Russian and Ukrainian negotiators have ended the first direct talks in more than two weeks in Istanbul, with Moscow saying it was ready to “fundamentally cut back” military activity near the Ukrainian capital of Kyiv and the northern city of Chernihiv.
Deputy Defence Minister Alexander Fomin said the move was meant “to increase trust” in talks aimed at ending the fighting, as negotiators met face-to-face on Tuesday after several rounds of failed talks.
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Fomin said Moscow had decided to “fundamentally … cut back military activity in the direction of Kyiv and Chernihiv”.
On the Ukrainian side, negotiators said they were willing to agree to a neutral status – one of Russia’s key demands – if an international agreement under which other countries would serve as guarantors of Ukraine’s security would come into place.
“We want an international mechanism of security guarantees where guarantor countries will act in a similar way to NATO’s article number five – and even more firmly,” David Arakhamia, a Ukrainian negotiator, told reporters.
Arakhamia said a meeting between the Ukrainian and Russian presidents is possible, and that before any final agreement with Russia, there needs to be full peace across Ukraine.
Turkey hails ‘significant progress’
Turkey’s Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said the talks at the Dolmabahce Palace on the Bosphorus strait marked “most significant progress” since war broke out between the two countries.
Speaking after the three-hour talks concluded, Cavusoglu said the discussions represented “the most significant progress since negotiations began” following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Talks would not resume on Wednesday, he added.
Al Jazeera’s Hashem Ahelbarra, reporting from Moscow, said Russia’s announcement could be the “most significant by the Russian military” since President Vladimir Putin launched the invasion of Ukraine last month.
This is an indication “there has been major progress in the talks” between Moscow and Kyiv, Ahelbarra said.
He added the move would send a “message to the Ukrainians that Russia has no intentions whatsoever to mass troops or move troops in the future to try and take over Kyiv”.
In a speech in advance of the talks, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan told the delegations they had a “historic responsibility” to stop the fighting, and that progress would pave the way for a meeting of the countries’ two leaders.
Ukrainian television said the meeting began with “a cold welcome” and no handshake between the delegations.
Neither side has budged over Russia’s territorial demands, including Crimea, which Moscow seized and annexed in 2014, and the Donbas region in eastern Ukraine, which Moscow has demanded Kyiv cede to pro-Russian separatists.
Previous rounds of Russia-Ukraine talks, held in person in Belarus or by video, failed to make progress on ending a more-than-month-long war that has killed thousands and driven more than 10 million Ukrainians from their homes – including almost four million from their country.
Abramovich in attendance
NATO member Turkey shares a maritime border with Ukraine and Russia in the Black Sea, has good ties with both and has offered to mediate the conflict. While calling Moscow’s invasion unacceptable, Ankara has also opposed the Western sanctions.
The talks were attended by Russian billionaire Roman Abramovich, who has been sanctioned by the West over Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine. The Kremlin has said Abramovich played an early role in peace talks but that the process was now up to negotiating teams.
According to the Wall Street Journal and the investigative outlet Bellingcat, which cited people familiar with the matter, Abramovich and Ukrainian peace negotiators suffered symptoms of suspected poisoning earlier this month after a meeting in Kyiv.
Ukrainian officials poured cold water on the report.
The West has imposed heavy sanctions on Abramovich and other Russian billionaires, as well as Russian companies and Russian officials, in a bid to force Putin to withdraw from Ukraine.
While calling Russia’s invasion unprovoked, Turkey has said it opposes sanctions imposed by its NATO allies on principle.
Its potential as a safe haven for Russian investment raises risks for Turkey’s government, banks and businesses that could face tough decisions and penalties if the United States and others ramp up pressure on Moscow with broader “secondary” sanctions.