January 27, 2023

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Reuters: When the war began, Putin rejected a peace deal with Ukraine recommended by his adviser

Vladimir Putin’s chief envoy to Ukraine told the Russian leader at the start of the war that he had reached a tentative deal with Kiev that would satisfy Russia’s demand that Ukraine stay out of NATO, but Putin rejected him and continued the military campaign, according to of three people close to the Russian leadership, according to information published by Reuters.

The envoy of Ukrainian origin, Dmitry Kozak (right photo), told Putin that, according to these sources, he believed the deal he had struck eliminated the need for Russia to pursue a full-scale occupation of Ukraine. Kozak’s recommendation to Putin to adopt the deal is reported by Reuters for the first time.

Putin repeatedly asserted before the war that NATO and its military infrastructure were moving ever closer to Russia’s borders by accepting new members from Eastern Europe, and that the alliance was now preparing to bring Ukraine to its doorstep. Putin publicly stated that this was a real threat to Russia, forcing him to react.

But despite previously backing the negotiations, Putin made it clear when Kozak’s deal was presented to him that the grievances negotiated by his adviser did not go far enough and that he had expanded his goals to include annexing portions of Ukrainian territory, the sources said. The result: the agreement was abandoned.

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The Kremlin denies the information published by Reuters

Asked about Reuters’ findings, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said: “This has absolutely nothing to do with reality. This has never happened. This is absolutely incorrect information.”

Kozak, on the other hand, did not respond to requests for comment sent through the Kremlin.

Mykhailo Podolyak, an adviser to the Ukrainian president, said Russia was using the talks as a smokescreen to prepare its invasion, but did not answer questions about the substance of the talks or confirm that a preliminary agreement had been reached. “Today, we clearly understand that the Russian side was never interested in a peaceful settlementPodolyak said.

Two of the three sources said a push to finalize the deal occurred immediately after the February 24 Russian invasion. Within days, Kozak believed he had Ukraine’s agreement on the main terms Russia was seeking and recommended that Putin sign a deal, the sources said.

After February 24, Kozak was given carte blanche: they gave him the green light; got the deal. He brought it back and they told him to leave. Everything was cancelled. Putin simply changed the plan along the way“, said one of the sources close to the Russian leadership.

The third source – who was briefed on the events by people who were briefed on talks between Kozak and Putin – disputed the timing, saying that Kozak proposed the deal to Putin and that he was rejected, even before the invasion. All the sources asked to remain anonymous to share sensitive internal information.

Moscow’s offensive in Ukraine is the largest military campaign in Europe since World War II. It prompted sweeping economic sanctions against Russia and military support for Ukraine from Washington and its Western allies.

Even if Putin had agreed to Kozak’s plan, it remains uncertain whether the war would have ended. Reuters could not independently verify whether Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky or senior officials in his government had committed to the deal.

Putin’s loyal lieutenant

Kozak, 63, has been a loyal lieutenant of Putin since working with him in the 1990s at St. Petersburg’s city hall.

Kozak was well-placed to negotiate a peace deal because, starting in 2020, Putin tasked him with holding talks with his Ukrainian counterparts over the Donbas region in eastern Ukraine, which was controlled by Russian-backed separatists following an uprising in 2014. After leading the Russian delegation in talks with Ukrainian officials in Berlin on February 10 – brokered by France and Germany – Kozak told a nightly press conference that the latest round of these negotiations had ended without any progress.

Kozak was also among those present when, three days before the invasion, Putin gathered his military and security chiefs and top advisers in the Kremlin’s Ekaterinski Hall for a meeting of Russia’s Security Council.

State television cameras recorded part of the meeting, during which Putin presented plans to officially recognize separatist entities in eastern Ukraine.

Once the cameras were removed from the room, Kozak spoke out against Russia taking any steps to escalate the situation with Ukraine, two of the three people close to Russian leadership said, as well as a third person with knowledge of what happened from people who attended the meeting.

Another person interviewed by Reuters, who helped with the post-invasion talks, said negotiations broke down in early March when Ukrainian officials understood that Putin was committed to continuing the full-scale invasion.

Six months after the start of the war, Kozak remains as the Kremlin’s deputy chief of staff. But he is no longer handling the Ukraine file, according to six of the sources who spoke to Reuters.

“As far as I can see, Kozak is nowhere,” said one of the six, a source close to the separatist leadership in eastern Ukraine.

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