Putin ‘gave guarantee’ he would not kill Zelensky at secret summit

London: Russian President Vladimir Putin promised not to assassinate his Ukrainian counterpart Volodymyr Zelensky during a meeting with the former Israeli prime minister just weeks after his troops invaded last year.

Naftali Bennett, who quit politics last June after his coalition lost its majority, leading to its November election loss, has recounted details from his secret trip to Moscow last year to help broker a peace deal between the two sides.

Former Israeli prime minister Naftali Bennet at a 2021 meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin.Credit: AP

He became the first Western leader to travel to the Kremlin after the invasion and met with Putin for three hours, before flying to Berlin for talks with German Chancellor Olaf Scholz in a bid to mediate an end to the war between Russia and Ukraine, two countries with long-standing political and cultural ties to Israel.

“He gave me two great concessions,” Bennett said of his meeting with Putin on March 5, 2022, shortly after Russia began its invasion.

“I knew Zelensky was under threat, in a bunker… I said to [Putin], ‘Do you intend to kill Zelensky?’ He said, ‘I won’t kill Zelensky,’” Bennett recalled in the interview, which was published on his YouTube channel.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky survived several assassination attempts in the early days of the war.Credit:AP

Bennett said he replied: “I need to understand that you are giving me your word that you will not kill Zelensky” and said Putin again promised not to do so.

He said he called Zelensky while he was still in Moscow on his way to the airport from the Kremlin to tell him that he was not under a death threat.

“Are you sure,” he said Zelensky asked him. “One hundred per cent,” Bennett replied.

Bennett said that within hours Zelensky had returned to his office and made a video explaining that he was not afraid.

In March last year The Times reported that Zelensky had survived three assassination attempts in the weeks following the invasion by two different groups of mercenaries – the Kremlin-backed Wagner group and Chechen special forces.

The assassination attempts were reportedly thwarted by anti-war elements within Russia’s Federal Security Service, with Wagner group mercenaries in Kyiv sustaining heavy losses during their attempts to kill Zelensky. A source close to the group told the paper it was “eerie” how well briefed the president’s security team appeared to be.

Israel has sought to maintain a neutral stance on the war, keeping channels open with both Russia and Ukraine. Israel has refused to arm Kyiv over fears of angering Moscow, concerned that doing so would jeopardise its decade-long campaign in Syria to prevent the entrenchment of Iran on its northern border.

The issue has strained ties between Jerusalem and Kyiv, as the Ukrainians have consistently pressed Israel to provide more defence aid. However, The New York Times reported last month that the US military was quietly shipping hundreds of thousands of artillery shells to Ukraine from a massive stockpile it stores in Israel.

Bennett, Israel’s first Orthodox premier, made the flight to Moscow on Shabbat, which observant Jews are barred from doing under Jewish law, though exceptions are made for medical or security situations in which life is threatened.

He said he had gone to Moscow at the request of Zelensky, who is Jewish, on the belief that there was a small window of time in which a deal could be reached to end the war.

“We went in absolute secrecy on a decrepit plane from Israel through the Kazakh region… because we couldn’t fly over the Black Sea. On the way we prayed and made a blessing over the Sabbath wine, it was very emotional,” Bennett said.

He said they landed in Moscow where it was cold and raining, in what was his first trip to that city. Bennett recalled that he was joined by his parliamentary colleague, Ze’ev Elkin, then the housing and construction minister who is originally from Ukraine and speaks fluent Russian. Elkin had in the past acted as a translator for Netanyahu in his meetings with Putin.

He said from Moscow, they went to Berlin, to meet with President Olaf Scholz and together they went to France, Great Britain and the United States, all of whom had known about his visit.

“Everything I did was co-ordinated with the United States, Germany and France,” Bennett said.

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