Is it possible to negotiate with Putin?
By Ulrike Simon
[This article posted on 3/15/2023 is translated from the German on the Internet, Kann man mit Putin verhandeln? – MAKROSKOP.]
Jürgen Habermas advocates negotiations to end the Ukraine war. But would Putin go along with it? An interview with Naftali Bennett provides deep insight into peace negotiations after the first weeks of war.
Only counter-violence can help against the invasion of a sovereign state in violation of international law. For this reason, the Western alliance is not only justified, but even politically obligated to assist Ukraine with all the means at its disposal. Negotiations with the aggressor cannot be justified. Russia must not be allowed to win.
This view determines the current political discussion in Western countries. Moreover, talks about a cease-fire or even a peace settlement are not possible because there is no willingness to do so on either side.
Such considerations did not prevent the then Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett from intervening as a mediator. Immediately after the Russian invasion of Ukraine, he held talks with both warring parties at the request of Ukrainian President Selensky, as he reported in an interview with journalist Hanoch Daum.
The nearly five-hour interview with the Israeli politician, dated February 4, 2023, deserves more attention than it has received in the media so far. It can be considered a historical document because Bennett, over the course of 45 minutes (2:19 - 3:04), for the first time provides very vivid insights into his personal encounters with Russian President Putin, and especially into the negotiations in the very first weeks of the war. On only the second Saturday after the Russian invasion of Ukraine, he secretly (2:49:32) visited Moscow as Israeli prime minister to mediate in the ceasefire negotiations that had begun in Belarus and later continued in Istanbul.
This was not done without self-interest, for in the face of war, the State of Israel was in a quandary: On the one hand, it was under considerable pressure to side unequivocally with the West and even to supply weapons to Ukraine. On the other hand, there are many reasons for Israel to maintain a good relationship with Russia, and not to exacerbate tensions in the Syrian conflict, where the states are on opposing sides. "When I am pressured by two sides, I pursue a third strategy, which is to contact both sides and try to mediate," Bennett explained.(2:31:22)
So, he said, he called Putin, and first told him Israel's position on the Ukraine war: no arms deliveries, but humanitarian aid in the form of a field hospital in Lvov. Putin had agreed to this. Then he - Bennett - offered himself as a mediator, and this role was accepted by both Putin and the West.
"I knew that the trust I had built with Putin was a rare commodity. America didn't know how to communicate then, and doesn't know how to communicate now."
Bennett had visited Putin two months before the war began. Based on his experience, he could not take Putin's willingness to negotiate for granted. Putin had been very "courteous and hospitable" and had even invited him to his private home in Sochi, although by his own admission the Russian president actually "never invites anyone there." During their long conversation, Putin had been the "friendliest person." But when Bennett told him about Selensky's desire to broker a conversation with him after five and a half hours, his "gaze suddenly turned cold," he said. "They are Nazis, they are warmongers, I will not meet with him," he had replied. This violent reaction surprised him, the Israeli politician reports, but admits that Ukraine was "definitely an accomplice in World War II."(2:26:10)
Despite these reservations, Putin had already expressed over the phone in Moscow in the run-up to the agreed meeting, "We can reach a ceasefire." (2:38:30) And in personal talks, he had already made "two major concessions" (2:40:42) on the tenth day of the war. First, he had explicitly assured "I will not kill Selensky," thus renouncing the goal of denazification. This was a great relief for the Ukrainian president, who had been in a secret bunker fearing for his life after the Russian invasion. He and all the world would have interpreted the Russian wartime goal of "denazification" as replacing the Ukrainian government coupled with the killing of Selensky. Putin's second concession at that point had been not to demand the complete demilitarization of Ukraine.
At the same time, Selensky renounced Ukraine's entry into NATO. As Bennett comments, this was a "huge concession. The war broke out over the demand to join NATO and Selensky said 'I renounce'"(2:42:48). That Ukraine's planned NATO accession had been the main reason for the war is also emphasized elsewhere by Bennett in the interview:
"I went home very optimistic because he [Selensky] renounced joining NATO, which was the reason for the invasion. Putin said, 'Tell me you will not join NATO. I will not invade.' He renounced his demands [denazification and demilitarization]." (2:53:57)
Bennett indicates that one must be "very careful" and "someone can always fake something." At the same time, he stresses that he got the impression during the talks that Putin is not "bent on fighting at all costs." Putin "has goals he wants to achieve." Bennett's perception was that both sides were very interested in a cease-fire. (2:53:06)
"Every politician has interests. You don't agree with them, you understand them."
Bennett reports that he prepared intensively for his role as mediator through reading and consultations. "The political leaders need to understand that you understand them," he stresses. Every politician has interests, he adds. "You don't agree with them, you understand them."
Regarding the Ukraine war, he said, there are two very different narratives that he doesn't want to judge, but merely notes: the West and Selensky see Putin "as an imperialist who wants to conquer more and more territory" and "will move on to the Baltics and Poland if he's not stopped in time." For Putin, however, the intention to admit Ukraine to NATO was a breach of "the agreement made with NATO after the fall of the Berlin Wall not to expand it and not to touch the countries that formed a belt around Russia." (2:34:20). The problem, however, would lie "much deeper:" Just as the Americans claimed hegemony over the Western Hemisphere according to their "centuries-old Monroe Doctrine," Putin considers Ukraine his "backyard." (2:35:24)
Asked if Putin had acted "messianically," the former Israeli prime minister replied:
"He was very pragmatic, just like Selensky." "(...) he completely understood Selensky's political constraints." (2:46:53)
Thus, the stage was set for further negotiations, which took place first in Belarus and later in Istanbul. In the process, they had found themselves on a good path.
There were still two main issues to be dealt with: The most difficult complex of negotiations concerned the future of the territories of Donbass and Crimea and the corridor that began to emerge after the fall of Mariupol. (2:43:09).
The second topic had been security guarantees for Ukraine. Selensky had expected extensive security guarantees from America, France, and other countries. Bennett felt that any kind of pact with the West would be perceived by Russia as a security threat. Moreover, he said, after the Afghanistan disaster, the United States could not be relied upon. And Russia, he said, did not want Ukraine at all. That was the "cognitive breakthrough" that "both sides accepted," and there were now concrete negotiations about necessary and acceptable weapons systems in a neutral Ukraine, he said. (2:43:32)
The Israeli politician reported that he had also seen solutions to the territorial issues, but did not want to elaborate on them in the interview. "They relate primarily to postponing the dispute for 99 years." (2:45:46)
"Everything I did was coordinated down to the last detail with the U.S., Germany, and France."
During the negotiations, Bennett emphasized transparency, saying he was in constant communication with Western allies throughout the process. Chancellor Scholz had been very concerned about Germany's energy supply, he said. Overall, he said, the spectrum of Western leaders could be divided according to their degree of toughness in the "fight against Putin," from "We must not reward the bad guys" to "Forget the war, everyone loses," as journalist Hanoch Daum put it. (2:56:51) "Boris Johnson took the aggressive line. Macron and Scholz were more pragmatic, and Biden was both."
"I submit that there was a good chance of reaching a truce had they not prevented it."
However, the promising path of negotiations was abruptly aborted on the part of Ukraine. According to the former Israeli prime minister, this disappointed him in view of the expected serious consequences of the war for Ukraine and the world. The reason for the break-off he refers to the West, to which he is politically subordinate:
"When it comes to Israel, I remain steadfast. (...) Here I have no say. I am only the mediator, but I turn to America in this regard, I don't do what I want. Everything I do is coordinated in detail with the U.S., Germany and France." - "You blocked the negotiations?" - "Basically, yes. They blocked them, and I thought they were wrong about that." (3:00:32)
At a later point, he reiterates:
"I maintain that if they [the West] had not prevented it, there was a good chance to reach a ceasefire. But I'm not sure." (3:02:04)
On the assessment of the West's stance, Bennett suggests that while the war would have terrible consequences for Ukraine, Europe, and the world, statecraft is a very "complex matter" and there may be good reasons for the West and even Israel to make this decision.
"Maybe it would have meant rewarding the criminal too quickly. Maybe it would have sent the wrong message to other countries. (...) I don't want to seem cynical (...) but President Biden formed an alliance against an aggressor after many years, that's the general perception, and that affects other arenas, such as China and Taiwan, and that has consequences." (3:01:50)
Thus, according to Bennett, the fact that the war has a significance for the West that goes far beyond the local conflict between Ukraine and Russia was one reason for the rejection of a ceasefire.
It is "moral reasons that urge an end to the war" (Habermas).
In contrast, voices were raised, not only in Germany, calling for immediate negotiations - not only because of the consequences for Ukraine, but also for the West itself. However, it would be too short-sighted to reduce the discussions about this to the opposition between morality and self-interest. Rather, it is precisely "moral reasons that urge an end to the war," writes Jürgen Habermas, for example. Even the West, which "allows Ukraine to continue the fight against the criminal aggressor," should "not forget the number of victims, nor the extent of the actual and potential destruction, which is accepted with a heavy heart for the legitimate goal." Therefore, "the required alternative is the search for tolerable compromises," if the outbreak of armed conflicts could already not be prevented by sanctions that are painful even for "the defenders of international law itself."
It is precisely because of the global geopolitical and economic implications of the war - which in March 2022, however, from the perspective of the United States and Great Britain, according to Bennett, favored a continuation of the war - that Habermas sees opportunities for cease-fire talks today. To those who currently identify unreservedly with the Ukrainian government's demands for "swelling military support to defeat Russia," he counters that the point is not to defeat Russia but to ensure that "Ukraine does not lose."
The United Nations Charter permits the use of armed force only in the "common interest" of the international community, he said, and the measures against acts of aggression mentioned in Article VII of the UN Charter are ultimately "directed against war as such." In today's situation, he said, the task now is to prevent an even longer war and its further escalation through timely negotiations.
Is a cease-fire promising? The interview with Bennett shows that the threat of Ukraine joining NATO must be taken seriously as a reason for war. If Russian security interests, rather than imperialist goals, are the decisive factor, a settlement seems more attainable. Bennet's account suggests that Russian leaders sought negotiations at the outset of the war and were willing to make concessions in return.
All quotes from the interview conducted in Hebrew were translated by the authors from the English subtitles.
President Putin's reaction is unquestionably linked to the experience of World War II. Bennett explains, "The Great Patriotic War [...] is at the heart of the Russian ethos, especially for Putin." The German war of extermination killed 27 million Soviet citizens, including Putin's brother, grandmother, and two uncles.
Immediately after the end of the Soviet Union, a cult of personality arose in Ukraine around members of the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists (OUN), especially Stepan Bandera, but also Roman Shukhevych, who was involved in "purges" in western Ukraine. Both had collaborated with the German Wehrmacht and were complicit in the murder of Jews and Poles. Monuments were erected and streets named after them. A Kyiv main street, previously named in honor of the Red Army's liberator of Kyiv, now bears the name of Shukhevych, an OUN member. Bandera and Shukhevych were honored by President Yushchenko with the highest award of the state "Hero of Ukraine."
Jürgen Habermas: A Plea for Negotiations, Süddeutsche Zeitung, Feb. 15, 2023.
Ulrike Simon is a retired teacher and chairwoman of the board of a village local heating cooperative.