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Putin Signals Willingness to Discuss Ukraine Conflict with the US

Russian President Vladimir Putin has initiated indirect contacts with the United States to explore the possibility of engaging in discussions aimed at ending the ongoing conflict in Ukraine.

These overtures come as the war in Ukraine enters its third year and appear to be a signal from Putin regarding his readiness to engage in dialogue on matters including potential future security arrangements for Ukraine.

Putin’s Intentions and US Response

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While sources close to the Kremlin have indicated Putin’s openness to talks, US officials have stated that they are unaware of these overtures.

The nature of these signals may be a trial balloon, and there is skepticism among US officials about the seriousness of Putin’s intentions to seek a resolution to the conflict.

Potential Divisions Among Ukraine’s Allies

Credit: Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy speaks to the media during a press conference as Ukraine marks one year since Russia’s large-scale invasion, on February 24, 2023 in Kyiv, Ukraine. — Photo by Oleksandr_Gusev

The hints of Russia’s willingness to engage in talks, even if perceived as disingenuous, could create divisions among Ukraine’s allies.

This strategy could isolate Kyiv and undermine President Volodymyr Zelensky’s efforts to garner support for his peace proposal, emphasizing a complete Russian withdrawal from Ukraine.

Specifics of the Signals

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Speaking anonymously, sources close to the Kremlin have indicated that these signals were relayed to senior US officials through an intermediary last month.

Walking Back on Previous Demands

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Putin may be considering a departure from Russia’s insistence on Ukraine’s neutral status and potentially dropping opposition to Ukraine’s eventual NATO membership.

This key issue led to the invasion.

Likely To Include Some Takeover of Ukrainian Territory by Russia

Credit: In October, the Ukrainians executed river crossings at three different locations in Kherson.(AP: Mstyslav Chernov)

However, the compromise would likely involve Ukraine accepting Russian control over currently occupied territory, amounting to about 18% of Ukraine’s land acquired during the invasion.

Kremlin’s Position and Response

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In response to questions from Bloomberg News, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov stated that President Putin has consistently expressed Russia’s willingness to negotiate with Ukraine.

No Mention of Dropping Ukraine’s NATO Membership Issue

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The preference is for a diplomatic resolution, but continuing the military operation remains an option if diplomatic efforts fail.

However, Peskov did not comment on Russia’s readiness to abandon opposition to Ukraine’s NATO membership.

US and Ukraine’s Perspective

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While acknowledging their openness to dialogue, US officials have emphasized the need for Russia to demonstrate a genuine willingness to negotiate based on principles such as territorial integrity, sovereignty, and independence.

Secretary of State Antony Blinken highlighted these prerequisites for meaningful negotiations during the World Economic Forum.

No Public Indications

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Publicly, Putin has not indicated any intention to halt the conflict at its current front lines, and Kyiv, supported by the US and its allies, remains committed to reclaiming all land taken by Russian forces.

Challenges and Uncertainties for Ukraine

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Despite receiving substantial aid from the US and the European Union, Ukraine’s ability to sustain the conflict remains uncertain, especially with $110 billion in crucial aid pending approval.
Russia, on the other hand, has adapted its economy to support the war effort and secured supplies of weapons and support from Iran and North Korea.

Analysis of Russian Strategy

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Fiona Hill, a former top White House official responsible for Russia, noted that Russia benefits from the perception of a secret back channel for negotiations, as it can create fear among Ukrainians and portray the US as the decisive player in the conflict resolution process.

This strategy aligns with a classic Russian approach.

European Perspectives

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Rumors of a secret back channel for negotiations have circulated in European capitals, although officials have denied knowledge of such efforts.

Henrik Landerholm, Swedish National Security Advisor, questioned the motives behind these rumors, considering whether they aim to gain political advantages or create a moderate image for Putin.

Prospects for Russian Control

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Fyodor Lukyanov, chairman of the pro-Kremlin Council on Foreign and Defense Policy in Moscow, suggested that any agreement formalizing Russian control over occupied territories would lead to a new security system in Europe.

However, he acknowledged that there are no current indications that parties are prepared for such an agreement.

US Position and Russia’s Justification

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US officials consistently have not observed signs indicating Russia’s readiness for genuine negotiations.

For Putin, preventing Ukraine from joining NATO remains a central justification for the invasion, and there is no public indication that his stance has changed.

Stalemate and Implications

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The ongoing conflict appears to be heading towards a stalemate, characterized by a frozen conflict in which Ukraine focuses on defending and rebuilding its territory.

This shift, while not explicitly declared, represents a de facto policy change by the US and Ukraine.

US Domestic Considerations

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Former President Donald Trump, a leading Republican presidential candidate, has suggested the possibility of a quick deal with Putin to end the conflict.

However, experts are skeptical about Putin’s preparedness for concessions and believe he may prefer negotiations that lead to concessions from others.

Reports of a Cease-Fire Interest

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Reports have indicated that intermediaries relayed to US officials that Putin expressed interest in a cease-fire that would maintain the current front lines of the conflict.

Informal Contacts and Track 2 Initiatives

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Over the past year, informal contacts involving US and Russian intermediaries have occurred, exploring opportunities for peace talks.

These Track 2 initiatives typically involve individuals without official positions, allowing governments to deny involvement while staying informed about discussions.

It remains uncertain if any substantial efforts are currently underway in this regard.

High-Level Peace Conference and Russian Criticism

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Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelenskiy and Swiss President Viola Amherd announced plans for a high-level peace conference in Switzerland, focusing on restoring Ukraine’s 1991 borders.

Notably, Russia would not be invited to the conference. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov criticized Switzerland’s support for Ukraine.

Uncertainty Surrounding Putin’s Intentions

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Samuel Charap, a senior political scientist at the RAND Corp., highlighted the uncertainty surrounding Putin’s intentions, acknowledging that these signals may serve various purposes, including testing the willingness of the US to engage in negotiations.

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