On February 15, Russia’s President Vladimir Putin hosted a Kremlin meeting with German Chancellor Olaf Scholz, who arrived from Ukraine to call for peace.
Speaking at a joint news conference with Scholz after their meeting, Putin said Russia does not want war in Europe, and he blamed his country’s ongoing military escalation on the United States, NATO, and Ukraine.
“Opportunities to peacefully restore the territorial integrity of the country through direct dialogue with Donetsk and Luhansk are still ignored,” he said, referring to territories in eastern Ukraine where Moscow instigated armed conflict in 2014. Russia has since sustained the conflict there by providing pro-Russian forces with arms and leadership.
Putin’s claim that dialogue has been “ignored” is false.
Alexander Vershbow, a distinguished fellow at the Atlantic Council in Washington, D.C, and former U.S. Ambassador to Russia (2001-2005), described Putin’s statement as “standard Russian propaganda.”
“These distortions are aimed at convincing Russian domestic audiences, and less well-informed people in other countries, that Ukraine is to blame for the current impasse,” Vershbow said.
Steven Pifer, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution in Washington, and former U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine (1998-2000), told Polygraph.info that Putin's claim “simply does not comport with reality.”
Russia has been pushing Ukraine to agree to a role for the self-proclaimed “Donetsk People’s Republic” (DNR) and “Luhansk People’s Republic” (LNR) in negotiations to settle the conflict in eastern Ukraine.
Ukraine views Russia as a party to the war, which has killed an estimated 14,000, and the two so-called “republics” as Russian puppets, Ukraine’s Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba told reporters on February 10.
“If Ukraine agrees to this, then the status of Russia will change from being a party to the conflict to the status of being a mediator in the conflict. That is why we do not go for it,” Kuleba said.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov responded by comparing Kuleba to Joseph Goebbels, the Nazi Germany’s propaganda minister during WWII.
Although “the Kremlin claims that Russia is not a party to the conflict in Donbas, Mr. Putin knows it is very much involved,” Pifer said. “There is little reason for Kyiv to conduct direct dialogue now with the so-called authorities in the part of Donbas controlled by Russia and Russian proxy forces, because the real decisions will be taken in Moscow.”
Russia is pushing the idea that the Minsk Accords are the only path to peacefully resolve the conflict. They were negotiated in the capital of Belarus in 2014-2015, adopted under the patronage of France and Germany and meant to bring about an immediate ceasefire.
“Seven years later, a new leadership in Kyiv argues that the fulfillment of all its terms is unpalatable and politically impossible,” VOA’s Eurasia bureau chief Myroslava Gongadze wrote on February 10. “[T]he [Minsk] deal is widely seen by the Ukrainian public as a betrayal of their national interests. Especially troublesome is the call for constitutional reform, which many believe would give the pro-Russian separatists a veto over Ukraine’s foreign policy.”
Russia’s demands that the DNR and LNR be granted a special status under the Minsk accords “go way beyond any reasonable definition of autonomy,” Duncan Allan and Kataryna Wolczuk of the London-based think tank Chatham House wrote in a February 16 explainer.
“Moscow wants an extreme version of autonomy and insists this is written into Ukraine’s constitution, meaning that following formal reintegration into Ukraine these mini states would be essentially independent of Kyiv. This would embed Russian influence into Ukraine’s political system, compromising Ukraine’s sovereignty from within.”
NATO has rejected Putin’s demand that Ukraine be banned from joining the alliance. However, should the constitutional reforms in Ukraine that Russia is pushing be implemented, they would give the DNR and LNR a veto over Ukrainian foreign policy, Gongadze wrote. That could help Russia achieve its goal of precluding NATO membership for Ukraine by sabotaging any vote on the issue in Ukraine’s parliament.
“The Russians erroneously say the Minsk agreements require direct dialogue between the Ukrainians and the separatists, and claim Russia is not a party to the conflict,” Vershbow told Polygraph.info. “The Ukrainians only engage the separatists in the Trilateral Contact group where they are part of the Russian delegation.”
The Trilateral Contact Group consists of representatives of Ukraine, Russia and the 57-member Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe. In this format, the Russian delegation includes representatives of the DNR and LNR.
Russia denies involvement in the Donbas war, claiming the conflict is a popular uprising by locals dissatisfied with Kyiv’s policies and seeking independence from Ukraine.
Among other things, Russia’s Wagner private military group lists some of the DNR/LNR leaders killed in the conflict as “Our heroes” on its official website. In the past, Russia included some of those Wagner mercenaries in its delegation at negotiations in Minsk.
On February 14, the ruling United Russia Party adopted a resolution in the State Duma, the lower house of Russia’s parliament, calling on Putin to recognize Ukraine’s Donetsk and Luhansk regions as independent sovereign states. Earlier in February, Putin ordered Russian social services agencies to pay pensions and benefits to Donbas residents whether or not they could provide proof of Russian citizenship.
In May 2021, Putin ordered that Russian passports be issued en masse to Donbas residents. Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky said the move was a first step in Russia’s annexation of the region, drawing parallels with Moscow’s illegal grab of Crimea.
In his February 15 remarks about territorial integrity, Putin ignored the status of Crimea, which remains a Ukrainian territory under international law.
On February 14, Russia said it would be pulling back some of the troops it had massed near Ukraine’s borders in recent months. The United States has not yet verified the withdrawal, and U.S. President Joe Biden said that some 150,000 Russian troops remain near those borders.