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Sensemaker: Peace talks

Sensemaker: Peace talks

What just happened

Long stories short

  • Biden said Putin’s false claim that Ukraine has chemical weapons was a “clear sign” he was considering using them himself (more below). 
  • Russian shelling killed Boris Romantschenko, a 96-year-old Ukrainian man who survived the Nazi Holocaust, in the eastern city of Kharkiv.
  • A Russian court found Alexei Navalny, the Kremlin’s most vocal domestic critic, guilty of fraud charges that could significantly extend his prison sentence.

Invaded: Voicemails from Ukraine

“My grandparents live in a small village and I couldn’t reach them for a few days because they had no electricity because of the Russian artillery attacks in the area. The bridge connection from their village no longer exists. Meaning, they cannot leave. The war is challenging and exhausting especially when you do not know when you can come back home, if you will have a home and if you can ever see your family again.” Listen to Viktoria and others today and every day in Invaded: Voicemails from Ukraine

Peace talks

Twenty-six days into the war, Ukraine’s president has for the first time indicated he would be open to a peace deal in which Ukraine signed away Crimea and the Donbas. The status of these territories was seen as a red line for the Ukrainians until last night, when Volodymyr Zelensky 

  • renewed his offer of direct peace talks with Vladimir Putin; and
  • said the status of Russian-occupied Crimea and Russian-backed Luhansk and Donetsk could be settled in a referendum. 

The renewed offer could be seen as progress in talks which Putin’s spokesman said earlier on Monday were stalled. But the offer could also be something else: if referendums were held within the three Russified regions only, that would increase the chances of a pro-Russia outcome, but that’s not what Zelensky specified. A national referendum would overwhelmingly reject Russian control, especially as the Kremlin escalates its assault on key Ukrainian cities.

Zelensky’s offer can be read in a more straightforward way: as a reminder to Putin that Ukrainians don’t want Russian control of their country. “They raise the [Russian] flag and people take it down”, as he told reporters last night. “Well, what do you want — to destroy everyone?”

Zelensky’s insistence on direct talks is also significant – because he knows Putin has ruled them out unless Ukraine agrees in advance to Russian demands that Zelensky has repeatedly called unrealistic.

In short: 

  • a peace deal is not as close as Turkey’s foreign minister claimed on Sunday, when Mevlut Cavusoglu spoke of “momentum” and a role for Turkey as an “honest mediator”.
  • Putin’s spokesman has ruled out a ceasefire during the talks, saying “nationalist” Ukrainian groups would use any pause to regroup, so the indiscriminate shelling of Ukrainians will continue.

The siege of Mariupol is now expected to intensify further. Footage shows Russian soldiers firing on peaceful protestors in Kherson. Russia’s shelling of Kharkiv has escalated.

The pattern of Russia’s assault, according to US officials, is itself informed by the prospect of further negotiations. Russia has adapted its strategy in recent days, moving away from its failed attempt to siege Kyiv and towards taking territory in the south and east to use as leverage. If this interpretation is correct, then it would imply Russian weakness – and explain Zelenksy’s robust position last night.

To ask:

Which side needs a ceasefire most? On the face of it, Ukraine. Russia’s cities are not being bombed and a quarter of its people have not been displaced. But it is Russia that has lost more troops in four weeks than the US lost in two decades in Iraq and Afghanistan; Russia whose Central Bank cannot now borrow abroad or access its foreign reserves; Russia whose president could lose everything without an exit strategy.

Do talks stand a chance? Less than 48 hours ago, more than 24 hours ago. The referendum suggestion puts the fate of Crimea and the Donbas in play, even if only to remake the argument that they belong to Ukraine.

Who would concede most? Ukraine would at the very least accept it could not join Nato. Putin would – in practice if not in his head – abandon his goal of absorbing the whole of Ukraine into a greater Russia. Historians would be more interested in what happened next: in the EU’s post-war offer to Ukraine and the wider world’s appetite for punishing Russia. Both, at this point, are hard to gauge.   

Know more

Father Marek’s dance

Antonia Cundy

Three weeks ago, Father Marek Machala, deputy rector of Przemysl seminary in southeast Poland, led a quiet life. He rose early, at 5.30am, to pray in the seminary’s chapel. After a day spent teaching young men studying for their priesthood, he would eat a simple supper, and rest.

Now, after finishing his religious duties, Father Machala throws an orange hi-vis vest over his black cassock, and rushes to one of the largest refugee centres on the Polish border with Ukraine. There, he assists hundreds of people every night, his robe swishing at his ankles as he strides around the centre switching between Ukrainian, Russian, Polish, and other European languages. 

“This was the first response: there is a crisis, there are people who need help, so I go, automatically,” Father Machala says. The question is how much longer this response can last.


Alexei Navalny’s team of activists claimed that Scheherazade, a 459-foot yacht estimated to cost $700 million and docked on the Tuscan coast, belongs to Putin. The vessel is already under investigation for ties to sanctioned Russians. But the activists found that half its crew members were employed by Russia’s Federal Security Service, which handles security for high-ranking Kremlin officials like the president. They also spoke to a crew member who told them that the vessel belongs to Putin. 


Moldova fears
Moldova’s foreign minister warned that increasing numbers of Ukrainian refugees are threatening the country’s stability. So far, Ukraine’s poorest neighbour has received the largest number of refugees from the war in proportion to its own population. The minister, Nicu Popescu, also said the country’s security was at risk, as Russian airstrikes and shelling inch closer to its border. Russia already controls Transnistria – a thin strip of land along Moldova’s border with Ukraine that is home to 1,500 Russian troops – and Popsecu worries that from there the Kremlin may take more of the country.


TikTok Ukraine
NewsGuard, which monitors misinformation across the web, found that a new TikTok account can be shown falsehoods about the Ukraine war within 40 minutes of signing up to the app. All it took to be served with disinformation was for a new account-holder to click on videos about the war while scrolling the app’s algorithmically curated “For You” page. The new account was served with accurate information about the war, but no distinction was made between that and misinformation. Videos tagged #Ukraine on the app have received nearly 32 billion views as of this morning.

The 100-year life health, education AND GOVERNMENT

Back against the wall 
US-Russia relations are more tense than at any time since the Cold War. Biden’s comment to a reporter last week that Putin was a “war criminal” and a “murderous dictator” led Russia’s foreign ministry to state yesterday that “Russian-American relations [are] on the verge of rupture”. Last night, Biden described Putin as “desperate” and said he had his “back against the wall” for accusing Ukraine and America of having biological and chemical weapons. Words have consequences. The US ambassador in Moscow was told hostile actions would receive a “decisive and firm response”. False flags involving chemical weapons are a familiar Russian play. As Biden warned, they could mean Putin is considering using similar weapons in Ukraine. The question is whether Biden’s “war criminal” remark was from the hip or calculated to enrage.

world by numbers

132 – people who were on board the China Eastern Airlines when it crashed yesterday in China’s southern Guangxi province.

Our planet CLIMATE AND geopolitics

SEC proposals
The Securities and Exchange Commission, the US’s top financial watchdog, proposed that publicly traded companies report their greenhouse-gas emissions and those of their suppliers and consumers. The hope is that investors would then base their decisions on these disclosures. Some companies, like Apple and Microsoft, already publish analyses of their emissions. But industry groups have already begun lobbying against the proposals, arguing they would increase costs and go beyond the SEC’s mandate. The proposals are open to public comment for at least two months before the final rules are published.

Thanks for reading. Please share this around and tell us what we’ve missed. News tips and story ideas are welcome. Email them to sensemaker@tortoisemedia.com.

Paul Caruana-Galizia

With additional reporting by Giles Whittell and Phoebe Davis. 

Photographs Emin Sansar/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images, Anadolu Agency via Getty Images, Aris Messinis/AFP/Getty Images, Michael Nigro/Pacific Press/LightRocket via Getty Images, Osman Uras/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

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