Ukraine and Russia explore neutrality plan in peace talks
Ukraine and Russia have made significant progress on a tentative peace plan including a ceasefire and Russian withdrawal if Kyiv declares neutrality and accepts limits on its armed forces, according to five people briefed on the talks.
Ukrainian and Russian negotiators discussed the proposed deal in full for the first time on Monday, said two of the people. The 15-point draft considered that day would involve Kyiv renouncing its ambitions to join Nato and promising not to host foreign military bases or weaponry in exchange for protection from allies such as the US, UK and Turkey, the people said.
However, the nature of western guarantees for Ukrainian security — and their acceptability to Moscow — could prove to be a big obstacle to any deal, as could the status of the country’s territories seized by Russia and its proxies in 2014. A 1994 agreement underpinning Ukrainian security failed to prevent the Kremlin’s aggression against its neighbour.
Although Moscow and Kyiv both said they had made progress on the terms of a deal, Ukrainian officials are sceptical Russia’s President Vladimir Putin is fully committed to peace and worry that Moscow could be buying time to regroup its forces and resume its offensive.
“There’s a likelihood this is trickery and illusion. They lie about everything — Crimea, the build-up of troops on the border, and the ‘hysteria’ over the invasion,” said a Ukrainian source briefed on the talks.
“We need to put pressure on them until they have no other choice” but to agree a peace deal, the person added.
Putin showed no sign of compromise on Wednesday, vowing Moscow would achieve all of its war aims in Ukraine. “We will never allow Ukraine to become a stronghold of aggressive actions against our country,” he said.
But a Russian source briefed on the talks said the proposed settlement, if agreed, could give both sides a credible way to declare victory in the war.
“Every side needs a win,” the person said. “He needs to be able to sell it to the people. Putin can say that we wanted to stop Ukraine joining Nato and putting foreign bases and missiles in its territory. If they do that, he can say, ‘I got it.’”
Israel’s Prime Minister Naftali Bennett has been the primary international mediator on the talks, three people familiar with the matter said, following a surprise visit to Moscow on March 5, with back-to-back talks with both leaders as recently as two days ago.
Recep Tayyip Erdogan, president of Turkey, also spoke by phone with Ukraine’s leader Volodymyr Zelensky as he and his top officials intensified their efforts to help broker a peace deal between Kyiv and Moscow.
Mykhailo Podolyak, a senior adviser to Zelensky, told the Financial Times that any deal would involve “the troops of the Russian Federation in any case leaving the territory of Ukraine” captured since the invasion began on February 24 — namely southern regions along the Azov and Black seas, as well as territory to the east and north of Kyiv.
Ukraine would maintain its armed forces but would be obliged to stay outside military alliances such as Nato and refrain from hosting foreign military bases on its territory.
Putin’s press secretary Dmitry Peskov told reporters on Wednesday that neutrality for Ukraine based on the status of Austria or Sweden was a possibility.
“This option is really being discussed now, and is one that can be considered neutral,” said Peskov.
Sergei Lavrov, Russia’s foreign minister, said that “absolutely specific wordings” were “close to being agreed” in the negotiations.
On Wednesday Ned Price, the US state department spokesperson, told reporters that Washington welcomed the expressions of hope and optimism about the diplomatic talks between Russian and Ukraine. But he said the US wanted to see “de-escalation” from Russia and there was no “tangible indication” that Putin was “changing course”.
Despite the progress in peace talks, Ukraine’s cities came under heavy shelling for a third consecutive night while Kyiv said it was launching a counter-offensive against Russian invaders.
Local officials in the besieged city of Mariupol said Russian troops bombed and destroyed a theatre, where hundreds of people had taken shelter.
Though Ukraine’s constitution commits it to seek membership of Nato, Zelensky and his aides have increasingly played down the country’s chances of joining the transatlantic military alliance, a prospect that Russia sees as a provocation.
“There is no effective system of European security now, which would be moderated by Nato. As soon as a serious war began in Europe, Nato quickly stepped aside,” Podolyak said.
“We propose a ‘Ukrainian model of security guarantees’, which implies the immediate and legally verified participation of a number of guarantor countries in the conflict on the side of Ukraine, if someone again encroaches on its territorial integrity,” he added.
Ukraine, Podolyak added, would as part of any deal “definitely retain its own army”. He also played down the significance of a ban on foreign bases in Ukraine, saying that was already precluded by Ukrainian law.
Two of the people said the putative deal also included provisions on enshrining rights for the Russian language in Ukraine, where it is widely spoken though Ukrainian is the only official language. Russia has framed its invasion as an attempt to protect Russian speakers in Ukraine from what it claims is “genocide” by “neo-Nazis”.
The biggest sticking point remains Russia’s demand that Ukraine recognise its 2014 annexation of Crimea and the independence of two separatist statelets in the eastern Donbas border region.
Ukraine has refused but was willing to compartmentalise the issue, Podolyak said.
US president Joe Biden has approved a package of new military aid for Ukraine including anti-aircraft weapons and drones in order to bolster the country’s defences against Russia’s invasion.
Biden’s move followed a gut-wrenching appeal earlier on Wednesday from Zelensky for members of Congress and Biden to help his country as it fights back against Russia’s assault.
While Biden has refused to entertain US troops on the ground, or enforcing a no-fly zone over Ukraine, he signed an $800mn security aid package on Wednesday that sharply increased the military help for Kyiv.
“We’re going to give Ukraine the army to fight and defend themselves through all the difficult days ahead,” he said.
The new package includes drones — which the president said showed America’s “commitment to send in our most cutting-edge systems to Ukraine for its defence”.
Additional reporting by Laura Pitel in Ankara and Henry Foy in Brussels
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