Putin demands more Ukrainian land to end war; Kyiv rejects ‘ultimatum’

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President Vladimir Putin said on Friday Russia would end the war in Ukraine only if Kyiv agreed to drop its NATO ambitions and hand over the entirety of four provinces claimed by Moscow, demands Kyiv swiftly rejected as tantamount to surrender.

On the eve of a conference in Switzerland to which Russia has not been invited, Putin set out maximalist conditions wholly at odds with the terms demanded by Ukraine, apparently reflecting Moscow’s growing confidence that its forces have the upper hand in the war.

He restated his demand for Ukraine’s demilitarization, unchanged from the day he sent in his troops on Feb. 24, 2022, and said an end to Western sanctions must also be part of a peace deal.

He also repeated his call for Ukraine’s “denazification,” based on what Kyiv calls an unfounded slur against its leadership.

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Ukraine said the conditions were “absurd.”

“He is offering for Ukraine to admit defeat. He is offering for Ukraine to legally give up its territories to Russia. He is offering for Ukraine to sign away its geopolitical sovereignty,” Ukrainian presidential adviser Mykhailo Podolyak told Reuters.

President Volodymyr Zelenskyy told Italy’s SkyTG24 news channel: “These are ultimatum messages that are no different from messages from the past.”

US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin told reporters at NATO headquarters in Brussels: “He (Putin) is not in any position to dictate to Ukraine what they must do to bring about peace.”

The timing of Putin’s speech was clearly intended to preempt the Swiss summit, billed as a “peace conference” despite Russia’s exclusion, where Zelenskyy seeks a show of international support for Kyiv’s terms to end the war.

“The conditions are very simple,” Putin said, listing them as the full withdrawal of Ukrainian troops from the entire territory of the Donetsk, Luhansk, Kherson and Zaporizhzhia regions in eastern and southern Ukraine.

Russia claimed the four regions, which its forces control only partially, as part of its own territory in 2022, an act rejected by most countries at the United Nations as illegal.

Moscow also seized and annexed Ukraine’s Crimea peninsula in 2014.

“As soon as they declare in Kyiv that they are ready for such a decision and begin a real withdrawal of troops from these regions, and also officially announce the abandonment of their plans to join NATO - on our side, immediately, literally at the same minute, an order will follow to cease fire and begin negotiations,” Putin said.

“I repeat, we will do this immediately. Naturally, we will simultaneously guarantee the unhindered and safe withdrawal of Ukrainian units and formations.”

Russia controls nearly a fifth of Ukrainian territory in the third year of the war. Ukraine says peace can only be based on the full withdrawal of Russian forces and the restoration of its territorial integrity.

The weekend summit in Switzerland, which will be attended by representatives of more than 90 nations and organizations, is expected to shy away from territorial issues and focus instead on matters such as food security and nuclear safety in Ukraine.

The Kremlin has said the gathering will prove “futile” without Russia being represented.

Existential question

The maximalist nature of Putin’s conditions appeared to reflect his growing confidence in Moscow’s ability to impose its own terms, with its forces gradually advancing in recent months.

Putin said “the future existence of Ukraine” depended on it withdrawing its forces, on it adopting a neutral status, and on beginning talks with Russia, and said Kyiv’s military situation would worsen if it rejected the offer.

“Today we are making another concrete, real peace proposal. If in Kyiv and in the Western capitals they refuse it as before, then, in the end, it is their business, their political and moral responsibility for the continuation of bloodshed,” Putin said.

“I repeat, our principled position is the following: the neutral, non-aligned, nuclear-free status of Ukraine, its demilitarization and denazification.”

Ukraine and its Western allies have rejected such language since the start of the conflict, describing it as a false pretext for an imperial-style war of territorial conquest. Ukraine says any demand for its demilitarization or future neutrality would expose it to further Russian attacks.

Putin said arrangements for ending the war would need to be set down in international agreements.

“Naturally, this also presupposes the lifting of all Western sanctions against Russia. I believe that Russia is offering an option that will make it possible to actually end the war in Ukraine,” he said.

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Putin was speaking in the same week that the United States hit Russia with yet another wave of sanctions, announced a 10-year security pact with Ukraine - seen as a potential precursor to eventual NATO membership - and reached a deal with its Group of Seven allies to use interest on Russian assets frozen in the West to back a $50 billion loan to Kyiv.

US President Joe Biden said on Thursday that the message to Putin was that the West would stay the course: “You cannot wait us out. You cannot divide us,” said Biden.

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