Talks with Russia? No way, say Ukrainians

As the US reportedly tries to nudge Kyiv towards talks, everyday Ukrainians say the fight must go on since Russia is an unreliable negotiator.

A woman stands in front of the 'memory wall of fallen defenders' in downtown Kyiv
A woman stands in front of the 'memory wall of fallen defenders' in downtown Kyiv [Bernat Armangue/AP Photo]

Kyiv, Ukraine – Mykola Gnatiuk’s mother hides in a bomb shelter almost every night.

In recent weeks, Russia has intensified the shelling of civilian areas and key infrastructure throughout Ukraine, including the eastern city of Nikopol, where 63-year-old Oleksandra Gnatiuk lives.

She spends hours in the damp and increasingly cold basement of her one-storey house.

She cannot use an electric heater in the basement, a natural fridge where pickles and potatoes are kept, because of frequent blackouts, while Russian cruise missiles wound and kill civilians around her.

“How can we negotiate with them after they’ve killed so many, and destroyed so much?” Gnatiuk, a 32-year-old car mechanic in Kyiv, told Al Jazeera, getting worked up.

He was referring to a report claiming that the United States held undisclosed talks with top Russian officials on avoiding further escalation in the Ukraine war.

According to The Wall Street Journal, US national security adviser, Jake Sullivan, purportedly spoke with Kremlin officials about reducing the risk of a broader war or a nuclear conflict.

Washington also allegedly asked Kyiv to show its openness to negotiations and “drop” its refusal to stay away from the talks completely, The Washington Post claimed on November 5.

The very mention of peace talks with Russia makes Gnatiuk – and most average Ukrainians – flinch and fuels distrust of Western nations despite their tens of billions of dollars in military and humanitarian aid.

“They don’t care,” he said. “It’s not their children who are dying every day.”

A poll conducted in late October showed that 86 percent of Ukrainians insist their nation should keep fighting instead of holding talks despite the almost daily shelling that began on October 10.

Only one in 10 Ukrainians thinks that the warring sides should start talks, even if peace means territorial concessions, according to the survey conducted by the Kyiv International Sociology Institute.

The percentage of pro-settlement respondents was higher – 29 percent – in eastern Ukraine, where most of the military action and shelling takes place, the poll said.

However, even in the eastern regions, more than two-thirds of respondents said the fight should go on.

Political pundits agree – and are just as indignant as average Ukrainians.

Russian President Vladimir Putin “is waging a war against civilians now, we need to stop” him, Oleksiy Haran, a politics professor at the Mohila Academy in Kyiv, told Al Jazeera.

“How could we be engaged in negotiations? Stop shelling, stop [the] bombardment of Ukrainian cities,” he said, and soon cut the conversation short because his district was minutes away from yet another blackout. INTERACTIVE - WHO CONTROLS WHAT IN UKRAINE 259

President Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s government understands that these days, a deal that envisages territorial concessions may trigger a popular uprising similar to the 2004 and 2014 revolts.

“Any compromise under which Russia keeps a significant part of occupied territories will not be well-received by the public,” Ihar Tyshkevich, a Kyiv-based analyst, told Al Jazeera.

And the current situation is light years away from the shock and awe of the war’s first weeks, when dismayed Kyiv was ready to begin peace talks and agree to many of the Kremlin’s demands, he said.

Ukraine was prepared to declare neutrality, abandon its drive to join NATO and pledge to not develop nuclear weapons if Russia withdrew troops and Kyiv received security guarantees, Zelenskyy said in late March, a month after the invasion began.

Kyiv was about to agree to some of Moscow’s key demands – but only if the changes were ratified by a nationwide referendum and a third party guaranteed to protect Ukraine, Zelenskyy said at the time.

His officials also hinted that Kyiv might recognise Russian as an official language in some of the regions, including Donetsk and Luhansk, two eastern areas have been partially controlled by pro-Russian separatists since 2014.

Kyiv was even ready to acknowledge Moscow’s denazification demand, ban ultranationalist parties and rename some of the streets and city squares named after controversial figures who collaborated with Nazi Germany during World War II.

In March, Ukraine seemed to be losing the war – as Russian forces seized the southern region of Kherson, intensified their assault on the Azov Sea port of Mariupol and prepared to encircle Kyiv after occupying its northern outskirts.

That is when Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said “there was a chance” at an agreement with Ukraine.

But the first round of peace talks held in Istanbul led nowhere as Ukrainian forces started regaining ground and Russian troops suffered heavy losses amid poor planning, low morale and deteriorating supply problems.

These days, the situation looks dire only to Moscow after Russian forces withdrew from around Kyiv and northern Ukraine, and were kicked out from areas stretching from Kharkiv in the northeast to Kherson in the south.

The Kremlin has “largely lost a chance” to renew the peace talks on its terms, Tyshkevich said.

“When the fear and panic are over, but there’s plenty of negative [things] remaining, the negative makes Ukrainians want to keep on fighting,” he said.

Ukrainians understand that Russia is no longer in a position to dictate terms.

“Nowadays, talks with Russia are like talks with a crocodile who seized a man’s leg but is simply tired of dragging him into his swamp,” Kyiv-based analyst Aleksey Kushch told Al Jazeera.

The talks are possible only after the Kremlin abandons propaganda terms such as Kyiv’s “neo-Nazi regime” and “Ukrainian fascism” and fully accepts that Ukraine will break away from Russia’s political gravity and become part of the West, he said.

Until this week, Zelenskyy repeatedly said peace talks were no longer possible after Russia switched to what he called a “terrorist” tactic of destroying power stations and heating facilities before the winter.

But on Monday, he said Kyiv was ready to resume talks only after Moscow meets five conditions.

“Restoration of territorial integrity, respect for the UN Charter, compensation for all damages caused by the war, punishment of every war criminal and guarantees that this will not happen again,” he said in a video address.

“These are completely understandable conditions,” he said.

Politico, a US online magazine, claimed on Wednesday that Zelenskyy changed his tune because of “soft nudging” by US President Joe Biden’s administration.

Mykhailo Podolyak, Zelenskyy’s adviser, had earlier said such a suggestion was absurd, given Western nations, led by Washington, are arming Ukraine in its fight against Russia.

Source: Al Jazeera