Former Israeli leader says he received a pledge from Russian president: ‘I won’t kill Zelenskyy.’
Former Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett says he received a promise from Russian President Vladimir Putin that he will not kill his Ukrainian counterpart.
Bennett emerged as an unlikely intermediary in the early days of Russia’s 11-month war with Ukraine, becoming one of the few leaders to meet Putin during the war in a trip to Moscow last March.
While Bennett’s mediation efforts appear to have done little to end the ongoing bloodshed, his remarks, in an interview posted on his YouTube channel late on Saturday, shed light on the backroom diplomacy and urgent efforts that were under way to try to bring the conflict to a speedy conclusion in its early days.
In the five-hour interview, which touched on numerous other subjects, Bennett says he asked Putin about whether he intended to kill Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy.
“I asked ‘What’s with this? Are you planning to kill Zelenskyy?’ 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 Zelenskyy.’”
Bennett said he then called Zelenskyy to inform him of Putin’s pledge.
“’Listen, I came out of a meeting, he’s not going to kill you.’ He asks, ‘Are you sure?’ I said ‘One hundred percent he won’t kill you.’”
Bennett said during his mediation, Putin dropped his demand to seek Ukraine’s disarmament and Zelenskyy promised not to join NATO.
There was no immediate response from the Kremlin, which has previously denied Ukrainian claims that Russia intended to assassinate Zelenskyy.
A Ukrainian presidential aide disputed Bennett’s comments.
“Ex-official’s claims on ‘mediation’ that Putin allegedly gave ‘guarantees not to kill’ and ‘the West interrupted promising negotiations’ are fiction,” Mykhailo Podolyak said on Twitter.
Podolyak said Russia’s “special military operation” is not about NATO expansion, security guarantees or sanctions, but rather based on Moscow’s desire to “destroy Ukraine and kill Ukrainians”.
Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba also commented saying Putin is “an expert liar”.
“In the past, Putin has made promises not to occupy Crimea, not to violate Minsk agreements, not to invade Ukraine, yet he has done all of these things. Do not be fooled … Every time he has promised not to do something, it has been exactly part of his plan,” Kuleba said.
Power short lived
Bennett, a largely untested leader who had served as prime minister for just six months when the war broke out in February 2022, unexpectedly thrust himself into international diplomacy after he positioned Israel in an uncomfortable middle ground between Russia and Ukraine.
Israel views its good ties with the Kremlin as strategic in the face of threats from Iran, but it aligns itself with Western nations and also seeks to show support for Ukraine.
An observant Jew and little known internationally, Bennett flew to Moscow for his meeting with Putin during the Jewish Sabbath, breaking his religious commitments and putting himself at the forefront of global efforts to halt the war.
However, his peacemaking efforts did not appear to take off and his time in power was short lived. Bennett’s government, an ideologically diverse union that sent current Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu into a brief political exile, collapsed in June 2022 over infighting.
Bennett stepped away from politics and is now a private citizen.