Kiev and Moscow say they are moving towards a compromise amid the continuation of hostilities
Against the backdrop of ongoing hostilities in Ukraine, Moscow and Kiev have revealed there has been movement towards compromise in their negotiations. Negotiators have met three times in Belarus and are now communicating online.
According to Kommersant, a daily political newspaper published in Russia, a fourth full round of talks is expected early this week. At the same time, both sides are suggesting possible direct contact between the presidents of Russia and Ukraine. Kommersant’s special correspondent Vladimir Solovyov has tried to find out whether there is hope for a speedy peace in a conversation with the adviser to the head of the office of the Ukrainian president, Mykhailo Podolyak. He is involved in the negotiation process.
Talks and negotiations
Against a background of mutual accusations by Moscow and Kiev of violating the rules of hostilities and distorting information about the real situation in the combat zone, issues have emerged on which the assessments of the belligerents have suddenly coincided.
After talks by Russian leader Vladimir Putin with German Chancellor Olaf Scholz and French President Emmanuel Macron, a message appeared on the Kremlin’s website that the Russian president had informed his interlocutors that in recent days, there have been “a series of negotiations” between the delegations of Russia and Ukraine.
Later, the press secretary of the President of the Russian Federation, Dmitry Peskov, explained that the negotiations that had previously taken place in person (three rounds were held on February 28, March 3 and 7) were being held in video format.
This information was later confirmed by Mykhailo Podolyak. According to him, negotiations with the Russian delegation are ongoing, in video format. Also, he noted, working groups have been created within the negotiation process. He did not detail their specializations and functionality.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, in turn, has said that the negotiations were filled with content. “A group of Ukrainians and Russian representatives are discussing certain issues, they began to talk about something, and not throw ultimatums,” he said at a press conference to foreign journalists (quoted by RIA Novosti).
It should be noted that the Russian side has never officially stated that its requirements [for ending its military operation] are somehow being adjusted. Until this happens, it should be assumed that the Russian Federation continues to insist that Ukraine should be demilitarized, become a neutral country, recognize the Crimea as well as the Donetsk People’s Republic (DPR) and the Luhansk People’s Republic (LPR) within the administrative boundaries of the Donetsk and Luhansk regions, and Ukraine should be “de-Nazified”, whatever that term may mean.
Nevertheless, a similar assessment of the negotiation process was given on March 11 by Vladimir Putin, who received Belarusian leader Alexander Lukashenko in the Kremlin on that day. He said that in the negotiations with Ukraine, “which are now held on an almost daily basis, there are certain positive changes.”
Mr. Putin did not explain what he meant. However, the press secretary of the President of the Russian Federation, Dmitry Peskov, said that now “no one excludes the possibility of a meeting between Putin and Zelensky.”
According to him, conceptually it is possible, but first the foreign ministers and delegations of negotiators of the two countries should do “their part of the work so that the presidents do not meet for the sake of the process and conversation but for the sake of the result.”
Apparently, contact has been established through the Russian Foreign Ministry with Ukraine.
Kommersant’s source, informed about the recent meeting in Turkey of the foreign ministers of Russia and Ukraine, Sergey Lavrov and Dmitry Kuleba, said that the meeting was held without breakthroughs but in good faith. The nuance is important, given that the two ministers were meeting in person for the first time and, in earlier times during online negotiations in the Normandy format, now a thing of the past, they hardly hid their mutual hostility.
Requests from Ukraine
Mikhail Podolyak has shared some details of the negotiation process with Kommersant. Overall, he gave encouraging assessments.
“There are various proposals on the negotiating table now, there are many of them, there are a dozen proposals. Including a political settlement and, most importantly, a military settlement. I am referring to a ceasefire, a formula for a ceasefire and a withdrawal of troops. Now all this is in conditional working groups, in legal formats they are discussing what the final documents may look like, because they will have to be initialed, signed and so on. As soon as mutual reciprocal legal formats are developed, a meeting will be scheduled – the fourth round of negotiations. It could be tomorrow, the day after tomorrow. It’s probably not be necessary to go out and just have conversations. We discussed all the issues, we are now trying to pack these issues into some legal formats, “said Mr. Podolyak.
That is, the parties have begun to formalize agreements. They do not share specifics on this matter. Mykhailo Podolyak stipulates: the delegations agreed not to comment on the content of the negotiations until the moment when all key positions are agreed.
Mr. Podolyak described to Kommersant the parameters of the agreements that the Ukrainian side expects to reach. According to him, the agreement between Russia and Ukraine should be “multi-component”.
“It should include several positions. First of all, the positions concerning the cessation of the war itself as such. The second point is the procedure, the speed according to the time parameters of the withdrawal of Russian troops from the territory of Ukraine. The third part is the peace agreement. How peace will be guaranteed. And then we return to the key point around which everything is built – security guarantees for Ukraine, so that such situations do not happen again.”, he said.
In the negotiations, according to Mikhail Podolyak, another—fourth—component is being discussed: “This, of course, is a discussion of large-scale infrastructure destruction that exists throughout the country. Unfortunately, despite all the statements that strikes are carried out only on military infrastructure, strikes have been carried out very often and recently especially intensively, on civilian infrastructure. It is significantly destroyed, especially in the border areas, in part of the central regions. Accordingly, compensatory mechanisms should be clearly spelled out: due to what and at the expense of what budget all this will be restored. That’s, I’m sorry, billions of dollars if we take a preliminary estimate.”
Russia, it should be noted, rejects accusations of striking at civilian infrastructure. The Russian Ministry of Defense and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs have repeatedly stated that only military facilities are being attacked. At the same time, the departments have repeatedly stated that the Ukrainian security forces are deploying weapons in residential areas of settlements and shelling civilian objects themselves. Kiev, in turn, denies this.
In general, according to the Ukrainian negotiator, the future compromise Russian-Ukrainian document should be comprehensive. According to Mykhailo Podolyak, it should include the impossibility of repeating military operations against Ukraine, include security guarantees for it and also “take into account the security guarantees that the Russian Federation, which has its own fears towards a number of global military alliances, also wants to receive.”
Mykhailo Podolyak believes that the parties are coming to a compromise:
“We have all the proposals that in one way or another protect these interests, take Ukraine out of harm’s way in terms of ensuring that such situations do not happen again, and bring Ukraine into compensatory stories in the right sense. And I would like to stress once again that the Russian side is already looking at the situation much more adequately. But some time has to pass for them to generally understand the situation in which Russia, and not Ukraine, has fallen.”
On March 10, Ukrainian media reported on the six conditions for peace put forward by Russia. Zerkalo Nedeli [ZN.ua], a Kiev-based newspaper, reported the six key points: Neutral status and no NATO membership for Ukraine, one of the guarantors to be Russia; the second, official language of Ukraine to be Russian; Ukraine recognition of Crimea as part of Russia and the Donetsk and Lugansk republics are independent, within the original, administrative boundaries of Ukraine [ie prior to 2014]; and the ‘de-Nazification’ of Ukraine, implying a ban on the activities of ultra-nationalist, Nazi and neo-Nazi parties and public organizations; abolition of laws on the glorification of Nazism and neo-Nazism; and, finally, the “demilitarization of Ukraine”—a complete rejection of offensive weapons.
Mikhail Podolyak was one of the first who immediately denied the information about the existence of such conditions. In his conversation with Kommersant, he noted that the topic of ‘de-Nazification’ is no longer discussed. According to him, this issue was raised by Russian negotiators at the first meeting (a total of three rounds of negotiations took place), but then the topic came to naught.
“Initially, the Russian delegation proceeded from the false premise that we have some kind of glorification of fascism, Nazism and so on. As it turned out, and it was surprising for them, we have a number of European laws that spell out full-fledged bans and condemnation of all manifestations of Nazism and fascism. It is ridiculous to make a claim to the country something that has already been fully regulated at the legislative level in accordance with European charters.
He noted that the details of the discussed humanitarian groups will be spelled out in the final communiqué. “You will see that the picture looks different than it was originally presented in the media. I think we’ll outline it all in just another day or two. I am in favor of not disclosing information that is not 100% fully confirmed. If these were trade conflicts or just diplomatic negotiations, then perhaps something could already be revealed from the point of view of information interests. But the situation here is very difficult, because many countries (including Russia and Ukraine) will have to take on a number of obligations. And it is desirable to reach the end and get a full legally balanced package, so as not to irritate anyone…” said Mr. Podolyak.
Answering the question of whether the demilitarization of Ukraine remains on the negotiating table and in what context, Mykhailo Podolyak said that “there is a standard discussion of how Ukraine will guarantee its security, including with its armed forces, in the future. This is an absolutely pro-Ukrainian issue. We want to have a full-fledged good army that will have a defensive potential. We see that it is necessary in the modern world. And we will have political and military guarantees not to get into a situation where we are left alone with large crises. I mean, related to the war. Everything about wording such as demilitarization sounds ridiculous. In fact, the wording will be much more adequate following the results of the negotiation process.”
The final document (most likely, a peace agreement between Ukraine and Russia), as Mr. Podolyak believes, will be signed by the presidents of the two countries. “You see that Volodymyr Zelenskyy takes responsibility for all our defense initiatives, for the management of the state in wartime. He has built essentially a full-fledged war cabinet, which is very effective and works almost around the clock. And of course, the President of Ukraine insists on bilateral negotiations between the presidents of Russia and Ukraine, where they will be able to finally agree on some mutual compromises, but from the point of view of Ukraine’s interests, because Ukraine is the most affected country. Signatures, as far as I understand, will be put by the presidents of Ukraine and Russia,” the negotiator suggested.
At the same time, he believes that the participation of third countries may also be necessary. “This is not just some small conflict of a local plan. Many countries are involved, directly and indirectly. They participate as informal, formal intermediaries, and actively accept sanctions packages. They already provide direct or indirect assistance to Ukraine, constantly hold consultations among themselves. These countries, which will solve the problem of reaching a peace agreement with Ukraine and Russia, are already 100% involved in this problem. There will be no need to somehow involve them additionally, to tell them something. They can sit down at the negotiating table at any time and literally get involved immediately in the final work, in the signing of the preliminary final document. I don’t see any problems here,” Mikhail Podolyak explained.
The Ukrainian negotiator sees the problem in something else—in the further relations between the two countries. “It will be difficult to remove not some superficial component of media hatred, but rejection for many years,” Podolyak concluded.
Observers also say that the negotiation process is progressing. “There has been some progress,” Vasily Kashin, director of the Center for Comprehensive European and International Studies at the Higher School of Economics, shared his observations with Kommersant. According to him, offensive operations in the Donbass and the blockade of Ukrainian “fortresses” in Kiev, Kharkiv, Chernihiv and Sumy are taking place against the backdrop of an “active diplomatic struggle.”
“Judging by the leak to Zerkalo Nedeli, which I consider plausible, Russia does not have an ultimate goal of occupying territory outside the two regions. Consequently, cities are blockaded in order to put pressure on the Ukrainians and prevent them from maneuvering forces. But there is no point in storming them as long as there is hope to squeeze the key Russian conditions in the negotiations…” Mr. Kashin believes.
Originally published in Kommersant (leading Russian daily), March 12, 2022 (translated from the Russian original by A Socialist in Canada via Google Translate)
Vladimir Rudolfovich Solovyov is a Russian journalist, television presenter, and writer.
He is an anchor on the television show Sunday Evening with Vladimir Solovyov on Russia-TV.