Subtle shifts raise hopes for a ceasefire in Ukraine

Military personnel at a barracks used by Ukrainian airborne troops in Mykolaiv, Ukraine, on March 8, 2022. PHOTO: NYTIMES

ISTANBUL (NYTIMES) - When Russian President Vladimir Putin launched his invasion two weeks ago, he said a primary goal was the "denazification" of Ukraine. He referred to the Ukrainian government as a "gang of drug addicts and neo-Nazis," making it clear that his aim was to topple it.

But in recent days, the language has shifted, with the Kremlin signalling that Mr Putin is no longer bent on regime change in Kyiv.

It is a subtle shift, and it may be a head-fake; but it is prompting officials who have scrambled to mediate to believe that Mr Putin may be seeking a negotiated way out of a war that has become a much bloodier slog than he expected.

On Thursday (March 10), Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov of Russia is expected to meet his Ukrainian counterpart Dmytro Kuleba in Turkey, in the highest-level talks between the two countries since the war began Feb 24.

President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey, whose top diplomat has held a total of 10 calls with Mr Lavrov and Mr Kuleba since the start of the war, said Wednesday that the meeting could "crack the door open to a permanent ceasefire."

Leading up to the meeting, both sides have softened their public positions, though they remain far apart.

Russia has narrowed its demands to focus on Ukrainian "neutrality" and the status of its Russian-occupied regions, and declared Wednesday that Russia was not seeking to "overthrow" Ukraine's government.

President Volodymyr Zelensky of Ukraine on Tuesday suggested he was open to revising Ukraine's constitutionally enshrined aspiration to join Nato, and even to a compromise over the status of Ukrainian territory now controlled by Russia.

"The changes are noticeable," Mr Ivan Timofeev, the director of programmes at the government-funded Russian International Affairs Council, said of the evolution in Russia's negotiating position. "This position has become more realistic."

The Kremlin's position now, according to comments this week by its spokesman Dmitry Peskov is that Ukraine must recognise Russian sovereignty over Crimea and the independence of the Russian-backed, separatist "people's republics" in the country's east and enshrine a status of neutrality in its Constitution.

That is still far from what Mr Zelensky has said he would be willing to accept - and it could also puncture Mr Putin's strongman image at home, opening him up to criticism that he waged an enormous war for limited gain.

"Regarding Nato, I have cooled down regarding this question a long time ago, after we understood that Nato (North Atlantic Treaty Organisation), is not prepared to accept Ukraine," Mr Zelensky said in an interview with ABC News on Tuesday.

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Ukraine was also willing to discuss how the breakaway territories "will live on".

With Russia escalating its bombardment of Ukrainian cities in recent days, there are few signs on the ground that the Kremlin is ready to back down.

For Mr Putin, analysts say, the fate of Ukraine is fundamental to how he sees his legacy: that of a leader who reunited what he claims are historically Russian lands that were divided by the collapse of the Soviet Union.

In the early days of the conflict, he repeatedly called on the Ukrainian army to lay down its arms and negotiate, apparently expecting Ukrainians to rally to Russia's side.

But Ukraine's fierce resistance, and the West's unity in imposing crushing sanctions, has revealed that Mr Putin greatly miscalculated.

Now, Mr Timofeev says, the Kremlin must choose "between the lesser of two evils": either accept a compromise that could keep a pro-Western government in Kyiv, or fight on, risking enormous casualties both in the Russian army and among Ukrainians.

"He has a clear plan right now to brutalise Ukraine. But to what end?" the United States Secretary of State Antony Blinken said Wednesday. "What is his endgame?"

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The best option, Mr Blinken said, was to maintain extreme pressure on Russia and hope that Mr Putin "will decide to try to finally cut the losses that he's inflicted on himself and inflicted on the Russian people".

The US has avoided engaging at a high level with the Kremlin since the war began, after an intense diplomatic push by Mr Blinken and President Joe Biden in the months before the invasion.

Instead, amid the fighting, some US allies have stepped up their own efforts to halt the war - in particular, Israel and Turkey, which both have close ties to Russia as well as to Ukraine.

Prime Minister Naftali Bennett flew to Moscow last Saturday on an urgent mission to see Mr Putin, making the trip even though it was the Jewish Sabbath. He spoke to Mr Putin by phone Tuesday, their fifth conversation since the war began.

Israeli officials believe that Mr Bennett is in a unique position to communicate messages between the two sides because Israel is one of the few countries with a relatively functional relationship with both Kyiv and Moscow. Israel coordinates with Russia over its military activity in Syria and wants to protect the Jewish minorities in both Russia and Ukraine.

In a separate effort, Turkey is also trying to facilitate talks between the two sides. Mr Mevlut Cavusoglu, the Turkish foreign minister, has spoken to Mr Lavrov, his Russian counterpart, four times and to Mr Kuleba, his Ukrainian counterpart, six times since the outbreak of war.

Turkey is a Nato ally, has provided Ukraine with lethally effective armed drones and has strong cultural ties to the Crimean Tatar minority in Russian-occupied Crimea.

But Mr Erdogan has also formed a strong personal bond to Mr Putin and, unlike other Nato leaders, has stopped short of imposing sanctions against Russia over the invasion.

"Turkey's key position that it is able to talk to both parties is appreciated in the whole world," Mr Erdogan said Wednesday, before the talks between Mr Lavrov and Mr Kuleba. "I hope this meeting will crack the door open to a permanent ceasefire."

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Russian and Ukrainian officials have already held three rounds of talks in Belarus since the start of the war, clashing over issues such as limited cease-fires and civilian evacuations that could help clear the way for a broader settlement.

Mr Peskov described Thursday's meeting of foreign ministers, which will take place in the Turkish resort of Antalya, as "a very important continuation of the negotiation process".

"The Russian position has been formulated and relayed to the Ukrainian negotiators," Mr Peskov said. "We are interested in having new rounds of contacts as quickly as possible."

On Monday, the White House press secretary Jen Psaki said that the Biden administration supports the diplomacy with Mr Putin by other foreign leaders, including Mr Bennett, so long as those leaders also engage with Ukraine's government.

She added that the US also speaks to Mr Putin's interlocutors "before and after all of these conversations."

Mr Biden spoke jointly about Ukraine on Friday with President Emmanuel Macron of France and Chancellor Olaf Scholz of Germany, along with Prime Minister Boris Johnson of Britain. The White House said that Mr Macron and Mr Scholz discussed their recent conversations with the Russian leader.

As for a direct call between Mr Biden and Mr Putin, Ms Psaki said that "now is not the moment", given the Russian leader's "brutal, horrific" invasion.

"But that doesn't mean he will never," she added. "We assess that as time goes on."

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