that significant progress had been made toward a deal. It would include Ukraine ruling out joining alliances or hosting foreign troops but receiving security guarantees from countries like the U.S., U.K. and Turkey, per the FT.
  • No agreement has been reached on Russia's other core demands, including that Ukraine recognizes Russia's sovereignty in Crimea and the independence of the eastern "republics" of Donetsk and Luhansk.
  • But at least in public, Russian officials have dropped their calls for regime change and "demilitarization," and Peskov's implication that Ukraine could join the EU was particularly striking.

What they're saying: An adviser to Zelensky told Axios he believes the Russians aren't yet serious about reaching a deal, though one could be reached in the next few weeks if the West and Ukrainian forces continue to pile pressure on Putin.

  • Maryan Zablotskyy, a member of parliament from Zelensky's party, told Axios the Russian side had started commenting publicly on details of the negotiations despite an agreement not to do so.
  • He said that "damages the process and led us to some further doubts about how realistic it is."
  • Zablotskyy added: "The question is whether [Putin] is really serious. The negotiators who are taking part in the negotiations seem like they are more serious than they were before. However, whether this is a ploy is still to be seen."

The U.S. view is similar. While the White House had avoided high-level dialogue with Russia on the grounds that Moscow wasn't genuinely interested in diplomacy, national security adviser Jake Sullivan did speak to his Russian counterpart on Wednesday.

  • However, the official White House statement on the call noted that "if Russia is serious about diplomacy, then Moscow should stop attacking Ukrainian cities and towns."
  • U.S. officials continue to doubt Putin wants peace, as President Biden made clear Wednesday when he announced an additional $800 million in military aid. He also warned "a long and difficult battle" was likely.
  • Two European diplomats briefed on talks between Putin and his German and French counterparts also said they continue to expect further escalation from Russia for the time being.

On the Russian side, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov has said that the text of a potential deal is “close to being agreed” to.

  • But Putin himself reiterated his baseless claims that Zelensky's "pro-Nazi" government was committing genocide and seeking nuclear weapons.
  • Putin also said his "special military operation" was proceeding "successfully" and would be "solved" as planned.

What to watch: Military analysts have warned that Putin might soon seek a ceasefire to resupply his troops — without any intention of ending the war altogether.

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