Mar 23, 2022 - Podcasts

Zelensky’s bargaining position

Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky on Monday said he was open to dropping Ukraine's demand for full NATO membership, in exchange for an end to Russia's war. Zelensky has been floating other compromise possibilities this week, too, as talks between negotiators continue to fail. So what is Ukraine's president willing to do or to give up to bring Vladimir Putin's attacks to an end?

  • Plus, why mortgage rates are soaring.
  • And, the pandemic renaissance for reading

Guests: Axios' Dave Lawler and Erica Pandey.

Credits: Axios Today is produced by Niala Boodhoo, Sara Kehaulani Goo, Julia Redpath, Alexandra Botti, Nuria Marquez Martinez, Sabeena Singhani, Lydia McMullen-Laird, and Alex Sugiura. Music is composed by Evan Viola. You can reach us at [email protected] You can text questions, comments and story ideas to Niala as a text or voice memo to 202-918-4893.

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NIALA BOODHOO: Good morning! Welcome to Axios Today! It’s Wednesday, March 23rd. I’m Niala Boodhoo. Today: Mortgage rates hit a three year high. Plus, the pandemic renaissance for reading. But first, today’s One Big Thing: Zelensky’s bargaining position

Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky Monday said he was open to dropping Ukraine's demand for full NATO membership in exchange for an end to Russia's war. Zelensky has been floating other compromise possibilities this week too as talks between negotiators continue to fail. So what is Ukraine's president willing to do or to give up to bring Vladimir Putin's attacks to an end? Axios’ world editor, Dave Lawler has more on that. Hey Dave.


NIALA: Dave - Ukraine is in a difficult position - first can you remind us what Putin is demanding?

DAVE: Sure, so when Vladimir Putin announced that he was going into Ukraine, he said that he wanted to quote “demilitarize and deNazify” the country, which was pretty universally taken as a demand that Ukraine's entire government change. But we're getting to the point now where that doesn't look as imminent as perhaps he may have thought it was in the scheme of the war. And the Russian position has changed somewhat, but they continue to demand neutrality for Ukraine after the war. They continue to demand that Ukraine recognize Crimea, which was annexed by Russia in 2014, as part of Russia. And they continue to demand that Ukraine recognize these so-called republics in Eastern Ukraine as independent. So those are their three main demands. Even if they're no longer calling for regime change in Kiev.

NIALA: And that neutrality essentially means no NATO membership?

DAVE: Right. So we didn't actually know exactly what it meant initially. The Kremlin now says that a model could potentially be countries in Europe, like Austria, that aren't part of NATO, but are part of the EU. So that is a softer version of neutrality that would let Ukraine integrate into theWest without being a part of NATO, without hosting NATO troops on its soil. Again, do we know that that's what Vladimir Putin thinks? That's what his spokesman said, but we haven't heard directly from Putin on this point. And so we should take everything that comes out of the Kremlin with a grain of salt.

NIALA: And have we learned this week about where Zelensky stands on this?

DAVE: So Zelensky said that basically he recognizes that Ukraine will not be invited into NATO. And so he's basically saying that we want a different form of security guarantee. We want other countries to come together and say, okay, you're not going to be part of a defensive alliance with us. But we'll take steps to ensure that you can't be invaded again, basically. So he is open to a vision of Ukraine security that does not involve NATO membership, which is a signal of flexibility on his side of the equation.

NIALA: What about giving up Crimea and the Donbas region?

DAVE: That is a little bit less clear. Now Zelensky is calling for direct talks with Putin. He says this is all up for discussion, but he's also said that Ukraine can't accept an outcome where its territorial integrity is compromised. Now, obviously admitting that parts of your country will never be under your control again would be a massive compromise in terms of the territorial integrity of the country. So we don't know exactly where he comes down on the issue of Crimea and the Donbas Republics. I think a lot of people are looking at it and thinking even if both sides are serious, how do they get to a landing spot where they can both live with the outcome there?

NIALA: And Zelensky has been pretty clear that regime change or him giving up the presidency is not on the table?

DAVE: Right. Exactly. He's staying in Kiev. He's staying in power. He says that a neighbor can't come in and decide who runs a neighboring country. So regime change is certainly off the table on the Ukrainian side, and on the Russian side, officially it's off the table. Now, again. Do we know in his heart of hearts, whether Vladimir Putin still wants to topple the regime in Kiev, if he's able to? We don't know that for sure.

NIALA: So what are you watching for when it comes to the idea of a possible compromise?

DAVE: Well, I'm looking for the signals coming out of these negotiations, which have been taking place at a lower level between both sides. I'm looking for the comments that countries like Turkey, who's actually been quite forward-leaning about what they see as the prospect for a peace deal. They're trying to mediate between the two sides and their public statements are pretty optimistic. So those signs are all relatively positive. What else I'm looking for though: What is Putin saying? Is he willing to meet Zelensky one-on-one? Are we going to start to hear more optimism from the U.S., from Europe, who right now are very pessimistic about the prospect of the peace deal? Does the fact that Putin's offensive is pretty much stalled across the board, change anything in terms of his willingness to negotiate seriously? And I think right now, it's too early to say that these are serious negotiations that are headed for an agreement. But we may get some indications that that's the case moving forward.

NIALA: Dave Lawler is Axios’ world editor and also host of the new season of How it Happened: Putin's Invasion, a new episode for that will drop on Monday. Thanks, Dave.

DAVE: Thanks, Niala.

NIALA: In 15 seconds, the huge jump in mortgage interest rates - in just the past week.


NIALA: Welcome back to Axios Today! I’m Niala Boodhoo. Is this a good or bad time to buy a house? With all the new data out recently about the red-hot housing market - we wanted to catch you up quick on where we’re at, less than a week since the Federal Reserve raised interest rates. Mortgages- and the cost of borrowing - have bumped up quite a bit. Just yesterday Mortgage News Daily reported the average rate on a 30-year fixed mortgage now hovers just over 4.7 percent. Back in August, rates were at 2.8 percent. I asked Axios chief economic correspondent Neil Irwin to do the math for us on how big of a jump that is – and he says borrowers will now spend about 27 percent more per month for the same size mortgage just six months ago. Yes - 27 percent - in just six months. Neil adds that this has been an exceptionally volatile few weeks in the debt markets - which has led to a rapid rise in mortgage rates. It’s too soon to say if this will cool off the housing market - making a more favorable environment for home buyers. But: the higher and faster mortgage rates rise, the more likely it is to slow demand. Which leads me to my question for you: Does the American dream of home ownership feel even more out of reach you right now? You can share your story with me by recording a short voice memo, which you can email to [email protected] - or text to me at 202 918 4893.

NIALA: We spend a lot of time on the podcast talking about bad things that have happened because of the pandemic. But there have been a few silver linings, including the fact that people are reading more. Axios’ Erica Pandey, who is the author of the new Finish Line newsletter, is here to tell us about this. Hey Erica.


NIALA: How much more are people reading now?

ERICA PANDEY: So to take it back just a step, in 2018, the Washington Post published an article that said leisure reading has reached an all time low. But in 2020, the American Time Use survey found that people read for an average of 20 minutes a day in the U.S. And that was about a 20% jump from 2019. So reading had a little bit of a pandemic renaissance.

NIALA: I mean, I love reading, so I'm not gonna say “why is reading important,” but there are implications for this, for our broader society?

ERICA: Yeah. I mean, scholars have been kind of raising the alarm about the decline of reading, especially among teens, because reading is still one of the best ways that we can learn how to think critically and become better informed citizens and voters.

NIALA: And so has this inspired you to read more?

ERICA: Yes, actually. I have set a goal this year to read a book a week, and I've found that it's pretty difficult. And I've had to gamify it a bit. Like I downloaded this app where you put what page number you're on and it auto-calculates what percentage of the book you're done through. So I'm almost racing myself, but how about you? I mean, you're a reader. What are your favorites recently?

NIALA: I do read about a book a week, and it's probably not a surprise to people that I'm a very social, outgoing person. But I find that reading is my quiet time and my solitary time. So I feel like a rainy day, like spending a Saturday, spending a couple hours reading is one of my favorite things to do, to just relax.

ERICA: Yeah, I'm the same way. People say read at night, but I like to read, you know, by the window, natural light, middle of the day, and then just put my phone on the other side of the room and then just really sink my teeth in.

NIALA: I can't read at night because then I won't go to sleep, because I'll finish the book. Axios’ Erica Pandey, who is the author of the new Finish Line newsletter, which you can sign up for. Thanks, Erica.

ERICA: Thanks, Niala.

NIALA: That’s all we’ve got for you today! Text me your feedback and story ideas: I’m at (202) 918-4893. I’m Niala Boodhoo - thanks for listening - stay safe and we’ll see you back here tomorrow morning.

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