Russia has said that some parts of a possible peace deal with Ukraine are close to being agreed after Kyiv hinted at a possible route for a compromise, raising hopes of an end to the three-week war.
Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said the talks were becoming “more realistic”, while Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said there was “some hope for compromise”, with neutral status for Ukraine – a major Russian demand – now on the table.
“Neutral status is now being seriously discussed along, of course, with security guarantees,” Lavrov told RBC news on Wednesday.
“Now this very thing is being discussed in negotiations – there are absolutely specific formulations which in my view are close to agreement,” Lavrov said.
He said President Vladimir Putin had spoken about neutrality, along with security guarantees for Ukraine without NATO enlargement, as one possible variant in February.
The Kremlin also said on Wednesday that a demilitarised Ukraine with its own army along the lines of Austria or Sweden was being looked at as a possible compromise.
“This is a variant that is currently being discussed and which could really be seen as a compromise,” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov was quoted as saying by RIA news agency.
But the Ukrainian presidency shortly after said it rejected proposals of neutrality models based on Austria or Sweden.
“Ukraine is now in a direct state of war with Russia. As a result, the model can only be ‘Ukrainian’ and only on legally verified security guarantees,” its top negotiator Mikhailo Podolyak said in comments published by Zelenskyy’s office.
He called for a legally binding security agreement, signed by international partners, who would “not stand aside in the event of an attack on Ukraine, as they do today.”
Meanwhile, talks were due to resume on Wednesday by video link for what would be a third straight day, the first time they have lasted more than a single day, which both sides have suggested means they have entered a more serious phase.
Al Jazeera’s Imran Khan, reporting from Ukraine’s capital, Kyiv, said the fact that negotiations between Ukrainian and Russian officials continued for third day was “a good sign”.
Ukraine was promised by NATO as far back as 2008 that it would one day become a member of the alliance. Russia has said it cannot allow that to happen, and cited it as part of the logic for what it calls its “special military operation” in Ukraine.
Lavrov cautioned that the negotiations were not easy but that there was “some hope of reaching a compromise”.
Ukraine has also made cautious positive statements on peace talks. It says it is willing to negotiate to end the war, but will not surrender or accept Russian ultimatums.
Lavrov said key issues included the security of people in eastern Ukraine, the demilitarisation of Ukraine and the rights of Russian-speaking people in Ukraine.
‘More realistic’ negotiations
Hopes for diplomatic progress rose after Zelenskyy said on Tuesday Ukraine realised it could not join NATO, his most explicit acknowledgment that the goal, enshrined in Ukraine’s constitution, was unlikely to be met.
Putin has long depicted Ukraine’s NATO aspirations as a threat to Russia, something the alliance denies.
Lavrov welcomed Zelenskyy’s comment on Wednesday on the Russian channel RBK TV, saying “the businesslike spirit” starting to surface in the talks “gives hope that we can agree on this issue”.
Russia’s chief negotiator, Vladimir Medinsky, said the sides are discussing a possible compromise idea for a future Ukraine with a smaller, non-aligned military.
Zelenskyy said Russia’s demands during negotiations are becoming “more realistic” and that more time is needed for the talks, which are being held by video conference.
“The meetings continue, and, I am informed, the positions during the negotiations already sound more realistic,” Zelenskyy said in his nightly video address.
He appealed for more weapons and more sanctions on Russia, and repeated his call to “close the skies over Ukraine to Russian missiles and planes”.
The Ukrainian leader said Russian forces on Tuesday were unable to move deeper into Ukrainian territory and continued their heavy shelling of cities.
Announcing the invasion on February 24, Putin blamed the US for threatening Russia by enlarging the NATO military alliance eastwards into Russia’s back yard.
The Russian president said there was no option but to launch the military operation because Russian-speaking people in Ukraine had been subjected to genocide by “nationalists and neo-Nazis” since Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea.
Ukraine and the West say claims of genocide are baseless.