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The view from Moscow

AYESHA RASCOE, HOST:

We'll hear from other parts of Ukraine throughout the program, but now we're going to get the view from Moscow. And to do that, we have NPR's Moscow correspondent Charles Maynes on the line.

CHARLES MAYNES, BYLINE: Hi there.

RASCOE: Hi. Charles, amidst all this fighting, there appeared to be an opening for some diplomacy until there wasn't. Can you walk us through what happened?

MAYNES: Yeah, sure. So the opening came from Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, who posted a video in which he called on President Putin - Vladimir Putin, of course, from Russia - to meet at the negotiating table. And in making the appeals, Zelenskyy added that Ukraine was not afraid to address, quote, "security guarantees for our country and its neutral status."

Now, this word neutral is important. You know, Zelenskyy is caving to a key Russian demand that drove this crisis, the idea that Ukraine never join the NATO alliance. This was a Russian demand. And Zelenskyy said he was ready to make that guarantee if it would stop the killing.

Now, the Kremlin spokesman then suggested Putin was opening - open to sending a delegation to meet with Ukrainians in Minsk, in Belarus, which has been the site of previous negotiations between the two sides. Later, there appeared to be some disagreement over that choice of location, but the real issue became Putin. Later in the day, he took a match to the whole idea.

RASCOE: So Putin said no to the negotiations?

MAYNES: Yeah, to put it mildly. In a video address to his security council, he praised the performance of the Russian troops while really lacing into the authorities in Kyiv, calling them neo-Nazis and a gang of drug addicts. And Putin called on Ukraine's army to overthrow the government and negotiate with Russia directly, arguing that it was just hardcore nationalists still fighting, and in doing so, putting Ukrainian lives in danger. Let's listen in.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT VLADIMIR PUTIN: (Speaking Russian).

MAYNES: Comparing these people resisting Russia to terrorists who hide among civilians and then blame others for civilian deaths. And Putin said they were doing this on the instructions of foreign consultants that he said were primarily from the U.S. You know, and this seemed part of an effort by Putin to reassure the Russian public that all blame for ongoing fighting and any further collateral damage or civilian deaths rests with the other side.

RASCOE: Well, let's talk about the public. On Day 1 of the Russian campaign, there were scattered protests. Do you see the public attitude shifting or attitudes towards the war shifting in any way?

MAYNES: Yeah. I mean, first of all, I think it's important these protests last night did occur in Russia's largest cities. Let's hear just a bit.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (Chanting in Russian).

MAYNES: So that's last night in Moscow, where a crowd of several hundred were chanting no to war. Rights groups say about 1,700 people were detained by police across the country for expressing similar views. Meanwhile, some well-known figures went public with their dismay about the Russian invasion and seemed to pay a price. Ivan Urgant - he's Russia's most popular and, really, only late-night talk show host - came out against the war and found himself off the air tonight, at least for now.

But this comes amid a wider crackdown on Russian public debate over the past year. And today the Russian government said it's going to limit access to Facebook. Even though it hasn't said exactly what that means, it appears to be working very slowly. And Facebook is certainly among key platforms online that Russians use to organize and express themselves.

RASCOE: Charles, in about the minute that we have left, I wanted to circle back to something you had said earlier - Nazis. For months, Putin has said this invasion is about two goals - demilitarizing Ukraine and de-Nazifying Ukraine. What does that mean?

MAYNES: Yeah. You know, Putin has directly compared NATO's expansion towards Russia's borders to Germany's invasion of the Soviet Union in World War II. And, you know, Putin has embraced the power and pain of those memories when he talks about genocide and fascism in Ukraine today. Some of it is clearly propaganda and, frankly, nonsense. President Zelenskyy, for example, is Jewish. And he said, you know, how can I be a Nazi?

But this is complicated history. There were forces in Ukraine that actively worked with the Germans against the Soviet Union. They saw the Nazis essentially as liberators. And today, there's a strain of Ukrainian nationalism that's unrepentant about that. It's a tiny minority, but it's a voice that exists. And the Kremlin propaganda machine exploits that at every turn.

RASCOE: NPR's Moscow correspondent Charles Maynes. Thank you.

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