The stage was set for a meeting between Russia and Ukraine Monday on the Ukrainian-Belarusian border, near the Pripyat River.
Is this a diplomatic breakthrough or a political sideshow while Russia continues its offensive in Ukraine?
Let’s be clear what it isn’t: The meeting is not a summit between Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky and Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Instead, it’s a meeting between delegations from both sides. Zelensky’s office said Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko called the Ukrainian President Sunday and offered safety guarantees, saying Lukashenko had “taken responsibility for ensuring that all planes, helicopters and missiles stationed on the Belarusian territory will remain on the ground during the Ukrainian delegation’s travel, meeting and return.”
But can Ukraine accept any guarantees from Lukashenko? This is the same leader whose authorities forced down a Ryanair flight over Belarusian airspace last year, alleging a “security alert,” and arrested a young Belarusian dissident, prompting international outcry.
Monday’s meeting follows a flurry of statements from the Kremlin, which claimed earlier the Ukrainian side had countered Russia’s proposal to meet in Belarus with a proposal to meet in Warsaw and then dropped contact. Zelensky’s office denied claims they refused to negotiate.
Continuing to press a military offensive while dangling the promise of a diplomatic track is somewhat reminiscent of the so-called “Astana process” – talks in the capital of Kazakhstan in 2017, brokered in part by Russia to facilitate negotiation between the Syrian opposition and officials representing Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
Iran and Turkey, who backed opposing sides in the Syrian civil war, also helped broker those talks, but some observers saw them as an effort by Russia to create a diplomatic track that Moscow could steer, even as Russian warplanes continued to pound Assad’s enemies.
Zelensky himself on Sunday set low expectations for the meeting, and it is tempting to guess that the meeting on the border will yield little. But it does offer Putin at least some potential room for an exit from the war in Ukraine, if his troops continue to encounter battlefield setbacks against Ukrainian forces.
Putin’s offensive is still in its very early days, and Russia can commit more combat power to Ukraine. Quite ominously, Ramzan Kadyrov, the pro-Kremlin leader of Russia’s Chechnya region, called on the Russian military Sunday to expand its offensive in Ukraine.
“The time has come to make a concrete decision and start a large-scale operation in all directions and territories of Ukraine,” Kadyrov said in a statement on his Telegram account. “I myself have repeatedly developed tactics and strategies against terrorists, participated in battles. In my understanding, the tactics chosen in Ukraine are too slow. It lasts a long time and, in my view, are not effective.”
That’s a frightening sentiment from a man who runs Chechnya as his personal fiefdom and has been accused by international and independent observers of gross human-rights violations in his home republic and beyond.
It was also a particularly chilling statement to hear on February 27, the seventh anniversary of the murder of Russian opposition politician Boris Nemtsov in 2015.
People gathered on Sunday to lay flowers on the bridge in central Moscow where Nemtsov was shot, just a stone’s throw from the Kremlin wall.
Commemorations of Nemtsov’s death are an annual event in the Russian capital, but this year’s observance was a quiet anti-war demonstration: Many people brought in blue and gold flowers, the color of the Ukrainian flag, and left notes saying, “No to war,” and “Don’t shoot.”
Nemtsov was a vocal critic of the Putin’s handling of the 2014 Ukraine crisis – and at the time of his death, he was reportedly investigating the involvement of Russian forces in key battles in the eastern Ukraine’s Donbas region, at a time when the Kremlin was still denying it sent its troops there.
Now their presence is out in the open, along with a wider war engulfing Ukraine.