Russia has promised to scale down military operations around Ukraine’s capital and north, while Kiev has proposed adopting neutral status, in confidence-building steps that could be the first signs of progress towards peace talks.
Talks between the two countries took place in an Istanbul Tuesday (European time), more than a month inside the largest attack on a European nation since World War II. Russia’s invasion has been halted on most fronts by fierce resistance from Ukrainian forces, who have recaptured territory, even while civilians are trapped in besieged cities.
Thousands of people have been killed or injured, nearly four million have fled Ukraine, and Russia’s economy has been hit by sanctions.
“In order to increase mutual trust and create the necessary conditions for further negotiations and achieve the ultimate goal of agreeing and signing [an] agreement, a decision was made to radically, by a large margin, reduce military activity in the Kyiv and Chernihiv directions, ”Russia’s Deputy Defense Minister Alexander Fomin told reporters.
The Russian official did not mention other areas where there have been heavy fighting, including around Mariupol in the southeastern part of Ukraine, Sumy and Kharkiv in the east and Kherson and Mykolaiv in the south.
Some analysts have noted that Russia’s pledge to reduce fighting has largely covered areas where the country has lost ground.
“Is ‘we want to drastically reduce military operations around Kiev’ = ‘we get our ass kicked, transferred to a hasty defense?'” Tweeted Mark Hertling, a retired US lieutenant general and former commander of US forces in Europe.
A US official, speaking on condition of anonymity, also struck skeptically, saying that further major Russian offensives elsewhere in Ukraine could be expected.
“We believe that any movement of Russian forces from around Kiev is a relocation, not a withdrawal … they are shifting gears and probably because they failed with their initial offensive,” the official said.
Ukrainian negotiators say Kyiv, according to their proposal, would agree not to join alliances or host bases for foreign troops, but would have security guaranteed in terms similar to “Article 5”, the collective defense clause of the transatlantic NATO military alliance.
The proposals, which would require a referendum in Ukraine, mentioned a 15-year consultation period on the status of Crimea, annexed by Russia in 2014. The fate of the southeastern Donbas region, which Russia demands Ukraine to cede to separatists, would be discussed by Ukrainians and Russian leaders.
Kyiv’s proposal also includes that Moscow will not oppose Ukraine’s accession to the EU, said Russia’s leading negotiator Vladimir Medinsky. Russia has previously opposed Ukrainian membership of the EU and especially NATO.
Medinsky said Russia’s delegation would study and present the proposals to President Vladimir Putin.
The leading retailer later told the news agency TASS: “We still have a long way to go again.”