The Kremlin invited Ukraine’s government to peace talks on the Belarusian border on February 27 to halt the Russian onslaught following its attack on Ukraine on February 24. At the same time Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered Russia’s nuclear forces to a high alert status, claiming he was responding to “aggressive acts” by Nato members on Russia’s borders.
“The politicians agreed that the Ukrainian delegation would meet the Russian one without preconditions at the Ukraine-Belarus border, near the Pripyat River,” Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy’s office said in a statement after a call between the Ukrainian and Belarusian presidents.
Kyiv had initially rejected talks in Belarus where Russia has some 30,000 troops, but decided to go ahead after Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko assured Zelenskiy that “all planes, helicopters and missiles stationed on Belarus territory will remain on the ground during the travel, negotiations and return of the Ukrainian delegation.”
Despite the invitation to talks, Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dymtro Kuleba claimed that missiles from Belarus were continuing to hit Ukrainian cities, amid reports one that hit an airport in Zhitomyr had been fired from the northern neighbour, The Guardian reported.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov announced the same day that the Russian delegation for the talks with Ukraine arrived in the Belarusian city of Gomel in the late afternoon on the same day.
Zelenskiy is not attending the talks, but sent his deputy foreign minister in his stead. Lukashenko announced that he had ordered all troops in the vicinity to stand down for the duration of the meeting.
Russia didn't send anyone from the foreign ministry, and the delegation is headed by a former culture minister. Representatives of the Russian presidential administration, foreign and defense ministries are included in the delegation, Peskov told reporters in Moscow.
"In accordance with the agreement reached, a Russian delegation consisting of representatives of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the Ministry of Defense and other departments, including the presidential administration, arrived in Belarus for talks with Ukrainians,” Peskov said in a statement.
West imposes sanctions
Russia launched an attack on Ukraine on February 24, shocking the world. In the next two days the West brought down a cascade of extremely harsh sanctions on Russia, including several surprises. Hours before the peace talks were announced German Chancellor Olaf Scholz announced that Germany was withdrawing its objections to partially banning Russia from the SWIFT international messaging service that allows international money transfers, had closed its airspace to Russian planes, had approved the delivery of German-made defensive weapons to Ukraine and added €100bn in new defensive spending.
At the same time in a surprise move the EU announced it would impose sanctions on Russia’s Central Bank of Russia (CBR) that could lead to between 40-60% of its $643bn in reserves being frozen. If these sanctions are implemented then they could undo one of Russia’s main defences against sanctions, although observers are waiting for more details that should be released in the coming days.
In response Putin announced that he had ordered Russian nuclear deterrent forces to be put on full alert in response to what he called "aggressive statements" by leading Nato powers.
Russia's nuclear weapons will be increased in readiness to launch, raising the threat that the tensions could boil over into a nuclear war. The Russian leader also cited hard-hitting financial sanctions imposed by the West against Russia, including Putin himself, as a reason for upping its nuclear alert.
Speaking at a meeting with his top officials, Putin told his defence minister and the chief of the military's General Staff to put the nuclear deterrent forces in a "special regime of combat duty".
"Western countries aren't only taking unfriendly actions against our country in the economic sphere, but top officials from leading Nato members made aggressive statements regarding our country," Putin said in televised comments.
Prospects for talks poor
The prospects for an agreement at the talks in Gomel are poor. “I will be honest, as always: I do not really believe in the outcome of this meeting, but let them try,” Zelenskiy said in a video address to the people after the meeting was agreed. “No citizen of Ukraine should have any doubt that I, as president, did not try to stop the war, when there was even a small chance.”
He described his talk with Lukashenko as “long” and “substantive”.
Russia has moved about two thirds of its forces to the border with Ukraine and some 200,000 servicemen have crossed the border to attack towns and cities.
However, reports suggest that the advance has been less rapid than initially expected. Some reports suggest that the war is going badly for Russia. Kyiv reports that as of February 27 a total of just under 200 Ukrainians have died in the conflict. The official Ukrainian death toll is 198 civilian deaths, including three children, since the invasion began, while the UN has put the civilian toll at 64.
The Ukrainian defence ministry claims that 3,500 Russians have been killed. However, defence analysts have almost universally said that is almost certainly a big exaggeration and would be two thirds of all the servicemen lost in the entire second Chechen war.
Another reason for the slow progress is that Putin is using the threat of mass destruction and deaths to pressure Kyiv in to the talks.
While Russia enjoys overwhelming force and firepower, as bne IntelliNews argued in a recent opinion piece, Putin is playing a “game of chicken” where he has been steadily ratcheting up the pressure to force the West and Kyiv to negotiate a new security deal.
Kuleba said Kyiv would not buckle at the talks with Russia over its invasion, accusing Putin of seeking to increase “pressure” by ordering his nuclear forces on high alert the same day.
“We will not surrender, we will not capitulate, we will not give up a single inch of our territory,” Kuleba said at a press conference broadcast online.
Although Russia’s army is now in Ukraine, it has done relatively little damage, the death toll is low and there have been no major infantry-to-infantry battles.
Kyiv has been eerily quiet after huge explosions lit up the morning sky on February 26. Locals have spent the last three nights in bunkers or the metro stations, but reports of Russian troops in the capital and street fighting continue to turn out to be inaccurate. Only an occasional car appeared on a deserted main boulevard as a strict 39-hour curfew kept people off the streets, reports The Guardian.
Most of the Russian attacks have been limited to restricted rocket attacks against military assets, infrastructure and more recently limited rocket attacks against residential areas in several cities. By comparison, during the second Chechen war, Russia’s forces simply flattened Grozny, the Chechen capital, as a way to avoid costly urban fighting.
In this way the Kremlin seems to be hoping to restart the talks on Ukraine’s neutrality, which Putin has said is the goal of the operation, without causing the destruction of any of the major cities or major loss of life.
A lot is at stake as the implication is that if the February 27 talks go nowhere then Putin will order a devastating assult on cities like Kyiv and Kharkiv that will result in major loss of life and the destruction of the cities.
On the Ukrainian side, Zelenskiy will have been encouraged by the rapid and devastating round of sanctions introduced by the West over the weekend. Moreover, the people of Ukraine are resolute in their defiance of the Russian aggression. Social media is full of pictures of Ukrainians preparing crates of Molotov cocktails and the biggest beer factory in Lviv in the west of the country has turned its production over from bottling beer to mass producing Molotov cocktails that it is distributing to the public.
Zelenskiy himself is also in a defiant mood. When the US offered to evacuate him from Kyiv in the face of advancing troops he replied “I need ammo, not a ride.”
Kuleba also appealed to foreign citizens who wished to fight on Ukraine’s behalf to apply to their local embassy for details of how to join up. The mood in Ukraine is of unity and a determination to face down Russia’s naked aggression. Zelenskiy’s defiance of Russia and his decision to very publicly stay in Kyiv and stand with the people as the Russian forces approach has been widely hailed as the acts of a statesman and a hero. All the references to him as a “former comedian” have disappeared from the reports on the developing situation.
“What is happening now in Ukraine is a real people’s war. We will not fall. We will not stop or get tired. We are determined to fight back fiercely as long as it is needed to defend our land and our people,” Kuleba said in a tweet in English.
Kuleba has also preformed extremely well and has been tirelessly travelling the international diplomatic circuit in recent weeks trying to rally the international community to come to Ukraine’s aide with some success.