It is not hard to imagine that Russia and Ukraine, through someone’s mediation, are jointly searching for a compromise that would make it possible to end or at least stop the war for a long time. The toughest thing here is not the agenda, but who is talking. Most likely, everyone who is now offering a venue and peace plan dreams that Vladimir Putin and Volodymyr Zelensky would be at the negotiating table and look into each other’s eyes, though that is the most pie-in-the-sky scenario.
Zelensky is officially prohibited by Ukrainian law from talking to Putin. Probably, it could be amended or canceled – at the end of the day, an emotional political declaration put into law is not so fundamental to the state. All the image and reputational risks for Zelensky – that if he starts talking to Putin, the warring Ukrainian people will go to the Maidan and drive him out –now seem exaggerated.
If his readiness to talk with Moscow means a loss for Zelensky in elections next spring, it is unlikely to become a real tragedy for him – he has already gone down in national history, having won a massive victory (he prevented Putin from taking Kyiv in three days) last year. Of course, there are many nuances, but there is not a single argument against negotiations that could be considered ironclad and unassailable.
It is tougher for Putin. Unlike Zelensky, he is not risking anything at all politically; no decision of his (yes, the current war is the most obvious example) could trigger a serious protest from the elites, let alone society. The problem is different – it is the human factor: to put it bluntly, Vladimir Putin is too crazy for such talks.
To put it delicately: in his position (when in your own state you have long been the absolute master and the highest authority) and at his advanced age (when you are over 70, it is much more difficult to swallow your pride), it is simply impossible to recognize people he called Nazis and drug addicts as equals in a negotiation or make concessions on issues that in Putin’s worldview have been decided long ago.
It is not only Crimea – which the Ukrainians will talk about anyway – but even the “inland” Sea of Azov, which Putin has already proclaimed as his historical achievement. Even the Minsk talks from eight years ago – when both the Ukrainian side and the Franco-German intermediaries were incomparably more acceptable to Putin and the costs incomparably lower – was for Putin both politically and personally a kind of step too far. Now, he is hardly capable of such a step, though the situation requires a much bigger one than back then.