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Putin Quietly Signals He Is Open to a Cease-Fire in Ukraine - The New York Times - 23.12.23

Despite its bravado in public, the Kremlin has indicated its interest in striking a deal to halt the war — so long as it could still declare victory.


President Vladimir V. Putin’s confidence seems to know no bounds.


Buoyed by Ukraine’s failed counteroffensive and flagging Western support, Mr. Putin says that Russia’s war goals have not changed. Addressing his generals on Tuesday, he boasted that Ukraine was so beleaguered that Russia’s invading troops were doing “what we want.”


“We won’t give up what’s ours,” he pledged, adding dismissively, “If they want to negotiate, let them negotiate.”


But in a recent push of back-channel diplomacy, Mr. Putin has been sending a different message: He is ready to make a deal.


Mr. Putin has been signaling through intermediaries since at least September that he is open to a cease-fire that freezes the fighting along the current lines, far short of his ambitions to dominate Ukraine, two former senior Russian officials close to the Kremlin and American and international officials who have received the message from Mr. Putin’s envoys say.


In fact, Mr. Putin also sent out feelers for a cease-fire deal a year earlier, in the fall of 2022, according to American officials. That quiet overture, not previously reported, came after Ukraine routed Russia’s army in the country’s northeast. Mr. Putin indicated that he was satisfied with Russia’s captured territory and ready for an armistice, they said.


Mr. Putin’s repeated interest in a cease-fire is an example of how opportunism and improvisation have defined his approach to the war behind closed doors. Dozens of interviews with Russians who have long known him and with international officials with insight into the Kremlin’s inner workings show a leader maneuvering to reduce risks and keep his options open in a war that has lasted longer than he expected. While deploying fiery public rhetoric, Mr. Putin privately telegraphs a desire to declare victory and move on.


“They say, ‘We are ready to have negotiations on a cease-fire,’” said one senior international official who met with top Russian officials this fall. “They want to stay where they are on the battlefield.”


There is no evidence that Ukraine’s leaders, who have pledged to retake all their territory, will accept such a deal. Some American officials say it could be a familiar Kremlin attempt at misdirection and does not reflect genuine willingness by Mr. Putin to compromise. The former Russian officials add that Mr. Putin could well change his mind again if Russian forces gain momentum.


In the past 16 months, Mr. Putin swallowed multiple humiliations — embarrassing retreats, a once-friendly warlord’s mutiny — before he arrived at his current state of relaxed confidence. All along, he waged a war that has killed or maimed hundreds of thousands while exhibiting contradictions that have become hallmarks of his rule.

 

While obsessed with Russia’s battlefield performance and what he sees as his historic mission to retake “original Russian lands,” he has been keen for most Russians to go on with normal life. While readying Russia for years of war, he is quietly trying to make it clear that he is ready to end it.


“He really is willing to stop at the current positions,” one of the former senior Russian officials told The New York Times, relaying a message he said the Kremlin was quietly sending. The former official added, “He’s not willing to retreat one meter.”


Mr. Putin, the current and former officials said, sees a confluence of factors creating an opportune moment for a deal: a battlefield that seems stuck in a stalemate, the fallout over Ukraine’s disappointing offensive, its flagging support in the West, and, since October, the distraction of the war in Gaza. The officials spoke on the condition of anonymity, like others interviewed for this article, because of the sensitive nature of the back-channel overtures.


Responding to written questions after declining an interview request, Mr. Putin’s spokesman, Dmitri S. Peskov, said in a voice message that “сonceptually, these theses you presented, they are incorrect.” Asked whether Russia was ready for a cease-fire at the current battle lines, he pointed to the president’s recent comments; Mr. Putin said this month that Russia’s war goals had not changed.


“Putin is, indeed, ready for talks, and he has said so,” Mr. Peskov said. “Russia continues to be ready, but exclusively for the achievement of its own goals.”


Ukraine has been rallying support for its own peace formula, which requires Moscow to surrender all captured Ukrainian territory and pay damages. President Volodymyr Zelensky said Tuesday that he saw no sign that Russia wanted to negotiate. “We just see brazen willingness to kill,” he said.


Early Talks


Mr. Putin first explored peace talks in the early weeks of the war, but they fell apart after Russia’s atrocities in Ukraine came to light. Then, in the fall of 2022, after Russia’s embarrassing retreat from northeastern Ukraine, Mr. Putin again sent messages to Kyiv and the West that he would be open to a deal to freeze the fighting, American officials say.


Some of Ukraine’s supporters, like Gen. Mark A. Milley, then the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, encouraged Kyiv to negotiate because Ukraine had achieved as much on the battlefield as it could reasonably expect. But other top American officials believed it was too soon for talks. And Mr. Zelensky vowed to fight on until the entire country had been freed from Russia’s grasp.


By early 2023, gloom had settled over Moscow. On eastern Ukraine’s frozen plains, much of Russia’s prewar professional force had been decimated, leaving poorly trained draftees and convicts recruited from prisons to be gunned down in haphazardly planned infantry storms.


Mr. Putin said little in public about the war, stoking questions about his plans and motivations. In private, though, Mr. Putin embraced his role as commander in chief with an almost messianic determination during these months, the people close to the Kremlin contend. One said last February that the president held two videoconferences a day with military officials who briefed him on the minutiae of movements on the battlefield.


For the full article with several images, please click here or click on the link below for a copy of the pdf file:



Putin Quietly Signals He Is Open to a Cease-Fire in Ukraine - The New York Times - 23.12
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Reporting was contributed by Neil MacFarquhar, John Eligon, Declan Walsh, Andrew E. Kramer and Valerie Hopkins.


Anton Troianovski is the Moscow bureau chief for The Times. He writes about Russia, Eastern Europe, the Caucasus and Central Asia.


Adam Entous is a Washington-based investigative correspondent and a two-time Pulitzer Prize winner. Before joining the Washington bureau of The Times, he covered intelligence, national security and foreign policy for The New Yorker magazine, The Washington Post and The Wall Street Journal.


Julian E. Barnes covers the U.S. intelligence agencies and international security matters for The Times. He has written about security issues for more than two decades.


President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia speaking at a rally in February at Luzhniki Stadium in Moscow. Credit...Nanna Heitmann for The New York Times


 

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