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Putin rejected deal keeping Ukraine out of NATO early in war, pressed on: sources

Three people close to the Russian leadership have claimed that Vladimir Putin rejected a provisional deal made with Kyiv by his chief envoy to Ukraine – a deal that would have satisfied Russia’s demand that Ukraine stays out of NATO.

Dmitry Kozak, Ukrainian by birth but working for the Kremlin as its envoy, told Russian dictator Putin that he believed the deal he had struck would render a large-scale occupation of Ukraine unnecessary for Russia as Ukraine would drop its NATO membership ambitions, according to these sources. Kozak’s recommendation to Putin to adopt the deal is being reported by Reuters for the first time.

In a prologue to his invasion, Putin kept portraying NATO as an expansive body dissiminating its military infrastructure by accepting new eastern European members, one of which would be Ukraine. The dictator securitised NATO’s peaceful policy of open doors claiming that Ukraine’s potential membership within NATO represented an existential threat to Russia, which, in turn, forced his hand.

Although Putin initially backed the negotiations, he stressed, when Mr Kozak presented him with the deal, that the negotiated concessions were too modest and that he had expanded his objectives to include annexing swathes of Ukrainian territory, the sources said. At the end of the day, the deal was shredded.

When faced with Reuters findings, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov disacknowledge them entirely, calling them “absolutely incorrect”.

“That has absolutely no relation to reality. No such thing ever happened,” he claimed.

There was no response from Mr Kozak to a call for comment sent by Reuters via the Kremlin.

Russia using negotiations as “a smokescreen”

But according to Mykhailo Podolyak, an adviser to the Ukrainian president, Russia used the negotiations as a smokescreen to prepare for its invasion. Mr Podolyak did not, nonetheless, respond to queries about the gist of the talks nor confirm that a preliminary deal was clenched. “Today, we clearly understand that the Russian side has never been interested in a peaceful settlement,” he concluded.

Two of the three sources felt a push to get the deal finalised occurred immediately after Russia’s February 24 invasion. In a matter of days, Mr Kozak believed he had Ukraine’s agreement to the main terms Russia had been seeking and recommended to Putin that he sign an agreement, the sources said.

After February 24, Kozak was given carte blanche: they gave him the green light; he got the deal. He brought it back and they told him to clear off. Everything was cancelled. Putin simply changed the plan as he went along,” said one of the sources close to the Russian leadership.

The third source – basing his knowledge on accounts from people who were briefed on the discussions between Kozak and Putin – differed on the timing, saying Mr Kozak had presented Putin with the deal just before the invasion and had it rejected. All of the sources requested to be quoted under the rule of anonymity.

Would Putin accepting the deal have changed anything?

The consequences of the deal, had it been accepted by Putin, are unknown, as well as whether it would prevent the war – the largest military campaign in Europe since WWII. “Reuters was unable to verify independently that Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy or senior officials in his government were committed to the deal,” the agency wrote.

Describing Mr Kozak as “a loyal lieutenant to Putin since working with him in the 1990s in the St Petersburg mayor’s office,” Reuters deemed him well-placed to negotiate a peace deal. Mr Kozak has been tasked since 2020 by Putin to conduct talks with Ukrainian counterparts about the Donbas region of eastern Ukraine. The region has been controlled by Russian-backed separatists following an uprising in 2014. After leading the Russian delegation in France- and Germany-brokered talks with Ukrainian officials in Berlin on February 10, Mr Kozak told a late-night news conference that the latest round of those negotiations had ended without a breakthrough.

Moreover, Mr Kozak was there with Russia’s Security Council consisting of Putin, security chiefs, military commanders and key aides that gathered in the Kremlin’s Yekaterinsky hall on the third day prior to the launch of the invasion.

“State television cameras recorded part of the meeting, where Putin laid out plans to give formal recognition to separatist entities in eastern Ukraine,” Reuters reported, adding that once the cameras were removed from the room where the meeting was held, Mr Kozak spoke out against Russia going down the path of escalation with Ukraine. Reuters based its report on two of the three people close to the Russian echelons, as well as a third person who learned about what happened from people who took part in the meeting.

A final nail to the negotiations coffin was Ukrainian officials comprehending that Putin was bent on pressing ahead with the large-scale invasion. Discussions collapsed in early March.

Although Mr Kozak continues enjoying his Kremlin post of a deputy chief of staff, six of the sources Reuters tapped into claimed he was no longer handling the Ukraine dossier.

“From what I can see, Kozak is nowhere to be seen,” said one of the six, a source close to the separatist leadership in eastern Ukraine.


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