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Is a Peace Deal Near? Ukraine Won’t Join NATO in Return for Russian Withdrawal, Security Guarantees

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The United Nations says more than 4 million refugees have now fled Ukraine as Russia’s invasion nears its sixth week. Russia announced plans Tuesday to “fundamentally” cut back military operations near Kyiv and the city of Chernihiv, but Ukrainian officials say Russian forces continue to carry out strikes in or near both cities. Meanwhile, the outlines of a possible peace deal have emerged in talks between the two sides, with Ukraine offering to become a neutral country and remain nuclear-free in exchange for security guarantees. But Ukrainian officials stress a deal can only be reached once Russia withdraws its forces from the country. For more, we go to Kyiv to speak with Peter Zalmayev, director of the Eurasia Democracy Initiative, who says Ukrainians remain “very skeptical” of the Russian president’s intentions. “Ukrainians are very much ready to negotiate, but the question is if Vladimir Putin continues to cling to his obsession to try to control all of Ukraine and control its politics and to install a puppet regime.”

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AMY GOODMAN: The United Nations says more than 4 million refugees have now fled Ukraine as Russia’s invasion nears its sixth week. On Tuesday, Russia announced plans to, quote, “fundamentally” cut back military operations near Kyiv and the city of Chernihiv, but the claim was greeted by deep skepticism from Ukraine. Officials in Chernihiv say Russian forces carried out strikes throughout the night, while air raid sirens repeatedly went off in Kyiv. On Tuesday, at least 12 people died and 33 were injured in the southern city of Mykolaiv after a Russian rocket hit a government building, leaving a gaping hole in the nine-story structure. Meanwhile, Human Rights Watch has accused Russia of using banned anti-personnel landmines in the eastern Kharkiv region.

This comes as the outlines of a possible peace deal emerged Tuesday from talks held in Istanbul, Turkey. Ukrainian negotiators said Ukraine has offered to become a neutral country and remain nuclear-free in exchange for security guarantees. But Ukrainian officials said a deal could only be reached once Russia withdraws its forces. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky addressed the negotiations in a televised address Tuesday night.

PRESIDENT VOLODYMYR ZELENSKY: [translated] Yes, we can call the signals we hear from the negotiating platform positive, but these signals do not drown out the blows of Russian shells. Of course, we see all the risks. Of course, we see no reason to trust the words of certain representatives of a state that continues to fight for our destruction. Ukrainians are not naive people. Ukrainians have already learned, both during these 34 days of invasion and over the past eight years of the war in Donbas, that only a concrete result can be trusted. The facts, if they change on our Earth.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, for more, we go to Ukraine, where we’re joined outside of Kyiv by Peter Zalmayev, the director of the Eurasia Democracy Initiative.

Peter, welcome back to Democracy Now! If you can explain —

PETER ZALMAYEV: Hello, Amy.

AMY GOODMAN: — what’s happening on the ground, but also respond to what look like the outlines of a peace deal?

PETER ZALMAYEV: Well, I mean, we’re seeing this campaign of terror that Vladimir Putin has unleashed against the entire country of Ukraine that’s continuing, you know, indiscriminate bombardments of civilian areas and strikes on critical infrastructure objects such as oil depots, transportation hubs and roads and railways. It is clear that Vladimir Putin is — remains to be hell-bent on creating as much misery as he can in Ukraine, also while — you know, with the view of increasing the outflow of Ukrainians out west to Poland and other European countries in order to create chaos there.

Vladimir Putin — you know, we’ve been hearing signals that the Russian Federation, that the army may be considering dislocating — or, relocating its main forces towards the east of the country, the Donbas. And yesterday they announced that they would be withdrawing many of the troops, the bulk of the troops from the Chernihiv and Kyiv areas. The Pentagon and British Defense Ministry have confirmed that Russia has pretty much depleted its fighting force in the area of Kyiv. It’s simply not sufficient to continue entertaining any plans of a takeover of a city of 4 million people with a large area, and so I think this is being dictated by facts on the ground.

I would also say that Ukrainians remained very, very skeptical about Vladimir Putin’s true intentions. We saw, a few days before the invasion on February 24th, after the Russians announced they would be pulling back all the troops — a few days later, they struck. So, we are very skeptical that this is not just a smokescreen to allow Russians to regroup and to try to take Kyiv a second time.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Peter, while the Russians have clearly been held back in Kyiv, they have — their troops have made significant progress in the south and eastern ends of the country. I’m wondering what your sense is of what could happen in any kind of negotiated settlement in terms of those eastern and southern territories that they’re already occupying.

PETER ZALMAYEV: Yes, indeed, they are close to completing the so-called land bridge that would connect the occupied territory of the Donbas, which has been occupied since 2014, with the Crimea. The battle is raging over Mariupol. Mariupol has still not fallen. And so, the larger strategy, it seems, Vladimir Putin is going to try to divide the country into two, along the Dnieper River, sort of creating this, like — it’s been compared to the North versus South Korea scenario. That’s going to be a [inaudible] Vladimir Putin to achieve, considering that the Russian army currently is highly demoralized, have significant supply issues, logistics, etc. But it doesn’t mean he’s not going to try.

Whatever happens, Vladimir Putin has to have some kind of a credible victory to present to his population, to his elites, in order to continue staying in power. It is a kind of a truism now that Russian leaders, if they lose a war badly, go on to lose power. A very important date is coming up in the Russian calendar, May 9th, the Victory Day, the day of victory over the Nazi Germany. Vladimir Putin is going to want to present some sort of a victory, announce some sort of a victory during the parade, and that victory may be, you know, if he conquers the rest of the Donbas and, once again, if he succeeds in dividing Ukraine in two, which I think is going to be very difficult for him to do.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And what is your sense of the reaction of Ukrainians to President Zelensky’s apparent agreement that Ukraine’s neutrality could be a part of a settlement, and, in essence, not joining NATO, which was originally what the principal issue that Russia was raising before it invaded it was?

PETER ZALMAYEV: Well, I think, from the get-go, for Vladimir Putin, this expansion of NATO has been a red herring. He has used it to justify his attempt to grab land, this 19th century war of conquest that he is prosecuting in Ukraine. So, once again, I think it’s not really what Vladimir Putin is after. I don’t think he ever considered Ukraine to be a security threat to Russia.

And so, the Ukrainians are willing to meet some of the Russian demands. The neutrality status is being seriously considered. A no to NATO is going to be seriously considered. Obviously, Zelensky does not have the kind of mandate. He’s not Russian, and Zelensky is not Putin. He is going to have to submit this to the population in some kind of a referendum and also receive ironclad guarantees from Western partners, including members of the Security Council of the U.N., to keep Ukraine well protected. Demilitarization of Ukraine, as Vladimir Putin announced was his goal in Ukraine, is simply not feasible. Ukraine cannot remain demilitarized. You know, it has to be well protected. But I think, once again, Ukrainians are very much ready to negotiate. But the question is if Vladimir Putin continues to cling to his obsession to try to control all of Ukraine and control its politics and to install a puppet regime.

AMY GOODMAN: Based on the reports in the Russian media to the Russian people, it looks like he will claim victory by consolidating attacks in the east and really focus on talking about Donbas and Crimea. And, Peter, if you can talk about the history of these two places? And has the attitude of Ukrainians changed as a result of this overall invasion of their country?

PETER ZALMAYEV: Well, indeed. I mean, if we’re talking about Crimea and the Donbas and what Russia has done since 2014, it’s not been a success story, to say the least, you know, even though the population there is pretty brainwashed. Obviously, Russians disconnected immediately Ukrainian TV channels and started bombarding folks there with their propaganda. Folks living just across — you know, just across the border from the areas, they have seen what it is like living in the sort of mini-Gulags. That’s essentially what they’re dealing with.

And that explains the unwillingness of the Ukrainians living across the border — Russian-speaking Ukrainians in, like, Mariupol, for example, or Kharkiv — to greet Russians as liberators. This is something Vladimir Putin counted on, going in. We’ve all heard about the scenario of like being greeted with flowers. They packed parade uniforms and were expecting within three days to parade down the main drag of Kyiv. That hasn’t happened. Like I say, you know, it’s been kind of a — you’re hearing this sort of saying in Ukraine now that Putin, Vladimir Putin, the last month, has killed the last Russian in Ukraine. No one wants to be a part of what Russia has to offer. Russia essentially is running on a very nihilistic message, if there is such a message — and there is none. It’s sowing destruction. It’s preaching complete ignorance. It’s creating alternative reality in the minds of the bulk of the Russian population. And Ukrainians do not want to be a part of that.

AMY GOODMAN: You grew up, Peter Zalmayev, in the Donetsk. What will happen to these two areas, Crimea and Donetsk, in addition to the Ukraine promising, as Juan just pointed out, something that Putin was demanding before the invasion, which is that they remain neutral, that they not become a part of NATO? I think there are some broad outlines of a discussion of Crimea won’t be dealt with for the next 15 years.

PETER ZALMAYEV: Well, that’s precisely the sticking point. Vladimir Putin knows that Zelensky is going to be negotiating in a position between a rock and a hard place. He does not have the popular mandate to just sign off unilaterally on, let’s say, recognizing Russia’s sovereignty over the Donbas or Crimea. But a formula is now being searched for, such as freezing this issue for 15 years and entering this long period of negotiations. That is something that may be doable, simply because, truth to be told, Ukraine does not have the strength right now, the requisite force, to liberate those areas.

Having said that, we all know that once Vladimir Putin goes, there’s a good chance that these places, these areas, will revert to Ukraine. And regardless of what happens, the severe sanctions regime and the hundreds of billion dollars of Russia’s sovereign wealth fund that have been frozen on Western bank accounts will only be unfrozen, and sanctions will only be lifted, once Russia leaves the last remaining inch of Ukraine’s territory. That is also something to consider.

AMY GOODMAN: Peter Zalmayev, we want to thank you for being with us, director of the Eurasia Democracy Initiative, speaking to us from just outside Ukraine’s capital, Kyiv. Stay safe.

Next up, the U.S. says it plans to welcome 100,000 Ukrainian refugees. At the same time, it’s preparing to detain a surge of asylum seekers from places like Haiti at the U.S.-Mexico border. We’ll look at the contrast in treatment. Stay with us.

[break]

AMY GOODMAN: “Learning to Lose” by Margo Price, featuring Willie Nelson. And, Willie, our condolences on the death of your sister, Bobbie Nelson.

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