Is a meeting between Volodymyr Zelensky, the Ukrainian president, and Vladimir Putin, his Russian counterpart, on the table? Last week the Kremlin said it was “open” to a summit of the two leaders to discuss ending the war, though it did not commit to one. In a video address released early on Monday (14 March), Zelensky said that his negotiators would discuss a meeting with Putin in the fourth round of negotiations between Ukrainian and Russian delegates.
“Our mission is clear: to do everything we can to ensure a meeting of the two presidents, the meeting that I am sure people are waiting for,” Zelensky said. The Ukrainian side is understood to believe that any agreement on a lasting ceasefire will need to be made by Putin, because his is the only authority of any consequence in Russia.
Russia’s invasion has run into much firmer resistance than Putin hoped. Moscow is believed to have expected to take Kyiv in two days and the country in two weeks. Russian troops, faced with ongoing logistics and morale issues, have made much slower progress than that, though they are still advancing in the south and towards the capital.
Increasingly brutal Russian tactics have turned frontline cities such as Mariupol into rubble, killing civilians and trapping hundreds of thousands in dire siege conditions.
Accordingly, last week the Kremlin appeared to soften its demands of Ukraine. Where previously Moscow had insisted its goals were the “demilitarisation” and “denazification” of the country – widely taken to mean regime change in Kyiv – it has recently said that it wants Ukraine to recognise Crimea as Russian, accept the independence of the two Russian-backed separatist statelets in the east of the country, and adopt constitutional neutrality. As an opening gambit, these are significant concessions from the Russian side.
Zelensky has said that he will “consider” discussing the status of Crimea and the unrecognised republics. In the same remarks, he added that he had become disillusioned with Nato, noting that the alliance was clearly not in a hurry to admit Ukraine any time soon. If both sides are sincere, the contours of a deal are there.
And both sides need a deal. Russia’s initial blitzkrieg strategy and hopes of a total military victory appear to have been predicated on faulty intelligence suggesting the Ukrainian armed forces and state would collapse almost immediately. The arrest of Sergey Beseda, the head of the FSB’s foreign intelligence branch, suggests the regime is searching for a scapegoat for the disastrous initial stages of the war. The costs of the invasion are turning out to be much higher for Russia than Putin is likely to have anticipated. Western sanctions are crippling the country’s economy while the military has suffered casualties at a higher rate than any Russian or Soviet war in recent history. Even if Russia somehow manages to conquer the country, it would need to sustain a long-term occupation while also taking on the costs of rebuilding a destroyed nation at the time when it can least afford it. A peace deal is clearly in Moscow’s interest. Whether Putin understands that is another question.