Putin pledged not to kill Zelenskyy, says former Israeli PM

Naftali Bennett shares discussion he held with Russian President at start of Ukraine invasion

File photo taken on October 22, 2021, Russian President Vladimir Putin (L) welcomes Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett during their meeting, in Sochi. Sputnik/AFP
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Russian President Vladimir Putin promised not to kill Ukrainian leader Volodymyr Zelenskyy, said former Israeli prime minister Naftali Bennett.

Mr Bennett was briefly a mediator at the start of Russia’s war with Ukraine.

As one of the few western leaders to meet Mr Putin in the first few weeks of the war, he was an unlikely intermediary during a snap trip to Moscow in March last year.

Mr Bennett’s remarks shed light on the backroom diplomacy and urgent efforts that were under way to try to bring the conflict to a conclusion in its early days.

In the five-hour interview, which touched on many other subjects, Mr Bennett says he asked Mr Putin about whether he intended to kill Mr 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'.”

Mr Bennett said he then called Mr Zelenskyy to inform him of Mr Putin’s pledge.

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“‘Listen, I came out of a meeting, he’s not going to kill you.’ He asks, ‘Are you sure?’ I said ’100 per cent he won’t kill you.’”

Mr Bennett said that during his mediation, Mr Putin dropped his vow to seek Ukraine’s disarmament and Mr 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 Mr Zelenskyy.

Reacting to Mr Bennett’s comments in his widely reported interview, Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba wrote Sunday on Twitter: “Do not be fooled: He [Mr Putin] is an expert liar.

"Every time he has promised not to do something, it has been exactly part of his plan.”

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Mr Bennett was a largely untested leader who was prime minister for just over six months when the war broke out.

Israel regards 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, Mr Bennett flew to Moscow to meet Mr Putin during the Jewish Sabbath, breaking his religious commitments and putting himself at the forefront of global efforts to halt the war.

But his peacemaking did not appear to take off and his time in power was short-lived.

Mr Bennett’s government, an ideologically diverse union that sent current Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu into a brief political exile, collapsed in the summer over infighting.

Mr Bennett stepped away from politics and is now a private citizen.

Updated: February 05, 2023, 7:22 PM