Putin abandons all hope of a deal with Ukraine and switches to a strategy of land grabbing

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Vladimir Putin has lost interest in diplomatic efforts to end his war with Ukraine and instead seems determined to seize as much Ukrainian territory as possible, according to three people briefed on conversations with the Russian president.

Putin, who was seriously considering a peace deal with Ukraine after Russia suffered setbacks on the battlefield last month, told those involved in the bid to end the conflict that he saw no prospect of settlement.

“Putin sincerely believes in the nonsense he hears about [Russian] television and he wants to win big,” said a person briefed on the talks.

Although Moscow and Kyiv agreed on their first draft statement at a meeting in Istanbul in late March, talks stalled after Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky accused Russia of committing crimes of war against civilians in cities such as Bucha and Mariupol.

Putin said peace efforts were at an “impasse” and was furious after Ukraine sank the Moskva, the flagship of Russia’s Black Sea Fleet, according to two of the people.

“There was hope for a deal. Putin was back and forth. He has to find a way out of this,” one of the people said.

After the sinking of the Moskva, “Putin was against signing anything. [ . . . ] after the Moskva he doesn’t look like a winner, because it was humiliating,” the person added.

Ukrainian and Western officials had always doubted his commitment to the peace talks, suspecting it was a way to buy time for Moscow’s offensive.

The Russian president appears to have a distorted view of the war as exposed by his generals and portrayed on Russian television, people briefed on conversations with him said.

They added that he had insisted, despite all evidence to the contrary, that his forces had not targeted civilians in attacks such as the siege of the Azovstal steelworks, the last stronghold. Ukrainian forces in the largely destroyed city of Mariupol.

Damaged buildings in Mariupol. Volodymyr Zelensky has warned he will not continue negotiations if people trapped in the besieged city are killed © Alexander Ermochenko/Reuters

Intermediaries such as Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, European Council President Charles Michel and billionaire Chelsea FC owner Roman Abramovich have tried to convince Putin to meet with Zelensky in hopes of breaking the impasse.

Russian and Ukrainian negotiators have put most other issues on the back burner while trying to hammer out a deal on guarantees for kyiv’s security if it declares neutrality and abandons its desire to join NATO.

But Putin told Michel in a call on Friday that the talks broke down because Ukraine ‘built a wall’ and said ‘this is not the right time’ to meet with Zelensky, according to an informed person. of this conversation.

Negotiators interpreted this to mean that Russia thinks it can capture more territory, rather than an indication that talks need more time to find areas of agreement.

Putin avoids meeting with Zelensky “with all his might”, a person involved in the peace talks said. “He wants everything to be decided before their personal meeting”,

Zelensky said on Saturday he wanted talks to continue, but said Ukraine would not continue negotiations if people in Mariupol were killed or if Russian authorities in the occupied southern region of Kherson held a separatist referendum.

Officials in Kyiv fear Putin is going further than Russia’s stated goal of capturing the eastern border region of Donbas and instead trying to take over the entire southeast, cutting Ukraine off from the sea, according to people involved in the attempt to end the war.

Ukraine is confident it can repel Russian troops further after defeating Putin’s initial plan to quickly take over the country, but officials are increasingly concerned that Moscow could resort to tactical nuclear weapons if it suffers further setbacks, two of the people said.

During a meeting with Michel in Kyiv on Wednesday, Zelensky said Ukrainian public opinion was not in favor of continuing peace talks, adding that he was aware that fighting Putin was more popular than making concessions. , according to a person briefed on their conversation.

Erdogan spoke with Zelensky on Sunday in a bid to relaunch the stalled negotiations. The Turkish leader said Ankara was ready to help, according to a statement. Erdogan said on Friday he also hoped to speak to Putin in the coming days.

Putin’s spokesman Dmitry Peskov and a representative of Abramovich did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

Additional reporting by Laura Pitel in Ankara

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