Are Western leaders pivoting towards a conciliatory approach to Vladimir Putin?

Nine months since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, a softening of stance towards the Russian leader seems to be taking shape, in theory at least. At a press conference with Emmanuel Macron on Thursday during the French President’s state visit to the US, Joe Biden said he was “prepared to speak with” Putin about the war in Ukraine. 

The US President clarified he would only do so after consulting NATO allies and if “there is an interest in him deciding he is looking for a way to end the war”. Though Biden said he had no immediate plans to contact Putin, his remarks were the furthest he has gone in mentioning negotiations. 

Macron, by contrast, was regularly in contact with Putin in the run-up to and the start of the war, though their phone calls temporarily stopped after evidence of mass killings of civilians by Russian forces in Bucha. Between December 2021 and May 2022, they conducted 20 phone calls, despite their widespread differences. 

Nonetheless, in the press conference, Macron made clear the two leaders agreed they would never urge the Ukrainians to make a compromise “that will not be acceptable for them”. Italian Foreign Minister Antonio Tajani also said a just peace was needed for Ukraine, but it needed to come through Kyiv.

Independently of Biden’s comments, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz said on Thursday that he hoped Germany can return to its pre-conflict “peace order” with Russia, with a “willingness” to engage with Russia if it stops its “special military operation” in Ukraine. The Chancellor said states have to “go back to the agreements which we had in the last decades and which were the basis for peace and security order in Europe.” Scholz also said that Putin can no longer win in Ukraine on the battlefield directly. 

In the end, such discussions remain only hypothetical. Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said European countries had proposed nothing concrete to mediate the war. Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov said Moscow was not ready to accept US conditions: “What did President Biden say in fact? He said that negotiations are possible only after Putin leaves Ukraine.” Still, the fact such rhetoric is emerging from Western leaders is telling.

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