US and NATO officials struggle to decipher the state of Russia-Ukraine talks

Ukrainian and Russian negotiators have met four times since the start of the Russian invasion.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov weighed in on the possibility of Ukraine accepting neutral status at a media event in Moscow on Saturday.

“After the end of our operation in Ukraine, and I hope it will end with the signing of a comprehensive agreement on the issues I mentioned – security issues, Ukraine’s neutral status with the guarantees of his security as (Putin), a few months ago as I remember, commented at a press conference on our initiative to not expand NATO, he said that we understand that every country needs guarantees for its security,” Lavrov said.

But details of the talks remain scarce, with many NATO nations, including the US, staying on the sidelines when it comes to secret talks, with a European defense official calling the talks “a bit dark right now.”

The Biden administration still sees no indication that Putin is willing or ready to de-escalate the conflict, making it difficult for U.S. officials to be optimistic about the current state of negotiations, a source familiar with the matter said.

But at the same time, this source also said that the United States is not pressuring Ukraine to accept or reject specific concessions and is not involved in the negotiation process.

The US National Security Council declined to comment.

Russian requirements

Some of the conditions Ukraine has said it is willing to consider seem more achievable than others, but at the end of the day NATO nations are still skeptical of Russia’s commitment.

“It’s very tight, and nobody really knows what’s going on,” said the European defense chief. “Ukraine’s positions have not changed — ceasefire, troop withdrawal and security guarantees.

“Anyone who says they know anything about the status of the talks, (they) really don’t know,” the official added.

Putin laid out several issues to reach a ceasefire with Ukraine during a Thursday phone call with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, according to Turkish presidential spokesman İbrahim Kalin.

“The first is Ukraine’s neutrality,” Kalin said in an interview with Turkish newspaper Hurriyet published on Saturday, adding that this would mean Ukraine would agree not to join NATO. “Secondly, disarmament and mutual security guarantees in the context of the Austrian model. Thirdly, the process which the Russian side calls ‘denazification’. Fourthly, removing obstacles to the widespread use of the Russian language in Ukraine. It It is understood that some progress has been made in the first four articles of the ongoing negotiations. It is too early to say that there is a full agreement or that an agreement is close to being signed.”

Kalin said Putin had additional demands which were “the most difficult issues” – recognition of the annexation of Crimea and the two so-called Donbass republics. Kalin said these last two issues “are not acceptable demands for Ukraine and the international community.”
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“If a point is reached in the first four articles and an agreement is reached, there can be a discussion at the level of the leaders concerning the fifth and sixth articles,” Kalin said in the interview, adding that if the negotiations take place, “it may be possible to reach an agreement and end the war.”

US Ambassador to the UN Linda Thomas-Greenfield on Sunday refused to set conditions on what the United States would or would not accept when it comes to an agreement between the Ukraine and Russia to end the fighting.

“It’s up to the Ukrainians themselves to decide what is too much for them. It’s not our decision on that and we support their efforts. So I can’t predict what they will end up finding in their negotiations with the Russians,” he added. she told CNN’s Jake Tapper about “State of the Union.”

Asked again by Tapper if the United States would recognize Crimea or Donbass as part of Russia if that were part of the deal, Thomas-Greenfield again declined to answer.

“I can’t say that at the moment. We certainly haven’t recognized the independent regions of Donbass that have just been declared independent. But I can’t examine how we will react to a negotiated settlement that the Ukrainians offer to the Russians to save the lives of their own people.”

The lack of clarity on the state of the negotiations raises additional questions about what Ukraine is prepared to accept and how Russia’s demands would be implemented if they finally reach some kind of agreement.

Zelenksky said on Saturday there were “compromises” his country could not make in negotiations with Putin.

“All the compromises related to our territorial integrity and our sovereignty and the Ukrainian people spoke about it, they did not greet the Russian soldiers with a bouquet of flowers, they greeted them with bravery, they greeted them with weapons by hand,” he told CNN’s Zakaria when asked about the Russian demands.

“You cannot force the president of another country to recognize anything by the use of force,” he added.

Many details about Russia’s demands, whether Ukraine would accept them and even how Ukraine would implement them remain unclear, a senior NATO official said. That includes what it would mean for Ukraine to adopt a “neutral” status with the West — a possibility a congressional source told CNN has caused heartburn for U.S. officials.

“Does that mean they’re giving up on NATO?” Does this mean that they renounce (the European Union)? Can’t they get other outside help? said the NATO official. “My feeling is that it’s going to be a very complex negotiation.”

Neutrality policy

A European diplomat told CNN last week that if Ukraine adopted a policy of neutrality and also demilitarized, it would effectively be a surrender – calling such a move “Muscovite-style neutrality”.

The Kremlin has floated the idea that kyiv could adopt a policy of Swedish or Austrian neutrality. However, a Swedish diplomat dismissed the notion of Swedish neutrality, saying that the idea that their country is neutral is not true and that attempts to try to frame it as such are consistent with longstanding Russian efforts to distort Sweden’s national security policy.

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“Whenever the term ‘Austrian neutrality’ comes up, it should be remembered that it is a model of armed neutrality. This form of neutrality does not mean that a country lays down its arms and hopes that nobody “attack. It’s a neutrality where a country – at least in theory – is armed and ready to defend itself against all foreign belligerents,” said Martin Weiss, Austrian Ambassador to the United States.

The NATO official added that it is not clear what kind of deal Russia and Ukraine could reach over the territory Russia has taken control of since its February 24 invasion. The official said the “hope” expressed by Russian and Ukrainian officials in recent days appears to be belied by the fact that “fairly clear differences remain” between the sides.

“I think we just have to keep in mind that the Russians will almost certainly be looking to keep restocking, and will probably keep fighting, until things are settled,” the official said. “Whatever the solution, if there is a diplomatic resolution and there is an agreement, it must be clear and binding. And it must be controllable. … People will seek to ensure that the Russians put end to the war. And there is not a lingering threat that remains.”

While the source familiar with the Biden administration’s perspective on the talks told CNN that some of the terms Ukraine has said it is willing to consider seem more achievable than others, the source also indicated that the United States would be suspicious of Russia’s intentions until Putin shows some signs that he is ready to defuse.

CNN’s Kylie Atwood, Jennifer Hansler and Jasmine Wright contributed to this report


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