When delegations from Moscow and Kyiv met in Belarus for secretive peace talks weeks after Russia invaded Ukraine, it took Ukraine's lead negotiator less than an hour to lose hope.

To end the war, Russia had dispatched a former culture minister — infamous for a PhD plagiarism scandal — and a firebrand nationalist who had recently faced down sexual harassment allegations.

"It was about 45 minutes into the first round of talks that the intellectual level of these people became clear — their lack of understanding that the war was a war," Mykhaylo Podolyak said during a recent interview in Kyiv.