A chance for peace: On Russia-Ukraine talks

Putin should pause the war and start talks on Zelensky’s compromise proposals

March 10, 2022 12:30 am | Updated 01:03 am IST

Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky delivered a Churchill-like speech at the British Parliament on Tuesday, vowing to fight to the end “in forests, fields and streets”. But hours before his speech, through video-conferencing, he sent the clearest signal to Russian President Vladimir Putin — in an interview — that he was ready to compromise on the most sensitive issues such as Ukraine’s bid to join NATO, and the status of Russian-controlled Crimea and the breakaway Donetsk and Luhansk republics. He also called for “a collective security agreement” that would include Russia, the U.S. and Western European countries as part of a lasting solution. What makes his apparent concessions important is that he announced them a day after the Kremlin laid out three conditions to stop what it calls its “special military operation” in Ukraine: It wants Kyiv to accept Crimea as a Russian territory, recognise Donetsk and Luhansk as independent republics and amend the country’s Constitution to drop attempts to join any bloc (NATO) and reinstate its neutrality. While Mr. Zelensky stopped short of offering recognition to the breakaway regions, his offer for compromise and dialogue opened a path towards a political settlement. The Russian Foreign Ministry’s statement on Wednesday that its goals would be better achieved through talks also signals hope for a de-escalation.

In the last two weeks, Mr. Zelensky has emerged as the face of the Ukrainian resistance. But he is also in a difficult situation. The Russian advances are slow given Russia’s relative power, but in the last 13 days, Ukraine has lost sizeable territories, from its northern border with Belarus to its southwestern Black Sea coast. Russia has not taken any major Ukrainian city except Kherson in the south, but most cities, including Kharkiv in the north and Mariupol in the southeast, are being encircled. Kyiv, the capital city, is being enveloped from the east and west. Mr. Zelensky has repeatedly asked for military help from NATO. But his request for a no-fly zone was shot down. Even the Polish offer to send its fleet of MiG-29 jet fighters was dismissed by the U.S., which does not want any kind of military involvement in the conflict. So, the practical solution before Mr. Zelensky is to take advantage of Ukraine’s initial resistance and seek a solution through talks. Against this backdrop, his comment about Ukraine dropping its NATO bid is a welcome step. But the question is whether Mr. Putin would take this and be ready for de-escalation. If Russia had expected a quick collapse of the Ukrainian government, it has been proved wrong. Nearly a fortnight of conflict has taken a huge toll on Russia’s economy. Its ties with Europe have been set back by decades. Continuing this war endlessly does not serve anybody’s interest. If Mr. Putin’s primary concern is Russia’s security interests, he should pause the operation and start serious dialogue with the Ukrainians on Mr. Zelensky’s proposals.

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