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Ukraine's President Volodymyr Zelensky

REUTERS

What We're Watching: Zelensky's olive branch, dialogue in the desert, emergency in El Salvador

Zelensky’s peace offer is a first step, not a game changer

Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky says he’s ready to discuss “neutrality” for Ukraine as part of a peace deal with Russia. That’s a positive development. But even as an opening bid, this is no game changer. Here’s why…

First, Zelensky insists that “neutrality” – a promise written into Ukraine’s constitution to never join NATO – can only be approved by popular referendum. That vote, Zelensky says, can’t take place while Russian soldiers remain on Ukrainian soil. Leaving aside disputes over what counts as Ukrainian soil – Crimea? The occupied Donbas region? – Putin is highly unlikely to withdraw all Russian forces without knowing the outcome of the vote.

Second, Zelensky also insists that Ukraine could only agree to neutrality if its security is guaranteed by outside (read Western) powers. Without those security guarantees, Ukraine can’t be confident that Russia won’t just invade again in the future. But a security guarantee from Western powers is the central benefit of NATO membership, and Putin has little reason to agree to that.

Third, an offer not to join NATO in exchange for peace assumes that Putin will allow Ukraine to one day join the European Union and that Ukrainians will retain the right to make their own foreign and trade policy. Putin’s approach toward Ukraine over the past 20 years indicates that would not be acceptable to Moscow.

The Wall Street Journal reported on Monday there may be another obstacle to successful peace talks: Russian oligarch Roman Abramovich has said that he and Ukrainian negotiators suffered symptoms of poisoning after they met in Kyiv to discuss peace recently. Abramovich blames hardliners in Moscow who don’t want to end the war.

Finally, President Joe Biden’s comment in Poland that Putin “cannot remain in power” could persuade Russia’s president that no guarantee of neutrality from Ukraine can allow Moscow to claim victory. Not if the US still intends to cripple Russia’s economy with sanctions – and maybe force Putin out.

Zelensky’s offer might start an important conversation, but it comes nowhere near ensuring a diplomatic breakthrough.

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