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FOCUS: Russia-Ukraine War

Putin And Zelensky, So Close — And Farther Away Than Ever From Negotiations

The Ukrainian and Russian presidents made separate visits to the frontline recently, in closer physical proximity than anytime since the war began. It was a sign that we should not expect negotiations anytime soon.

Split photo of Russian President Vladimir Putin and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky on their respective visits to the frontline

Putin and Zelensky: nearby, same time, different purposes

Pierre Haski


Volodymyr Zelensky and Vladimir Putin have probably not been literally as close to each other since the beginning of the invasion of Ukraine. The two presidents made public Tuesday their respective visits to the war's front line.

While it was not a first for Zelensky, it was for Putin. And the event was staged enough to stand out. What is the message of Putin's visit, both in terms of the military situation and recent mentions of negotiations?

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The two sides do not have the same agenda. The Ukrainian president is preparing his spring counteroffensive, announced well in advance to push for Western arms deliveries. Tanks have arrived, along with ex-Soviet planes delivered by Eastern European countries.

Leaks from Pentagon documents in recent days also revealed an attack date, April 30, which is probably unlikely after the leak, and expressed doubts about the ability of Ukraine to break through the heavily consolidated Russian defenses along the more than 1,000 kilometers of the front.

Nothing more than more war

As for Putin, his message is much more complex: by visiting the Kherson region in the south and then Luhansk in the north to meet with his military leaders, the Russian president is indicating that he does not intend to give up the annexed regions from last year, even if he does not fully control them.

This prerequisite is important because it is consistent with Moscow's attitude towards possible negotiations. Ready to negotiate, yes, but on the basis of effective territorial gains, which are non-negotiable.

Two days before Putin's visit, Yevgeny Prigozhin, the leader of the Wagner militia, which is known to have led most of the battles and suffered heavy losses in the Battle of Bakhmut, made a notable statement: he declared that it was "necessary to end the special military operation" and to proclaim that Russia had achieved its objectives. Prigozhin’s rhetoric suggests that Moscow could be satisfied with the conquered territories and could stop there.

That makes Kyiv look like an obstacle to peace.

Does this allow for negotiation? The answer is no. This is unacceptable for Ukraine, which does not intend to sacrifice an ounce of territory after all it has suffered for over a year now.

Game of fools

But this is the ambiguity of the evocations of negotiation and mediation issued in recent days by China, joined by Brazilian President Lula. Sergei Lavrov, the Russian foreign minister, was present in Brazil yesterday, where he praised diplomatic efforts.

The ambiguity lies in presenting a mediation offer at a time when Russia still controls the conquered territories, making Kyiv look like an obstacle to peace because it will not negotiate until it has tried to reverse the balance of power. In the eyes of southern countries, Ukraine will be the war instigator, with the West behind it.

The conclusion of this game of fools is that the war is not likely to end anytime soon, and those who speak of negotiations do not really have the elements that would make them possible. Zelensky and Putin on either side of the front line are probably announcing nothing more than more war to come in the coming weeks.

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Longyearbyen Postcard: World's Northernmost Town Facing Climate Change — And Russia

The melting of the sea ice in the Far North has accelerated in recent years. The Norwegian archipelago of Svalbard has become the focal point of the environmental drama gripping the Arctic as well as the geopolitical tensions it is causing there, with Russia in particular.

A statue of a coal miner stands in the center of the photos with houses surronding it, draped around their shoudler is a Ukrainian flag. The environment is snowy and the sky is white from clouds.

A Ukraine flag placed on a statue of a coal miner in the center of Longyearbyen

Steffen Trumpf/dpa/ZUMA
Laura Berny

LONGYEARBYEN — The Longyearbreen glacier, which once unfurled to the sea, is now a shadow of its former self. Only the name of Longyearbyen’s Isfjorden now conveys the idea of something frozen.

“Last January, during the polar winter, the temperature was between 0 and 5 °C. When I went for a walk by the fjord, I could hear the waves. This was not the case before at this time of year,” says Heidi Sevestre. The French glaciologist fell in love with Svalbard as a student, so much so that she now lives here for part of the year.

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Compared to Siberia, Canada’s and Greenland’s High North – the Arctic archipelago, located just over a thousand kilometers from the North Pole – has historically benefited from a slightly more benign climate despite its extreme latitude. Temperatures here range between 5 °C and 15 °C in summer and usually not below -30 °C in the coldest of winter. This relatively “mild" weather has its origin in the Gulf Stream — the marine current which rises up from the Caribbean and runs along the west coast of Svalbard.

But the situation has now changed.

“There has been a lot of talk about the rise in atmospheric temperature for at least 20 years. But in the past three years, ocean temperatures have also risen significantly. This is what is causing the increasingly rapid retreat of the ice pack,” explains Jean-Charles Gallet, a glaciologist who has worked at the Norwegian Polar Institute (NPI) since 2010.

“The sea ice acts like an air conditioner for the ocean, so the more it decreases, the more the ocean warms up. This causes a chain reaction which ends up accelerating the warming process,” adds Eero Rinne, a Finnish specialist on the topic and a researcher at the University Centre in Svalbard (UNIS). Rinne is working on the CRISTAL sea ice satellite mission, slated to go live in 2028 as part of the European Space Agency’s Copernicus program.

Beyond the alarming disappearance of glaciers and ice packs and the threat to polar bears (of which there are still around 300 in the archipelago), global warming is also causing cracks in the infrastructure of the territory, which is covered by permafrost. Landslides are increasingly frequent, and all recently constructed buildings in the region are on stilts.

“It used to rain very little in Svalbard, but now it is getting wetter and wetter, which is weakening the soil,” explains Hanne Hvidtfeldt Christiansen, a Danish-Norwegian scientist and specialist on permafrost at UNIS.

Norwegians kept a low profile about Svalbard's growing crisis, until 2017. That was the year when the Svalbard Global Seed Vault was flooded, less than 10 years after its foundation. The facility, dug near a mine in Longyearbyen, the capital of the archipelago, was built to preserve more than a million seeds from a possible cataclysm. The disaster didn’t affect the seeds but left a scar in people’s minds. Even this close to the pole, permafrost is thawing.

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