May 23, 2022 - Politics & Policy

Why Zelensky doubts he can deal with Putin

Zelensky interview with Jonathan Swan
Jonathan Swan's interview with Zelensky at Davos. Photo: Ukraine House Davos

Volodymyr Zelensky is no longer so eager to meet with Vladimir Putin.

Why it matters: In our interview tonight — our third in the past 18 months but first since the invasion — the Ukrainian president seemed less hopeful about diplomacy with the Russian president than I've heard from him previously.

  • Zelensky had repeatedly said that he wants to meet with Putin.
  • But in his video call into Ukraine House Davos, on the sidelines of the World Economic Forum, he told me it's becoming "more and more difficult" to entertain high-level meetings with Russia as the war drags on and Putin commits more atrocities.

What they're saying: "It is difficult because there is the line that can hardly be crossed, after Bucha, Irpin, Mariupol and other towns and cities," Zelensky said, referring to Russian massacres of Ukrainian civilians.

  • "We cannot avoid this meeting with the president of the Russian Federation, but after the atrocities that they committed, I cannot be too excited about such a meeting or meetings with the intermediaries."

Between the lines: Top officials in Zelensky's administration and military have recently sounded more aggressive and less willing to concede anything to Russia in negotiations. Their confidence has grown as Ukraine's forces achieve battlefield victories.

  • Zelensky's senior negotiator, Mykhailo Podolyak, told Reuters on Saturday that Ukraine must not make any concessions to Russia: "The (Russian) forces must leave the country and after that, the resumption of the peace process will be possible," he said.
  • Zelensky's military intelligence chief, Maj. Gen. Kyrylo Budanov, has gone even further, telling The Wall Street Journal: "Russia will lose in the end, and Ukraine will recover all its temporarily lost territories. It will do so by force, exclusively by force, because no other way exists."
  • That even applies to Crimea — a move that many U.S. and European officials consider unrealistic and potentially dangerous, as a desperate Putin might resort to even more extreme measures.

Those declarations are more strident and uncompromising than anything Zelensky has been saying. I pressed Zelensky on this, asking whether he agrees with Budanov's statement that Ukraine will recover all its territories "exclusively by force."

  • Zelensky seems not to agree. In a remarkable exchange, he tried dodging the question several times, praising Budanov's "spirit" and "confidence" as a military leader. But he eventually acknowledged that the approach could incur "hundreds of thousands" of casualties: "The price matters. Everything has its price."
  • Politico recently reported that the leaders of Germany, France and Italy are worried about the implications of a total defeat of Russia — a humiliation that could destabilize an unpredictable regime with nuclear weapons.
  • Zelensky has said the West should not base its decisions to defend Ukraine on a fear of Russia's aggression; but he was also unwilling to say that he would try to take back Crimea by force.

The bottom line: Zelensky suggested to a group of Russian journalists in a March interview that he was willing to offer neutrality and give up on NATO membership in exchange for strong security guarantees. He also suggested that if Russian troops return to the pre-Feb. 24 lines, it would be possible to negotiate over the Donbas and Crimea. Those seemed to be the basic contours of a possible deal.

  • But Zelensky cannot strike a peace deal on his own. He needs Putin and political support in Ukraine, where members of parliament are unlikely to ratify a treaty offering territorial concessions.
  • The longer the war drags on and the more atrocities the Russians commit, the more hardened many Ukrainian people may become to the prospect of giving over any land to Putin.
  • Zelensky still seems inclined towards negotiating. "Diplomacy leads to peace, and peace is desirable for every human being" from those fighting on the front lines to the "couch potato," he said, his comedian past shining through. But his no-punchline message was that this path narrows the more time passes. And every day, the body bags are piling up.
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