Ukraine conflict: Putin lays out his demands in Turkish phone call
Turkey has positioned itself with great
care to be the go-between with Russia and Ukraine - and this seems to be paying
On Thursday afternoon, President Vladimir
Putin rang the Turkish President, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, and told him what
Russia's precise demands were for a peace deal with Ukraine.
Within half an hour of the ending of the
phone call, I interviewed Mr Erdogan's leading adviser and spokesman, Ibrahim
Kalin. Mr Kalin was part of the small group of officials who had listened in on
The Russian demands fall into two categories.
The first four demands are, according to Mr
Kalin, not too difficult for Ukraine to meet.
Chief among them is an acceptance by Ukraine
that it should be neutral and should not apply to join Nato. Ukraine's
President Volodymyr Zelensky has already conceded this.
There are other demands in this category
which mostly seem to be face-saving elements for the Russian side.
Ukraine would have to undergo a disarmament
process to ensure it wasn't a threat to Russia. There would have to be
protection for the Russian language in Ukraine. And there is something called
This is deeply offensive to Mr Zelensky, who
is himself Jewish and some of whose relatives died in the Holocaust, but the
Turkish side believes it will be easy enough for Mr Zelensky to accept. Perhaps
it will be enough for Ukraine to condemn all forms of neo-Nazism and promise to
clamp down on them.
The second category is where the difficulty
will lie, and in his phone call, Mr Putin said that it would need face-to-face
negotiations between him and President Zelensky before agreement could be
reached on these points. Mr Zelensky has already said he's prepared to meet the
Russian president and negotiate with him one-to-one.
Mr Kalin was much less specific about these
issues, saying simply that they involved the status of Donbas, in eastern
Ukraine, parts of which have already broken away from Ukraine and stressed
their Russianness, and the status of Crimea.
Although Mr Kalin didn't go into detail, the
assumption is that Russia will demand that the Ukrainian government should give
up territory in eastern Ukraine. That will be deeply contentious.
The other assumption is that Russia will
demand that Ukraine should formally accept that Crimea, which Russia illegally
annexed in 2014, does indeed now belong to Russia. If this is the case, it will
be a bitter pill for Ukraine to swallow.
Nevertheless, it is a fait accompli, even
though Russia has no legal right to own Crimea and actually signed an
international treaty, after the fall of Communism but before Vladimir Putin
came to power, accepting that Crimea was part of Ukraine.
Still, President Putin's demands are not as
harsh as some people feared and they scarcely seem to be worth all the
violence, bloodshed and destruction which Russia has visited on Ukraine.
Given his heavy-handed control over the
Russian media, it shouldn't be too hard for him and his acolytes to present all
this as a major victory.
For Ukraine, though, there are going to be
If the fine details of any agreement aren't
sorted out with immense care, President Putin or his successors could always
use them as an excuse to invade Ukraine again.
A peace deal could take a long time to sort
out, even if a ceasefire stops the bloodshed in the meantime.
Ukraine has suffered appallingly over the
past few weeks, and rebuilding the towns and cities which Russia has damaged
and destroyed will take a long time. So will rehousing the millions of refugees
who have fled their homes.
What about Vladimir Putin himself? There have
been suggestions that he is ill, or possibly even mentally unbalanced. Did Mr
Kalin detect anything strange about him in the phone call? Not at all, he said.
Mr Putin had apparently been clear and concise in everything he said.
Yet even if he does manage to present an
agreement with Ukraine as a glorious victory over neo-Nazism, his position at
home must be weakened.
More and more people will realise that he
overreached himself badly, and stories of the soldiers who have been killed or
captured are already spreading fast.