Hardliners suggest progress on peace talks far off: Live updates

credit…Tyler Hicks/New York Times

As the battle for Ukraine turns into a bloody, mile-by-mile battle in the freezing cold, Ukrainian and Russian officials have insisted they are ready to discuss peace. But it has become increasingly clear that both sides’ demands to even begin negotiations are flatly unacceptable to the other, leading US and European officials to conclude that serious discussions about ending the war are unlikely in the near future.

There have been no peace talks between Ukraine and Russia from the first weeks of the conflictwhich began when Russia launched a full-scale invasion on February 24. This week, Ukraine’s Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba, detailed proposal for a “peaceful” summit by the end of February, but told the Associated Press that Kyiv would only negotiate with Moscow if Russia first faced a war crimes tribunal.

The Minister of Foreign Affairs of Russia Sergey V. Lavrov, answered that Kyiv would have to accept Moscow’s demands – including relinquishing the four Ukrainian regions Moscow claims it annexed in September – or else “the Russian military will deal with this issue”.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry S. Peskov said Wednesday that “there can be no peace plan for Ukraine that does not take into account today’s realities with Russian territory,” including the four annexed regions, according to the Interfax news agency.

Stella Gervase, a professor of Russian history at Newcastle University in Britain, said “the Ukrainian proposal gives a glimpse into Ukraine’s vision of how the war with Russia might one day end.” But, she said, “Lavrov’s reaction is not very promising and is an indicator that peace talks may be months and months away.”

Hardline positions suggest that both sides believe they have more to gain militarily. Ukraine holds the momentum on the battlefield after regaining much of the land Russia seized at the start of the war, although Moscow’s forces still hold large swathes of the east and south. And Russia is pressing its own advantage, preparing more troops and launching airstrikes against infrastructure that have deepened the misery of Ukrainians even as the Russian military fights on the ground.

Addressing a summit of Group of 20 leaders last month, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky presented a wide-ranging 10-point peace plan that called for the complete withdrawal of Russian troops from Ukrainian territory, including Crimea and parts of the eastern zone known as Donbas, which Russian forces seized in early 2014.

It also calls for an international tribunal to try Russian war crimes; The release from Moscow of all political prisoners and forcibly deported during the war; compensation from Russia for war damages; and steps by the international community to ensure the safety of Ukraine’s nuclear power plants and ensure its food and energy security.

This is a much tougher set of demands than Ukrainian negotiators initially proposed at talks in Istanbul a month after Russia’s invasion, when they proposed assuming a neutral status — effectively giving up its bid to join NATO, which Russia has long opposed — in exchange for security guarantees from other nations. Since then, Russian atrocities have multiplied and the damage to Ukraine’s cities and economy has deepened. In August, Mykhailo Podoliak, a top adviser to Mr Zelensky, said the framework proposed in Istanbul was no longer viable.

“The emotional background in Ukraine has changed very, very much,” he said told the BBC. “We have seen too many war crimes live.”

Russian President Vladimir V. Putin said over the weekend that he was ready to negotiate “acceptable results,” without specifying what those might be, while making it clear that he had no intention of ending his attacks.

Western officials have dismissed Mr. Putin’s periodic overtures for talks as empty gestures. Although Russia’s economy is reeling under Western sanctions – Prime Minister Mikhail Mishustin said on Wednesday that the Russian economy had shrunk by 2 percent in the past 11 months, Reuters reported – Mr Putin stressed that there were “no limits” to Russia’s military spending. This month, the defense minister ordered him the next expansion of the armed forces from more than 300,000 members to a target size of 1.5 million.

All this assumes, he said Marnie Howlettlecturer in Russian and East European politics at the University of Oxford, that “there is not necessarily pressure for a negotiated peace or even some kind of negotiation, but there is still pressure for whatever end game is sought militarily.”

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