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How have Russia's mixed signals about Ukraine complicated peace talks?

A MARTINEZ, HOST:

A Kremlin spokesman is throwing cold water on any optimism over peace talks between Russia and Ukraine. He says there were no breakthroughs, even though Russia's foreign minister claimed significant progress. Around the negotiations in Turkey this week, Russia also said it would scale back some military operations. Some ground forces pulled back from the outside of the capital and in one other city, but Ukrainian officials said Russian shells and missiles kept falling. So why the mixed signals? Joining me by way of Skype is former U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine William Taylor. He's now vice president of Russia and Europe at the U.S. Institute of Peace. Welcome back to the program, Ambassador.

WILLIAM TAYLOR: Thank you, A. It's great to be here.

MARTINEZ: Now, you've been in touch with Ukraine's top negotiators. How do they assess this latest round of talks?

TAYLOR: Well, A, they're serious. The Ukrainians are serious. They've given a lot of thought to this, as you would expect. They've been in close touch with their president, President Zelenskyy, so they are linked up with the political. The fact is, part one of the main negotiators is the top person in President Zelenskyy's political party in the Rada, so he is tuned in to the politics, which are going to be important. And the other is the minister of defense, and the minister of defense obviously knows the issues on the ground with the military. So they're a serious delegation, and they've given thought. They've even put together some proposals - some ideas - which are very interesting to - and what it says about where the Ukrainians are. So they're serious. It's not clear, A, where the Russians are. Their delegation is headed up by a former minister of culture. And, as you've been reporting, there seems to be a real disconnect or confusion or uncertainty or mixed messages coming out of Moscow about both the military side and the negotiating side, so...

MARTINEZ: Right. I was going to ask you about that because you said Ukrainian negotiators are in close communication with their president, Zelenskyy. It's unclear, as as some have reported, that Russian negotiators might not be as close in communication with their president.

TAYLOR: You're exactly right - exactly right. It's not clear anyone is in close communication or understands exactly what President Putin is after. As we know, A, we remember, when this whole thing began - that is, on, like, the 23 of February - there were a lot of people in the Russian government who did not know, or at least they were saying that there was going to be no invasion. So President Putin kept it very close, he kept a very small number of people around him, and I imagine that's still happening with regard to these negotiations. So it's just not clear from the Russian side.

MARTINEZ: Could all of this be - as a delegation of Ukrainian lawmakers said - a smokescreen to let, maybe, Russian troops regroup? Any evidence to back that up?

TAYLOR: Well, as you've reported, this comment coming out of the Turkish - the Turkey delegation - the Russian delegation down in Turkey last - this past week indicated that there would be a pullback - there would be somewhat of a reduction in the military activity. Well, there wasn't. There may have been a reduction on the ground, but the shells kept falling - not just in Kyiv, but in other cities as well, so it is not clear that they're serious about this reduction in violence. It's not clear that they were, again, connected into what's going on in Moscow. And you do have to worry that these negotiations are just to kind of deflect or defer or maybe try to say, well, we're - this is actually going to work out, so you don't have to send more than weapons in. You, the West, don't have to send more weapons into Ukraine, and maybe you can relax the sanctions a little bit. Well, that's not going to happen. We're not going to take that bait.

MARTINEZ: Does diplomacy at gunpoint ever work? I mean, what's - what would be the negotiation logic of that?

TAYLOR: No logic - you're exactly right, and we've got some very clear evidence of that. So negotiations at gunpoint happened in 2014 and 2015 in Donbas. This resulted in the so-called Minsk agreements, where then-President Poroshenko in Ukraine had to sign a lopsided agreement. The Minsk agreements are very disadvantageous to the Ukrainians, very advantageous to the Russians, and he had to do that because he was negotiating at gunpoint - almost literally, A - almost literally. There were Ukrainian troops that were surrounded by Russian troops, and so President Poroshenko had to sign this. It was not good, and it didn't work. So there is evidence that this is not a good tactic.

MARTINEZ: So at this point, then, Ambassador, what more can the U.S. and the West do to strengthen Ukraine's hand?

TAYLOR: Two things - and we're doing these. We just need to do more. That is, I've already mentioned we need to provide the Ukrainians the weapons that they need to continue this fight. They need the - they've - the Ukrainians have done an amazing job, heroic job, of stopping the Russians coming down towards Kyiv, and in other places as well, and even counterattacking. And so they put the Russians, to some degree, on the defensive in certain places. That needs to continue. They need more weapons. They need more ammunition. They need more missiles that go after tanks. They need more missiles that go after aircraft. They need more armored vehicles, A. They are - and they need that - and they need it soon. They need it now. It's not just soon...

MARTINEZ: Yeah.

TAYLOR: ...They need it today. So that's important. But the second thing is we need to continue to squeeze the Russians on sanctions. There are sanctions that there have not - that we - that the West has not put on the Russians yet, and we need to do that to reduce their ability to pursue this war.

MARTINEZ: Which ones? What sanctions do you think need to be added?

TAYLOR: I'm thinking that there's a great big Russian bank called Sberbank that is still connected into the SWIFT system.

MARTINEZ: Mmm. OK.

TAYLOR: That's just an obvious one they can do right away.

MARTINEZ: You know, back in January, when Russia was doing their military buildup near the Ukrainian border, when there was hope that maybe there could be cooperation between the U.S. and Russia, you said that you didn't see conversations that lead to a better understanding of each other's concerns about each other as a concession - that you felt that's valuable. Ambassador, considering what Russia has done to Ukraine since, is it still worth doing? Is it still worth trying to find out what Russia's concerned about?

TAYLOR: Of course. We should try to figure out what Russia's concerned about. The problem, of course, A, is that the leader of Russia, President Putin, is not a credible interlocutor. I mean, there is no reason to be talking to him. He has lied to President Biden. He has lied to his people. He's lied to his military. So there's no merit. There's no benefit to having that conversation. But, that said, sure, we should try to figure out what they're really after, and that's why the Ukrainians are sitting down with the Russians to have this conversation. And, actually, the Ukrainians are making some proposals to see what the - at least those Russian delegates, negotiators, would say about these. So that's sort of - it's important to continue that process.

MARTINEZ: Former Ambassador to Ukraine William Taylor. Thank you very much.

TAYLOR: Thanks, A. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.