Can Putin negotiate with him?

Dhe young man is in a wheelchair. Flags are in front of him of Russia and the “Donetsk People’s Republic” in eastern Ukraine. A map of the Separatist entity hangs behind him. Medals hang from the invalid’s uniform. He was wounded in 2015, he says. Unfortunately, the rehabilitation was unsuccessful. “It doesn’t matter”, life in a wheelchair is “just as colourful”.

Majid Sattar

Political correspondent for North America based in Washington.

Then the young man thanks Wladimir Putin, to which he is connected via video link, “very much for bringing the Donbass to Russia. We didn’t fight in vain.” He sobs. “The boys didn’t die in vain.”

The scene comes from a video conference held by Putin to promote the disabled last Friday. Expressions of gratitude to the Russian President, such as that of the wheelchair user, are the core of current Kremlin productions. They apply to Putin’s recent annexations of Ukrainian territories at the end of September. On the one hand, Putin likes the role of the “liberator”.

On the other hand, the staging is about making the Russians believe that the horrendous sacrifices of the war were worth it. At the end of November, in a meeting with mothers, Putin praised the death of a fighter who gave his life for the “reunification” of the Donbass with Russia: “His goal has been achieved.”

Ukrainian territories annexed “forever”.

Putin’s appearances also send the message to the West that annexed areas are no longer discussed. Moscow had already refused to negotiate on Crimea, annexed in 2014, during the years of talks in the so-called Normandy format. With the new connections, negotiations on a total of four other Ukrainian areas should be ruled out. “Forever” is the Kremlin formula. Although Russia has lost control of large parts of the areas, such as the city of Kherson, and is shelling them as well as other Ukrainian areas.

That is the background to new Western discussions about negotiations with or even “security guarantees” for Putin. They were sparked by a statement by the American President Joe Biden. On Thursday, alongside French President Emmanuel Macron, he said he had no immediate plans to contact Putin. But Biden added that he weighed his words carefully. “I’m willing to talk to Mr. Putin if he’s actually interested in finding a way to end the war.” So far, that hasn’t been the case. If that is the case, he would be happy to sit down with Putin, in consultation with the French and other NATO friends.

A new signal from Biden to Putin?

Washington then wondered whether this was a new signal to Putin, especially since Biden had not mentioned the Ukrainian government. In November, Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said Ukraine’s position of strength created the possibility of a political solution. What was meant was that Kiev’s successful counter-offensive represented an opportunity to enter into negotiations with Russia. Biden has always emphasized that the United States would Ukraine not tell her what to do.

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