NATO allies are divided on whether to talk to Putin

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French President Emmanuel Macron addresses members of the media during a press conference following a special European Council meeting to discuss the Ukraine crisis at the EU Council headquarters in Brussels on 24 February 2022. (Valeria Mongelli/Bloomberg)

As NATO allies discuss the terms of any potential peace deal to be struck between Russia and Ukraine, signs of strategic divisions are emerging within their ranks.

With the war now in its second month, a series of dilemmas are taking shape over what terms Ukraine might find acceptable for any deal, particularly regarding the security guarantees that members of the alliance could offer kyiv.

There are also differences over what additional weapons to send to Ukraine and whether or not talking to President Vladimir Putin is helpful, according to people familiar with talks last week between leaders of the two sides of the Atlantic. and documents seen by Bloomberg.

Some of those differences came to light over the weekend after US President Joe Biden said Putin could not stay in power, then backtracked when his comments drew criticism.

“We shouldn’t escalate, with words or actions,” President Emmanuel Macron told French television when asked about Biden’s remarks. To avoid a military confrontation, the goal is to achieve a ceasefire from time to time and then the withdrawal of Russian troops through diplomatic means, Macron said.

Berlin is on a similar wavelength. Chancellor Olaf Scholz’s chief spokesman, Steffen Hebestreit, told reporters on Monday that “given the horrific images that we have currently had to digest for several days and indeed weeks, the highest priority at the moment is to to be able to reach a ceasefire”. so that the slaughter can stop.

Scholz discussed the negotiation process with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky on Monday.

At a summit of NATO leaders last week, Scholz warned against any hasty action, such as abandoning the NATO-Russia Founding Act. Canceling the deal would permanently close the door on Moscow and remove binding commitments on troop deployments for both sides, according to two officials familiar with the talks.

While Russia has cut all bridges of cooperation for the foreseeable future, the German government sees the possibility that the Founding Act and its guidelines will still be needed one day, one of the people said. Giving it up would be a token gesture that would not help stop the war, another said. Ultimately, the allies will have to find a way to deal with Putin whether they like it or not, the second official added.

Italian Prime Minister Mario Draghi is expected to meet with Putin this week and will call for a ceasefire and humanitarian corridors.

Other NATO members believe that the dialogue that Paris and Berlin are conducting with the Kremlin is counterproductive and could play into Putin’s hands, according to one of the documents.

The United Kingdom, Poland and other central and eastern European countries – with the exception of Hungary – doubt that the Russian president is serious about negotiating an acceptable peace agreement, according to the same document.

At the NATO summit, Polish President Andrzej Duda asked other leaders if they really believed that negotiations on the terms proposed by Putin could succeed and were acceptable, according to people familiar with his remarks. Anyone who supports those conditions would be supporting Russia, one of the people said, of the point Duda was communicating in his intervention.

Those who would push Ukraine to agree to a peace deal without the full withdrawal of Russian troops are “serving Putin”, a diplomat from an Eastern European country has said. And those who frequently reach out to Putin “only do so as part of their campaigns” at the national level.

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson was also skeptical of Putin’s intentions, another person said. Ahead of the meeting, Johnson told reporters that Putin had already crossed a red line with his actions in Ukraine.

“It is right to make the most of any possible negotiated settlement, but clearly we must be aware that he has not delivered on his promises,” Max Blain, spokesman for the Prime Minister, said on Monday. . “Throughout our journey we have seen Putin say one thing and do another and so it is imperative that we judge him and his regime on how they act.

Despite setbacks on the ground, the UK does not believe Putin’s strategic goals have changed, according to a senior UK official.

Two other senior diplomats from the group of nations who doubt a dialogue with Putin told Bloomberg they fear Macron will push Zelenskiy to agree to neutrality on Russia’s terms in exchange for a ceasefire. They noted, however, that Macron had been clear in refuting Moscow’s demands regarding Ukraine’s territorial integrity and sovereignty.

Zelensky said he was open to adopting a neutral status as part of a peace deal with Russia, but such a pact would have to come with security guarantees and be subject to a referendum .

One of the diplomats said that leaving open issues on Ukrainian territory to future diplomatic talks risked repeating past mistakes and would complicate the scope of any security guarantees. A senior Western European official questioned whether the safeguards would apply to Ukraine’s internationally recognized borders or those emerging after the war, according to another document seen by Bloomberg.

Macron said he was talking to Putin because Zelensky asked him to, as well as to try to secure humanitarian corridors. A diplomat said Macron could also relay information to the Russian president about how bad the war was for his troops, as those around him were likely distracting him from the truth.

An Elysée official said France was doing nothing without consulting Zelensky. France demands the full withdrawal of Russian forces, the official added, noting that Macron says so publicly.

The Ukrainian president has repeatedly declared that he will not compromise on the territorial integrity of the country.

European governments are split on similar lines over whether they should extend the reach of sanctions to Russia’s energy sector.

Another area of ​​disagreement among the allies is how much they should arm Ukraine amid fears a cornered Putin could revert to using weapons of mass destruction. The Allies are also confident that in making these decisions they will not contemplate any direct NATO military involvement in the war.

Leaders of the United Kingdom, the Baltic states and most Eastern European countries have called on their allies to send more weapons to kyiv, including anti-aircraft capabilities, to enable Ukrainian forces to continue to repel Russian assaults and bombs, people familiar with the NATO discussion mentioned.

A senior official told his counterparts that Putin didn’t need an excuse if he wanted to act, he would just make one up, according to one of the documents. Although they have provided Ukraine with military support, some Western European governments have noted that there are limits to the types of weapons that can be provided due to fears that events could escalate out of control, the document says.

A French official said sending in tanks – which Macron has publicly ruled out – and jets would add fuel to the fire and play into the hands of hardliners in Moscow.

Meanwhile, a person familiar with the thought in Moscow praised Macron, saying his stance has been positive and helpful in avoiding further escalation. Macron understands that sending weapons to Ukraine would only create more targets for the Russian military and make a ceasefire more difficult, the person said.

Asked if Macron said weapons like tanks were a red line, Zelensky told Economist magazine that France was afraid of Russia and that Boris Johnson was a “more helping” leader.

Bloomberg’s Ania Nussbaum, Kitty Donaldson and Piotr Skolimowski contributed to this report.

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