Former prime minister Naftali Bennett said in a video published Saturday that Russian President Vladimir Putin assured him, in the early days of the war, that he wouldn’t kill Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky.
“He gave me two great concessions,” Bennett said of his March 5, 2022, meeting with Putin, when he flew to Moscow in an effort to mediate 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 own YouTube channel.
“I need to understand. Are you giving me your word that you won’t kill Zelensky?” Bennett said he asked Putin.
Bennett said the Russian president repeated: “I won’t kill Zelensky.”
Bennett said he called the Ukrainian president immediately after the three-hour encounter with Putin, and told him, “I’ve just come out of a meeting — [Putin] is not going to kill you.
“[Zelensky] asked me, ‘Are you sure?’ I said 100 percent. [Putin’s] not going to kill you.”
Bennett recalled: “Two hours later, Zelensky went to his office, and did a selfie in the office, [in which the Ukrainian president said,] ‘I’m not afraid.’”
According to unconfirmed reports, multiple assassination attempts against Zelensky have been thwarted since the start of Russia’s invasion. Those plots are said to have involved mercenaries from the Wagner Group, a security company under the control of Putin ally Yevgeny Prigozhin, as well as Chechen special forces.
According to Bennett, Putin also agreed not to demand the disarming of Ukraine and that same weekend, Zelensky dropped his push for Ukraine to join NATO. (In September, Zelensky called for Kyiv to receive fast-tracked NATO membership after Russia formally annexed four Moscow-held regions of Ukraine.)
Bennett also said that “everything I did [in the mediation effort] was coordinated with the US.”
At the time, the meeting was Putin’s first sit-down with a foreign leader since Russian forces invaded Ukraine. Bennett was accompanied on the trip by then-housing minister Ze’ev Elkin, who acted as a translator and adviser.
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. Elkin is also religious.
As the invasion approaches its first anniversary, a report earlier this week in Axios indicated that the new government led by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is conducting a policy review on its position toward the war.
The report said that a growing number of defense and intelligence officials would like Jerusalem to help Kyiv militarily without causing a divide with Moscow, such as through indirect transfers of Israeli-manufactured systems.
It was not clear what armaments were under consideration, but the official said the policy review was unlikely to lead to any significant change and stressed Israel will not send missile defense systems, as Kyiv has lobbied for.
Netanyahu hinted at a potential policy shift in an interview with CNN aired Tuesday, claiming he was “looking into” providing Kyiv with “other kinds of aid” besides humanitarian help, amid concerns over Israel’s “complex relationship” with Russia and its need to retain “freedom of action” in Syria in its effort to “keep Iran in check.” Following the interview, Russia warned Israel against arming Ukraine.
The warning from Moscow also came after reports in recent weeks that Israel has refused requests from the US to hand over 10 Hawk anti-aircraft batteries and hundreds of interceptor missiles for delivery to Ukraine.
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.
Israel has sought to maintain a neutral stance on the war, keeping channels open with both Russia and Ukraine. Israel refused to arm Kyiv over fears of angering Moscow, concerned that doing so would jeopardize its decade-long campaign in Syria to prevent the entrenchment of Iran on its northern border. Russia, which has advanced air defenses in Syria, largely refrained from interfering with Israeli airstrikes.
The issue has strained ties between Jerusalem and Kyiv, as the Ukrainians have consistently pressed Israel to provide more defense aid.
AFP contributed to this report.