Ukraine-Russia peace talks fraught with uncertainty

Ukrainian and Russian officials signaled an openness to compromise during the first round of high-stakes negotiations in Turkey on Tuesday, but U.S. officials expressed some doubt over Moscow’s suggestions of a potential military drawdown.

Key hurdles risk collapsing the negotiations, which are aimed at getting Moscow to cease its unprovoked assault against its neighbor and resolve a conflict that has galvanized democratic nations and split strategic partnerships in a massive shift of the international order. 

Multiple U.S. officials, including President Biden, voiced skepticism over Russian statements of a potential drawdown, vowing to keep a close eye on Moscow’s next moves. 

Pentagon press secretary John Kirby said that U.S. officials have seen some Russian troop movements but said they believed they would be relocated to carry out assaults elsewhere.

“We believe this is a repositioning, not a real withdrawal,” Kirby said. 

The negotiations, which are expected to last for two days in Istanbul, marked the first face-to-face meeting between Ukrainian and Russian officials in nearly two weeks.

While Ukrainian forces have mounted an impressive defense against Russia’s assault, the country is suffering under a brutal siege that is flattening cities, starving populations and indiscriminately maiming and killing civilians. 

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky has offered key concessions to Russian demands, in particular positioning the country to hold a neutral status, effectively withdrawing its application to NATO.

Ukraine’s desire to join the military alliance is a move that Russian President Vladimir Putin views as an existential threat to Moscow.

But Ukrainian officials are demanding security guarantees from the West, in the form of a treaty signed by the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council: the U.S., United Kingdom, France, Russia and China, Kyiv officials said. They are also seeking guarantees from Turkey, Germany, Canada, Italy, Poland and Israel.

“We want it to be a working international mechanism of concrete security guarantees for Ukraine,” David Arakhamia, head of the Ukrainian delegation in Istanbul, said in a statement

Russian demands in the talks appear to have eased, with the Financial Times reporting that officials from Moscow removed their calls for the “denazification,” “demilitarization” and legal protection for the Russian language in Ukraine.

But key sticking points reportedly include the status of the contested territories of the eastern Donbass, which Putin recognized as independent last month as a pretext for the invasion, and recognizing Russia’s occupation of Ukraine’s Crimea Peninsula as belonging to Moscow.

Vladimir Medinsky, head of the Russian delegation in Istanbul, told Russian state media at the conclusion of talks on Tuesday that Russia is “ready to consider” bilateral steps toward compromise between Moscow and Kyiv. 

Yet the talks are fraught with tension and suspicion, with Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba warning in an interview on Tuesday that negotiators should not eat or drink anything and avoid touching surfaces over threats of Russian poisoning. 

Biden said Tuesday he was watching with a cautious eye to see if Moscow’s actions match its rhetoric.

“We’ll find out what they do,” Biden said of Russia’s suggestions it would reduce military attacks near Kyiv. “But in the meantime, we’re going to continue to keep strong the sanctions, we’re going to continue to provide the Ukrainian military with the capacity to defend themselves and we’re going to continue to keep a close eye on what’s going on.”

Secretary of State Antony Blinken echoed Biden’s caution but offered support for Ukraine’s position in the talks. 

“If there is some kind of outcome, and if our support for Ukraine can be part of that outcome — including our support in the future for its defense and security — of course that’s something we’ll want to pursue,” he said during a press conference in Morocco. 

“But again … I have not seen anything that suggests that this is moving forward in an effective way, because Russia — at least we have not seen signs of real seriousness, but if Ukraine concludes that there is, that’s good and we support that.”

Thomas Pickering, who served as ambassador to Russia as part of his 40-year diplomatic career, said the U.S. role is “seen by many as one of the most important.”

“I think the assumption is a very well-founded one, that the U.S. is in the closest possible contact with all of the players who are in one way or another, relevant to it — and perhaps too with the Russians,” Pickering said during an event hosted by the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft, a Washington-based think tank.

“It would be, in my view, a serious mistake if the U.S. were not in one way or another communicating with the Russians on the kinds of things that it felt should happen and the kinds of things that it was prepared to support.”

A key area of leverage for the U.S. is its position at the head of the globally coordinated sanctions regime on Russia and offering relief if Moscow agrees to certain demands. 

Samuel Charap, senior political scientist at the RAND Corporation, said that — while unlikely — the U.S. and European Union could relieve sanctions at the request of Ukraine if officials believe it would change Russian behavior, in particular hastening a military retreat. 

“It’s unclear that we’ll get there, but it’s hard for me to see leverage other than sanctions relief that might get us there, eventually,” he said. 

Michael O’Hanlon, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, argued that the U.S. needs to get more involved in the peace process in order to bring both sides toward a solution. He said that Biden’s recent comment that Putin “cannot remain in power” indicates that the administration is not engaged in the process currently. 

“I feel like we’re getting a window into the Biden team’s relative disengagement from the peace process,” he said. “And I don’t really agree with that approach.” 

Morgan Chalfant contributed to this report.

Tags Antony Blinken Biden Joe Biden John Kirby Thomas Pickering Vladimir Putin Volodymyr Zelensky

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