Good morning! Our main story this week concerns the Russia-Ukraine peace talks in Istanbul which offered grounds for cautious optimism – even if a ceasefire still seems a distant prospect. We also look at President Vladimir Putin’s decision to require all buyers of Russian natural gas to pay in rubles, and the news that The Bell founder Elizaveta Osetinskaya and our editor Irina Malkova have been added to the Russian list of “foreign countries”. officers’.
A statement from The Bell: The risks for journalists working in Russia increased exponentially last week after a law was passed which punishes the dissemination of “false news” with up to 15 years in prison. It is already well known that Russian officials refuse to describe events in Ukraine as a “war”, preferring the term “special military operation”. Accordingly, we are suspending all direct coverage of Russia’s “special military operation” in Ukraine until further notice, although we will of course continue to report on its far-reaching economic, political and social consequences. If you notice that we are cautious about our choice of language and topics, you are right. We are. For now, we believe this is the only way to protect our journalists and continue to operate as a media outlet.
Agree or not agree
While Tuesday’s Russian-Ukrainian talks failed to yield a breakthrough, they did make some big strides. At the meeting in Istanbul, the Ukrainian delegation unveiled a proposal for a future ceasefire agreement which, according to The Bell’s sources, has largely met with Moscow’s approval. However, disagreements remain on several fundamental issues.
For Ukraine, it is important to appear as the initiator, a source familiar with the negotiations told The Bell. The same source believes Russia is moving towards a deal because any further military action would mean fighting in the cities and a repeat of the carnage in Mariupol.
No documents have been signed, but with a little political will, it is possible that the next few days will see specific agreements. If that happens, the outlines of a deal could be presented to the two presidents, according to The Bell’s source.
The Ukrainian proposals boiled down to:
- An agreement on Ukraine’s neutral and nuclear-free status backed by third-party security guarantees.
- An agreement on mutual respect for language and culture (kyiv suggests that other neighboring states such as Poland, Hungary and Romania should join this pact).
- A postponement of discussions on the status of Donbass until a summit meeting between Putin and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy. Everything is up for grabs: from restoring the pre-war borders of the so-called people’s republics of Donetsk and Luhansk to full recognition of their independence. A compromise could reflect the borders of the territory held by Russia at the time of any agreement.
At the same time, it is important to highlight the main sticking points:
- The status of the Russian military’s Russian-controlled lands in northern and southern Ukraine (including the Crimean peninsula annexed by Russia in 2014) has not been discussed.
- The content and wording of a collective security agreement for Ukraine is a complex issue. It’s important to keep in mind that the wording suggested on Tuesday is the Ukrainian proposal, according to The Bell’s source. Russia is highly unlikely to agree to a final deal that mirrors the wording of Article Five of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). Real security guarantees must be given to Ukraine, but there must be a clear mechanism to prevent NATO states from manipulating the deal to the detriment of Russia’s interests, our source said.
- Any easing of Western sanctions against Russia is not part of the negotiations. Officially, the Russians did not raise this issue, The Bell’s source said.
Russia confirmed a possible meeting between Putin and Zelensky, but refused to commit to a timetable. On Friday, Turkish President Recep Erdogan – who has established himself as a key broker in the negotiations – raised the possibility of a summit. However, the day before Italian Prime Minister Mario Draghi, who received a phone call from Putin to discuss the possibility of paying for Russian gas in rubles, said that the Russian President had told him that talking about both a presidential summit and a ceasefire was “premature”.
However, the situation could change at any time. The withdrawal of Russian forces from the vicinity of Kyiv has drawn sharp criticism from conservatives and nationalists, including journalists working for state television. “We are leaving Kyiv. I am neither a politician nor a general, nor do I have the full picture in front of me. I don’t know why it was decided,” one of the country’s best-known pro-Kremlin war reporters, Alexander Kots, wrote on social media on Friday. “Throughout these six weeks, I have been with my army. Nothing and no one can harm their achievements. They could not be caught in combat,” he said, apparently implying that the army had been stabbed in the back by the diplomats.
One of the biggest “hawks” in Russian politics, Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov, has also voiced his opposition to the talks. “We make no concessions,” Kadyrov said in a video message. “Mr. Medinsky [the leader of the Russian delegation at the talks] made a mistake and wrote an inappropriate statement”. Kadyrov promised that Russian troops would take kyiv if Ukraine did not agree to Moscow’s demands. Other proponents of continuing the war would be State Duma Speaker Vyacheslav Volodin and television propagandists like presenter Vladimir Soloviev.
An incident on Friday morning could also become a big issue in future talks. Around 6 a.m., the head of Russia’s Belgorod region reported a fire at the city’s oil depot – half an hour later he said it was caused by an airstrike by two Ukrainian helicopters. Later, a video appeared on social media supporting this claim, which was backed by independent experts. The fire was only brought under control that evening. Ukrainian officials have refused to confirm or deny Ukrainian military involvement, suggesting it was a Ukrainian attack.
Putin’s gas plan
After a week of “will he, won’t he,” Putin on Thursday signed into law rules requiring European countries to buy Russian natural gas in rubles. However, the decree basically changes nothing for European customers, who will continue to pay in euros – all currency manipulation will be the work of Russian state bank Gazprombank. If Europe complies, it will mean that a major Russian state bank will be protected from the threat of sanctions and the Kremlin can tell the Russians that it has won an economic victory.
The decree outlines the rules that European countries should follow from April 1:
- European importers open two accounts with Gazprombank: one in rubles, one in foreign currency.
- European importers transfer natural gas payments in euros to their Gazprombank foreign currency accounts.
- Gazprombank sells the euros on the Moscow stock exchange and transfers the rubles it receives to the ruble account held by the European company.
- European importers transfer these rubles to the state-owned gas giant Gazprom.
For the Europeans, nothing changes much: they continue to make payments in euros, and Gazprombank converts these funds into rubles and transfers the money to Gazprom.
It is difficult to predict the European response to the new payment system: all European politicians have insisted that they will continue to pay in euros for natural gas – but Putin’s plan allows them to do just that.
For the Russian economy and the rouble, the new rules do not change anything either: since the end of February, all exporters have been obliged to convert 80% of their foreign currency earnings into roubles. However, the device allows Gazprombank to become almost untouchable in the face of new European or American sanctions. This bank, whose main shareholder is Yuri Kovalchuk, a close friend of Putin, is known for its ties with Putin’s inner circle. For example, he funded deals for Putin’s former son-in-law, Kirill Shamalov.
To some extent, the bank has already been shielded: Gazprombank was one of the main candidates to be targeted by US and European sanctions, but avoided the restrictions. So far, only the UK has imposed sanctions. EU countries concerned about the disruption of natural gas supplies were behind the decision to shield Gazprombank, sources told The Wall Street Journal last month. Protecting Gazprombank from sanctions in this way could mean that it would become a channel for Russia’s trade relations with the outside world. “The goal [of Western officials] is to secure gas payments. But the same channel will remain open for other payments. The experience of Iran and Venezuela shows that banks can set up their transactions in such a way that it becomes almost impossible to identify the end beneficiaries,” said Carrie Steinbauer, a former US Treasury official, at the Wall Street Journal.
The ‘Foreign Agent’ label is coming to The Bell
When Russian authorities began labeling independent media as “foreign agents” last spring, The Bell seemed like a likely candidate. Yet, at the time, we escaped status. However, the Justice Department on Friday updated its list of foreign media operatives for the first time since the “special military operation” began – and the list now includes The Bell founder Elizaveta Osetinskaya, and its editor, Irina Malkova.
The bell itself is not on the list, and the new status of Osetinskaya and Malkova will not impact our work. However, this means many problems for them as individuals. Every quarter, “foreign agents” are required to submit reports on their income and expenses to the Ministry of Justice. Any text they post – including social media posts – should have a lengthy disclaimer. Any breach of these onerous rules can result in a fine, and repeat offenses are potentially criminal. Also, the Soviet-era term “foreign agent” has strong negative connotations of espionage, making it difficult to find work. You can read more about the practical impact for individuals here.
As usual, no explanation was given for the decision to target Osetinskaya and Malkova. And it is useless to look for any logic. In addition to journalists, new additions to the list on Friday included famous historical blogger Evgeny Ponasenkov (likely due to a recent video in which he said Russia should have invaded Italy because Italy is more beautiful than Ukraine). Another addition was regional lawmaker Viktor Vorobyov, a member of the Communist Party, who is Russia’s first elected representative to be named a “foreign agent”.
Translated by Andy Potts, edited by Howard Amos