Inching Toward a Possible Ceasefire; Kremlin Warns on Toilet Paper

It was not immediately clear how Macron responded to the Russian strongman’s preposterous posturings.

Women walks inside a Kiev school damaged with residential buildings during a bombing March 18, 2022. AP/Rodrigo Abd

ATHENS — As Russia’s vicious war on its neighbor Ukraine lurches past the three-week mark, it’s difficult to see whether the two sides are anywhere near reaching a ceasefire. 

Russian cruise missiles striking targets in western Ukraine this morning and the humanitarian calamity in Mariupol in eastern Ukraine would tend to indicate not — but perhaps some headway has been made.

The leader of the Russian delegation to talks with Ukrainian officials says the parties have come closer to an agreement on a neutral status for Ukraine, the Associated Press reported Friday evening. Vladimir Medinsky, who has led the Russian negotiators in several rounds of talks with Ukraine, including this week, said the sides have narrowed their differences on the issue of Ukraine dropping its bid to join NATO and adopting a neutral status. 

“The issue of neutral status and no NATO membership for Ukraine is one of the key issues in talks, and that is the issue where the parties have made their positions maximally close,” Mr Medinsky said. 

The Russian negotiator added that the sides are now “half-way” on issues regarding the demilitarization of Ukraine. On the Ukrainian side, things were less clear cut. 

A top Ukrainian adviser to the Ukrainian president, Mykhailo Podolyak, tweeted on Friday that “the statements of the Russian side are only their requesting positions. All statements are intended, inter alia, to provoke tension in the media. Our positions are unchanged. Ceasefire, withdrawal of troops & strong security guarantees with concrete formulas.” 

Yet there are efforts afoot for a meeting between Vladimir Putin and Volodymyr Zelensky. On Thursday, the Week reported, Mr. Putin called the Turkish president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, to share his demands for Ukraine, and a close adviser to Mr. Erdogan who reportedly listened in on that call said he believes Mr. Zelensky will be open to some of them.

Voulez-vous some alternative facts? In a phone call today with the French president, Emmanuel Macron, Mr. Putin accused Ukraine of committing war crimes and assured Mr. Macron that Russian troops were “doing everything possible” to avoid targeting civilians, French news website Le Point reported Friday evening. It was not immediately clear how Mr. Macron responded to the Russian strongman’s preposterous posturings, but what is not unlikely is that Mr. Putin’s comments were a riposte to President Biden’s branding him a war criminal earlier this week.

Mr. Zelesky, for his part, spoke this week with the International Criminal Court prosecutor, Karim Khan, about ways to hold Russia accountable for what Ukraine considers to be a growing list of war crimes committed on its sovereign territory.  

During their phone call, Mr. Macron asked Mr. Putin to lift the siege of Mariupol, allow humanitarian access, and order an immediate cease-fire, AP reported. In the streets of Mariupol, chaos reigns. 

Ukraine accused Russia of a Wednesday attack on a theater where up to 1,000 people had sought refuge. Mr. Zelensky said in a Facebook video address Friday that 130 people had been saved after the Mariupol bombing but that “hundreds” were trapped beneath the rubble. “Despite the shelling, despite all the difficulties, we will continue the rescue work,” Mr. Zelensky said. 

With respect to the situation in Mariupol, the Ukrainian national news agency Ukrinform reported today that a deputy commander of the controversial Azov Regiment of far-right Ukrainian volunteer fighters, Captain Svyatoslav Palamar, said that Mr. Putin “needs Mariupol to conceal the real number of civilian casualties in the town” and that “street fighting is ongoing in the town, enemy aircraft and artillery work nonstop, the town is being razed to the ground.” Mr. Palamar made the statements in a video address posted on his Telegram account.

The Moscow Times, which is admirably holding on amidst the worst clampdown on press freedom in Russia in recent memory — and where this reporter worked in its infancy in the suddenly idyllic-looking 1990s — reports that the Kremlin has warned Russians against panic buying as food prices in the country soar. 

“Russians have absolutely no need to run to the shops and buy up buckwheat, sugar, and toilet paper,” a Kremlin spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, told reporters Friday, the paper reported. Mr. Peskov added that the “fuss around supplies in food stores is extremely emotional.”

Russian newspaper Komsomolskaya Pravda reports that “the United States may lift anti-Russian sanctions in the event of the termination of the special operation and the restoration of sovereignty in Ukraine.” The report says that an unnamed Department of State official said on Friday sanctions against Russia are “not an end in itself for the West, but are only a tool and can ‘cease being used’ if certain conditions are met.”

While the veracity of this report could not be immediately confirmed, Komsomolskaya Pravda notes that it was first reported by Russian state news agency TASS, which indicates if nothing else that the sanctions currently in place are indeed already inflicting pain on the Russian economy. In a nod to the great tradition of Russian mysticism, the report includes a hyperlink to a separate story about “what will happen to prices and the dollar when Western companies return to us,” according to  “well-known astrologers and numerologists.”

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