When Russia’s war with Ukraine first began, former Israeli prime minister Naftali Bennett briefly acted as a mediator.
He claims that by doing so, Russian president Vladimir Putin promised not to assassinate his Ukrainian counterpart, Volodymyr Zelensky.
In the early stages of the conflict, the former prime minister emerged as an odd middleman and, during a quick trip to Moscow in March of last year, became one of the few Western officials to meet with President Vladimir Putin.
Bennett’s mediation efforts may not have had much of an impact on the ongoing bloodshed, but his comments in an interview that was published online late Saturday illuminated the murky negotiations and hasty efforts that were made in the early stages of the war to terminate it quickly.
Bennett claims he questioned Putin during the five-hour conversation, which also covered a wide range of other topics, whether he had any plans to assassinate Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky.
“I asked ‘what’s with this? Are you planning to kill Zelensky?’ He said ‘I won’t kill Zelenskyy.’ I then said to him ‘I have to understand that you’re giving me your word that you won’t kill Zelenskyy.’ He said ‘I’m not going to kill Zelensky.’”
According to Bennett, during their mediation, Zelensky made a commitment to stay out of NATO and Putin reneged on his promise to seek the disarming of Ukraine.
The Kremlin, which has consistently refuted Ukrainian charges that Russia meant to assassinate Zelensky, did not respond right away.
“Do not be fooled: He is an expert liar,” the Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba remarked on Twitter in response to Bennett’s comments in his widely reported interview.
“Every time he has promised not to do something, it has been exactly part of his plan.”
After placing Israel in an awkward middle ground between Russia and Ukraine, Bennett, a mostly inexperienced leader who had been prime minister for just over six months when the war began, unexpectedly stepped into international diplomacy.