West Must Stop Pretending Putin Is Reasonable: Ukraine Ambassador

A top Ukrainian diplomat who once led peace talks with Moscow has warned Kyiv’s foreign partners not to count on rational dialogue with President Vladimir Putin, as the Russian leader is “unreasonable” and increasingly isolated from reality.

As Ukraine seeks international backing for its 10-point peace plan and proposed summit at the United Nations in February, Kyiv is simultaneously framing Moscow as untrustworthy and detached from reality, a conclusion Ukrainian leaders say is supported by Putin’s false ceasefire offer and the Kremlin’s refusal. to downgrade its war goals.

“There is still the same expectation that he can be dealt with,” Ukraine’s ambassador to the UK, Vadym Prystaiko, told Newsweek in an interview at Kyiv’s embassy in London, just hours before Putin announced a unilateral 36-hour ceasefire—rejected by Ukraine—to mark Orthodox Christmas, which his forces then repeatedly violated.

“He’s still perceived as the reasonable guy to talk to because people want to believe that he’s a reasonable guy,” Prystaiko said. “They’re not analyzing that he is totally unreasonable,” the ambassador added, noting French President Emmanuel Macron’s repeated and failed efforts at dialogue with Moscow, which have been roundly condemned within Ukraine.

In this combination image, Vladimir Putin seen during the Informal Summit of the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) on December 26, 2022 and Ukrainian Ambassador to the UK Vadym Prystaiko pictured visiting Downing Street, London

The war in Ukraine will most likely end with a negotiated settlement, as Putin himself has acknowledged. But the two sides remain gulfs apart, with the Kremlin demanding recognition of its claimed annexation of Ukrainian territory and Kyiv calling for all Russian forces to withdraw beyond the country’s 1991 borders.

Moscow quickly rejected Kyiv’s 10-point peace plan, demands of which include full Russian withdrawal, reparations, war crime prosecutions for Russian leaders, and permanent security guarantees with NATO membership.

Prystaiko—who led the Ukrainian delegation in negotiating the Minsk agreements, which paused fighting in the east of Ukraine following Russia’s 2014 invasion but ultimately failed to peacefully resolve the conflict—said there is no indication Putin is ready to compromise, and little hope he would honor anything agreed in future talks.

“Unfortunately, there are people who still believe they can get through with the negotiations with Putin, because in their minds he has to be reasonable,” the ambassador said. “They just don’t want to face the reality that he is not.”

Newsweek has contacted the Russian Foreign Ministry to request a comment.

Russia’s full-scale invasion has deepened animosities between Moscow and the West, with top Kremlin officials framing the operation as a pre-emptive strike against Ukraine and its NATO partners to prevent an attack on Russia. Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said last month that Russia is already at war with NATO.

A ‘Bunch of Crazies’

The “special military operation”—now in its eleventh month—has also unleashed new forces on the domestic scene, with powerful Kremlin figures maneuvering for greater influence.

Among them are the head of the Chechen Republic Ramzan Kadyrov and oligarch Wagner Group chief Yevgeny Prigozhin, both of whom boast tens of thousands of fighters under their personal command in private armies that have reportedly clashed with regular Russian troops.

Prystaiko described such figures as a “bunch of crazies” and said they are evidence of the revanchist kleptocracy that controls the levers of power in Russia.

“The system made him this way,” the ambassador said of Putin. “They allowed him to overstay the democratic cycles, showing that there is no rule of law. There is the rule of whoever’s ruling.”

“He’s becoming older, he’s getting strange people around him because the system is solidifying. The bubble is growing.”

A change in leader would not necessarily change Russia’s trajectory, Prystaiko said. “It reminds me of an old saying: when you drop a fresh cucumber into a bucket of pickles, the cucumber becomes a pickle too.”

“I wouldn’t bet on a change,” Prystaiko said. “I would rather bet on a change of the system; that is our only chance. If we manage, together, to show the Russians that there is a better way for them, maybe they will find somebody who will understand his or her place within the system, and will allow the change.”

Hoping that Putin will be dethroned or suddenly die—as myriad unconfirmed rumors of Putin’s supposed poor health have suggested—is not an effective strategy, Prystaiko said.

Vladimir Putin chairs Russia's security council meeting
Russian President Vladimir Putin chairs a meeting with members of Russia’s Security Council at the Kremlin in Moscow, Russia, on April 5, 2019.
ALEXEI DRUZHININ/Sputnik/AFP via Getty Images

“Remember how many years we’ve already been discussing this, and he’s still quite dangerous,” Prystaiko said in response to reports of Putin’s ill health. “Some people are hoping for the easier path, that…something will happen to Russia or Putin,” he added. “What happens if he keeps power or he’s replaced with somebody even worse?”

Even if Putin does fall, those most successfully building their political cachets in Moscow are cultivating ultra-nationalist pro-war—not moderate pro-dialogue—personas.

“There have been so many times in history when political leaders become leaders after campaigns, and not necessarily successful campaigns,” Prystaiko said, noting the examples of generals-turned-presidents Mustafa Kemal Ataturk who took power in Turkey after the Ottoman collapse, and Charles de Gaulle who became a national hero after the fall of France in 1940.

‘We’re Not Out of the Woods’

Broadly, the military momentum appears to be with the Ukrainians, although the onset of winter has forced a pause in Kyiv’s counter-attacks. Meanwhile, the Kremlin is rushing hundreds of thousands of mobilized troops to the front to stabilize the lines, and is reportedly making progress around the towns of Bakhmut and Soledar in Donetsk after a months-long push.

Ukrainian leaders have warned Russia is looking to revive its offensive capabilities this year. “We don’t want to underestimate,” Prystaiko said. “I do expect they will try, for sure,” the ambassador added when asked if a fresh Russian offensive is on the cards. “They can mobilize considerable numbers. This number can run into the millions.”

“I’m not one of those Ukrainians who will tell you that we don’t care, we will crush and grind as many as they send. No, this is dangerous…It might happen. We’re not out of the woods yet.”

The threat along the Belarusian border remains, with Ukrainian officials warning that Minsk may finally throw its troops into Putin’s morass in Ukraine. Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko has offered his territory, bases, airfields, hospitals, and military stocks to support the Russian invasion, but has so far refused to send his own soldiers.

Any Belarusian-Russian invasion force from the north would face the same challenges as Moscow’s invasion group that was bogged down and destroyed in the spring. This could prove fatal for Lukashenko’s regime, which—with Moscow’s help—only narrowly survived a popular uprising in 2020.

“Belarus is done,” Prystaiko said when asked about the threat from the northern border. “As a system—not as a people—but as a system, it is going down. And sooner or later they will face it.”

“Attack from Belarus is possible, that’s why it distracts some of our forces because we have to keep some of them there,” the ambassador said. “Maybe they are just doing it to keep some of our forces from the east.”

“Some people are arguing that [Lukashenko] is not doing it because he doesn’t know where these rifles will be turned…you give them live ammunition, and maybe they start shooting at you.”

Ukraine soldiers playing chess in Bakhmut Donetsk
Ukrainian soldiers play chess while sitting in a school gym on January 4, 2023 in Bakhmut, Donetsk Oblast, Ukraine.
Yan Dobronosov/Global Images Ukraine via Getty Images

Whatever the outcome of the conflict, Prystaiko said the events of the last eight years have irrevocably poisoned Ukrainian-Russian relations. “What’s also dangerous is that by turning so many civilians into conscripts, they are alienating both nations, to the point where it will take not decades to find reconciliation, but centuries. But that’s their doing. Unfortunately, there’s not much we can help with here.”

A frozen conflict worries Kyiv too, and Prystaiko urged Western partners to give all possible military aid to avoid an unending war.

“It might be the case that something crucial like an attack in the south will be enough for them to displace the leader or do something else,” Prystaiko said of the Russians. The “Kherson [withdrawal] was quite obvious, they called it a ‘difficult decision.’ Why wouldn’t they take another ‘difficult decision’?”

“Or perhaps something like the attack in the north, which will be part of military textbooks because of how swift and huge it was; hundreds of kilometers,” he added, referring to the surprise operation that liberated much of Kharkiv Oblast in September.

“If at that time we had more rockets—the longer-range rockets, not just 80 kilometers [50 miles]—these hundreds of kilometers wouldn’t have been our stopping point, we would have been able to move all the way up,” Prystaiko said, referring to the long-range ATACMS munitions fired by NATO multiple launch rocket systems, including the American HIMARS .

The US has so far refused to supply Ukraine with ATACMS despite repeated requests from Kyiv, fearing the move would be seen as unacceptably escalatory by Russia as the missiles would allow Ukrainian forces to strike sensitive targets deep within Russian borders.

“We just needed to hit further than our troops were advancing,” Prystaiko said. “And that was something that was actually hampering our success.”

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