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Putin reiterates claims he's willing to negotiate but attacks on Ukraine continue

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Ten months into Russia's war with Ukraine, Russian President Vladimir Putin says he wants to negotiate an end to the conflict. Or does he? The statement came as air raid sirens were reported across Ukraine. And in the Ukrainian city of Kherson, at least 10 people were reported dead from a rocket attack on a market on Saturday. NPR's Charles Maynes is covering the story from Moscow. Hey there, Charles.

CHARLES MAYNES, BYLINE: Morning.

INSKEEP: Let's listen to the words. What exactly did Putin say and how did he say it?

MAYNES: Yeah, well, context here, of course, is important. You know, Russia has repeatedly said it's open to negotiations. The catch? It's provided they're on Russia's terms. And that really was at the core of Putin's message in an interview on state television Sunday. Let's listen.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT VLADIMIR PUTIN: (Non-English language spoken).

MAYNES: So here, Putin says he's ready to discuss some acceptable outcomes in Ukraine but insists that it's Kyiv and the West who refuse to negotiate. And again, more context - Putin's argument for a while now has been that the fighting would have ended - on Russia's terms - if it weren't for Western military aid to Ukraine. Putin went on to say the West was trying to tear apart historical Russia, which, in his mind, includes Ukraine, and that Russia had no choice but to defend its citizens. So certainly, he's coming at this with his own unique perspective.

INSKEEP: Well, let's explore that perspective a little bit more. You've indicated that he's always said he wants peace on Russia's terms. Is he reflecting at all the reality that Russia's military has done so badly, has suffered such enormous casualties? And while they have taken some territory in Ukraine, they've also lost some.

MAYNES: Yeah, you know, to a degree, although not to a point that's acceptable to Ukraine. You know, early on, the Kremlin wanted regime change, a pro-Russian government in Kyiv. That was behind Putin's calls for de-Nazification, if you remember, part of this kind of false claim that Ukraine was somehow overrun with fascists and needed to be neutralized. But as Ukrainian forces pushed Russian troops back from Kyiv and then other portions of the country, Moscow's demands have shifted to really asking that Kyiv recognize Russia's right to Ukrainian lands it has seized. Specifically, this is for regions of Ukraine that Russia annexed in September in a move that was condemned internationally as illegal.

But there's a problem here as well, you know? Russian forces can't seem to hold the territory. And so if you're Ukraine and you keep liberating your own country, why would you sign away anything? That said, there is a debate, particularly in the West, over whether it's realistic for Ukraine to reach its stated objective, the complete expulsion of Russian troops from Ukraine, including from Crimea, which Russia annexed back in 2014.

INSKEEP: Would you give us an idea of the significance of something else that Putin said, something that Russian media were shut down at one point if they use the word - and now Putin is using the word, war, for the special military operation. What's going on?

MAYNES: Yeah. You know, ever since the beginning of the conflict, there's been this strange semantic game going on here. You know, the Kremlin, as you know, banned the use of the word war by the media, even shutting down some media over it, and insisted it was conducting a special military operation in Ukraine. And the reason for that term is this, it implied the military campaign was limited in scope, with limited sacrifice for the Russian people. And yet here we are, 10 months later, and Putin finally publicly said Russia wanted, quote, "the war" to end soon. Now, like his negotiation offer, it came with charges the West was trying to prolong the conflict. But the use of the word itself is significant and that it was a small nod to growing discomfort at home over a war that has gone on far longer than promised or planned and at enormous cost not only to Ukrainians, but Russians as well.

INSKEEP: NPR's Charles Maynes listening to what Putin said and also to what it may mean. Charles, thanks as always.

MAYNES: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Steve Inskeep is a host of NPR's Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.